Thursday, March 11, 2004

Unintended Environmental Damage
This fascinating article by a former Greenpeace activist details some of the unintentional fallout of concerted opposition to genetically modified crops around the world. Although Mr. Moore's focus is on biotechnology, it could just as well have been on energy.

Consider the bans on offshore oil and gas drilling imposed in areas such as California and Florida. Although targeted mainly at preventing drilling-related oil spills, such as the one that blighted Santa Barbara's beaches in 1969, they make no distinction between drilling for oil and drilling for gas, which incurs little or no risk of spills. As a result, billions of cubic feet of natural gas that US consumers and industry desperately need today are not being produced.

In the case of Florida alone, the resources in question appear sufficient to supply all of that state's gas needs for the next twenty-plus years. We know what these bans are intended to prevent, but what are their unintended consequences for the environment?

Well, for one thing, with natural gas prices extremely high today, the incentive to produce electricity from coal goes up dramatically. Coal plants are run harder, gas turbines less so, and this means more acid rain precursors and greenhouse gases are emitted into the air. Similarly, home heating oil looks more attractive relative to gas, and although it is not as dirty as coal, it is certainly not as clean as gas. So again, air pollution increases, because of policies that keep known reserves of gas locked underwater.

Finally, demand for gas imports goes up, too. Since new supplies from Canada and Alaska will require major new pipelines (with their own environmental impacts, which may prevent them from being built), the incentive to import liquefied natural gas (LNG)increases. We are currently seeing a media blitz on the virtues of LNG, which is indeed a clean fuel in and of itself.

Of course, when we evaluate the benefits of LNG, we don't typically factor in the energy that was used to liquefy it, a process that consumes 10-20% of the original gas, with accompanying emissions of greenhouse gases. Once it is in a tanker on the water, it requires a terminal near its final market in which to receive and regasify it. A number of companies are currently discovering the complexities of siting such facilities near anyone or anything.

So we begin with a set of values that declare natural gas to be cleaner and thus the fuel of choice, but then other values make it next to impossible actually to produce a good chunk of the gas that's right here in the US. The consequences are more pollution from burning other fuels and, in effect, "outsourcing" the negatives that concern us to some other country that will produce gas for us, turn it into LNG and put in on a tanker.

So in a manner not so different from the opponents cited by Mr. Moore, a number of prominent people who appear smart enough to understand the big picture relating to natural gas supply and demand have deliberately chosen not to, for reasons of ideology or political gain, resulting in a substantial increase in air pollution and worsening of the US balance of trade. They are entitled to their views, but they should not continue to masquerade as friends of the environment.

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