Monday, September 21, 2009

I am an Environmentalist

I've spent most of my waking life as an "environmentalist." You can argue the definition, but I believe that a true pragmatic environmentalist is someone who is concerned about the health of the planet for the benefit of human existence. Sounds pretty selfish, I admit.

I've always been amused at the concept many espouse that man can destroy the earth. It's not going to happen that way. If things go really badly, man will destroy the habitat that supports human life. Then human life will die off. Thousands of years will pass and the earth will slowly restore itself. The earth will be just fine, only the human species won't be around to enjoy it.

I've been reading numerous articles recently by environmental types pooping on natural gas, specifically shale gas, as an integral part of the world's energy future. Everyone comes from their unique points of view: some bleed green, others are peak oil zealots and others have business interests in conflict. The common theme is that they are taking swipes at shale gas. I guess that means shale gas has finally "arrived."

I confess my environmental bent after reading Randy Udall's rambling article presumably about shale gas. Udall co-founded ASPO-USA, a peak oil organization. A big problem some environmentalists have is not naming the solution but identifying the enemy. Foreign oil is a great villain, but the coal industry does much more to pollute our nation than oil. The notion that we will achieve a green energy solution by becoming a nation of plug-in hybrids without fundamentally changing how electrical power is generated in this country is naïve and foolish. Udall sort of gets it, but he is mistakenly hung up on the concept that natural gas production in North America has peaked. He mentions shale gas but he never acknowledges that he is quoting dated material.

You can't talk about the great green future without mapping out the path to get there. I firmly believe that the best and most economical source of green power in the 21st century will be distributed generation supported by larger “green” installations and a baseload system of natural gas generation. In other words, the most effective sources of energy will come from small power generation sources at homes and businesses. Solar panels, biomass, windmills, whatever. But we are not there yet. We need more work to achieve a higher level of efficiency, especially in solar, before we can see widespread distributed generation at economically viable levels.

Until then we will need a baseload power source that is cleaner than coal. Even if we achieve great new sources of solar and wind energy, we will need a relatively clean backup power source. Coal doesn't fit the bill. Gas plants can be fired up quickly and can work in the background. They emit a fraction of the carbon of a coal plant and are not sources of mercury and sulfur like coal plants. And don’t get me started on coal mining and its heinous environmental impacts.

It’s cliché now, but natural gas is the bridge fuel to a green tomorrow. But I think many green power advocates are afraid of natural gas because they think that recognition of natural gas’s attributes will stifle green energy innovation like cheap gasoline stymies fuel economy improvement. But I believe the two can work together. There is no one right energy solution, especially at this time, and most green power technologies have a long way to go to become economically viable. Switching a greater share of power generation to natural gas buys the green energy movement more time to reach economic viability and all of us a better human environment.

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