America’s dangerous renewed romance with fossil fuels


This week, climate change has spent an all-too-brief moment on top of the public’s agenda, as world leaders and diplomats discussed the simmering issue at the United Nations and look for some kind of breakthrough that will lead to meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Many cynics say that serious action is impossible, because even if the United States — the world leader in per-person emissions of carbon — takes more stringent measures, the skies will still be swamped by pollution from the ever-emerging economies of China, India, and elsewhere.

But the reality is that there is much more that the United States can do — and should do — to wean itself off fossil fuels. In fact, there is much more that we could have been doing the last five years. Instead, the Obama administration’s energy policy has been a classic tale of bait and switch. The president’s first campaign in 2008 promised America to tackle the hard work of moving the nation into a new era of renewable energy, but the concurrent boom in fracking — providing cheap and plentiful natural gas — has been a too-tempting trap. Now, President Obama boasts of reducing America’s oil exports from overseas, yet fracking could be making greenhouse gas pollution even worse:

The reality is that shale gas probably won’t have much effect on climate change either way, according to a new study published Wednesday. “If you increase the use of gas, that will actually delay the deployment of renewable energy,” said Christine Shearer of the University of California, Irvine, one of the authors of the study.

Shearer and her colleagues modeled how the consequences for the climate in the next forty years would differ depending on how big the gas boom gets, how quickly solar technology develops, and what policies the federal government adopts to slow global warming. Their forecasts showed that the more natural gas is available, the less the energy sector will rely on renewable resources, and that the supply of natural gas will not have much effect on greenhouse gas emissions.

Abundant gas reserves will lower electricity bills and encourage people and businesses to burn more electricity, the authors find. Also, cheap energy from gas will make building new solar panels and wind turbines less attractive to investors. The paper predicts that a larger supply of gas might reduce or add to emissions slightly, depending on how well companies can keep gas from leaking.

These results largely confirm work published earlier this year by a pair of researchers at Duke University and a report published last year collating predictions from academics, government officials and the industry.

This is an important new contribution to the debate, and it’s not the only sign that we’ve veered off in the wrong direction. Increasingly, there are news reports that U.S. exports of oil — which were banned roughly four decades ago, during the energy crisis of the 1970s — are all but certain to resume, meaning that we’ll be risking the environment with drilling here at home so other nations can produce more greenhouse gases. Just look to the Gulf of Mexico, in my own backyard: Despite the massive vulnerabilities exposed by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, we are now to the point where there is more offshore drilling than there was four years ago:

 In 2009, the year before the spill, the Gulf averaged 42 rigs for oil and gas exploration, according to an analysis from oilfield service company Baker Hughes. Today, that number tops 60 with the vast majority exploring depths greater than 500 feet.

If deepwater is the heartbeat of the Gulf, the pulse can be checked at Port Fourchon. The port services 75 percent of the deepwater drilling in the Gulf, and activity there has not only returned to pre-spill levels but is growing so rapidly that companies are seeking property faster than the Greater Lafourche Port Commission can raise it from the wetlands.

I’ll be the first to admit that global warming is one of the thorniest problems that humankind has ever faced: There are no glib or easy solutions. But one thing is increasingly clear: If we think that we’re solving The Problem by fracking or deepwater drilling, we’re truly deluding ourselves.

Read more from Wonkblog about the latest study on fracking and climate change:

For more information on the debate over resuming U.S. oil exports, check out:,0,2340976.story

Read the Daily Comet report on deepwater drilling in the Gulf:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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