Obama's Biggest Environmental 'Victory' Was Really a Big Win for Gas Drillers
Editor's note: Check out AlterNet's new special coverage page about Fracking.
Greenhouse gas emissions are hot news these days -- especially during election season when candidates, at least those who claim to believe in climate science, say they are actually going to do something about the biggest environmental crisis facing our little blue planet: global warming.
In early March, while campaigning in New Hampshire, Obama vowed to end $4 billion in Big Oil and Gas subsidies. "You can either stand up for the oil companies, or you can stand up for the American people," Obama said to an applauding audience. "You can keep subsidizing a fossil fuel that's been getting taxpayer dollars for a century, or you can place your bets on a clean-energy future."
That sounds dandy, but ending subsidies to polluters is only half the battle, and Obama's idea of a "clean-energy future" is tenuous at best. In an attempt to round up the green vote, President Obama is trumpeting his half-hearted attempt to put the breaks on global warming by tapping energy sources here at home and regulating the industry that's doing most of the damage. Only days after the president announced he was looking to fast-track the southern portion of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, his administration released the first-ever federal standards to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants.
In what's now become typical Obama fashion, the move was meant to appease environmental critics while at the same time ensure the fossil fuel industry that the so-called New Source Performance Standard would not actually hurt its bottom lines.
Here's why: the EPA rule would only impact new coal-fired power plants, but only those that break ground in over a year from now. In all, 15 proposed coal plants in 10 states could be potentially impacted by the rule, even though most are already hung up in court battles. As such, no coal-fired power plants in the United States have broke ground over the past three years and environmentalists, thanks to their tenacity and perseverance, have seen far more victories than defeats when it comes to battling King Coal on this front.
The new greenhouse rule will require fossil fuel-fired electricity generating units to restrict their emissions to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) per megawatt-hour of electricity produced; a strict standard to be sure, but one that doesn't come without caveats. All old power plants, some well over 50 years in age, will be exempt entirely from Obama's greenhouse rule, despite the fact that these archaic facilities alone account for over 40 percent of carbon emissions in the country. In a nutshell, the biggest coal polluters are being let off the hook altogether.
Five years ago a whopping 151 new coal plants were slated for construction, but with one of the greatest environmental achievements in our history, grassroots activists across the country stopped their development.
Obama is riding on the coat-tails of these victories, which is to be expected, but what's underlying the greenhouse gas rule is a bit more sinister. As concerns about the impacts of fracking continue to grow, the power plants that burn natural gas extracted through this process of pumping a mix of water, chemicals and sand deep into the earth's crust, won't be covered by the rule. Generally, natural gas plants produce less than 900 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. Indeed the limit set by the EPA was not arbitrary; it directly aids and abets the natural gas industry. Obama knows quite well that natural gas is poised to be the fossil fuel of the future and his administration and the EPA are not going to stand in the way of the big boom.
This isn't to say the effect of natural gas on climate change is benign -- far from it. While still producing a large amount of carbon emissions (albeit less than coal), natural gas also spews a whole bunch of methane (natural gas is methane), which is far more potent than CO2 when it comes to the immediate warming of our planet. In fact, it is estimated that methane gas has a global warming potential 25 times that of CO2 (averaged over 100 years). So, in absolute terms, natural gas does contribute substantially to greenhouse gas emissions, and with more production in the works, this contribution is going to grow a lot more in the years to come.
The EPA certainly understands methane is a big contributor to global warming. In an analysis released last year the agency doubled its earlier estimate for the amount of methane that leaks from natural gas wells and pipelines. This leaking is so extensive that it is equal to the annual emissions from over 35 million automobiles. In addition, the EPA reported that the levels of methane release during the fracking of shale gas were actually 9,000 times higher than previously thought.
Methane, unfortunately, is not covered by Obama's proposed greenhouse gas rule. Perhaps that's because Obama supports the expansion of natural gas exploration as well as the notion of "safe" fracking -- an oxymoron if there ever was one.
"We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years, and my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy," said President Obama in his recent State of the Union address. "The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don't have to choose between our environment and our economy ... it was public research dollars, over the course of thirty years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock."
The process Obama is touting is the fracking of natural gas and oil from underground geological formations, like the Marcellus Shale on the East Coast. The procedure has been documented in a draft report by the EPA as causing groundwater pollution in Wyoming, yet fracking remains exempt from the Clean Water Act.
As coal becomes a relic of the past in the U.S., natural gas, with fracking as its main source of extraction, is being set up as the fossil fuel of the future, thanks in large part to Obama's embrace and the EPA's blind eye. In 2008 the Obama campaign amassed $884,000 from the oil and gas industry. That number is likely to grow even higher in 2012.
Often seen as a "bridge fuel" from coal toward renewables, natural gas has not come under the same scrutiny as other fossil fuels. Instead natural gas has been seen as a safer, cleaner burning fuel -- an improvement over dirty coal. Hence why the EPA continues to punt on proposing regulations on the industry, as it did for a second at the beginning of April when it delayed the release of rules for the oil and gas industry. If the EPA caves to the natural gas industry, as many expect it to do, the majority of existing fracking wells will be exempt from regulation.
Yet, even if fracking wells begin to receive the regulatory oversight they so gravely deserve, the burning of natural gas is not about to come under intensified scrutiny any time soon. On the contrary, as long as the EPA's attention remains on curbing coal's carbon footprint, the natural gas industry is sure to benefit and more methane is sure to seep from the depths of Earth. A recent study by tech billionaire Nathan Myhrvold and climate scientist Ken Caldeira argue that shifting to natural gas "cannot substantially reduce the climate risk in the next 100 years."
Those fighting the frackers ought to expand their focus from fracking's immediate dangers, which are very real, to natural gas' long-term impacts on climate change. Even if fracking were to one day be outlawed, as long as natural gas continues to be burned the planet will continue to heat up. In short, natural gas is not a bridge to renewable energy; it's a bridge to nowhere.
Like coal, natural gas will never be a clean energy source as emissions follow it every step of the way. From extraction to piping to incineration, methane ends up being released and CO2 produced, resulting in a warmer, more toxic world.