Fossil fuels aren’t going away soon | Don Brunell

Folks in the Pacific Northwest may not like what Matt Ridley has to say, but we should consider his points about energy.

Folks in the Pacific Northwest may not like what Matt Ridley has to say, but we should consider his points about energy.

Ridley, a British journalist and author of several popular books on science, the environment and the economy, is a businessman and member of the House of Lords. He is  often shunned because he owns land where coal is mined.

Recently, Ridley wrote in The Wall Street Journal that while oil, gas and coal have problems, their benefits are beyond dispute. He advances three reasons for not giving up on fossil fuels.

First, they’re plentiful.

That may surprise some, since opponents constantly warn that we’re running out. In 1922, a U.S. presidential commission claimed that, “Already the output of gas has begun to wane. Production of oil cannot long maintain its present rate.” In 1977, President Jimmy Carter  warned, “We could use up all the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade.”

But with new discoveries and new technology, America is becoming the world’s top producer of oil and natural gas. We also are blessed with the world’s largest supply of low sulfur coal in Montana and Wyoming.

Ridley says that, when the shale revolution goes global, oil and gas will provide ample power for decades, if not centuries. Waiting in the wings is methane hydrate, a seafloor source of energy larger than all the world’s coal, oil and gas combined.

Second, despite billions in subsidies, alternative fuels have trouble competing.

On a global level, the growth of renewable energy has merely made up for a decline in nuclear power. In 2013, about 87 percent of the world’s energy came from fossil fuels, a figure virtually unchanged in the last decade.

While the overall volume of fossil fuel use has increased, CO2 emissions per unit of energy have declined. The biggest reason is the switch from coal to natural gas for electricity generation, even though opponents still block lower emission LGN (Liquid Natural Gas) plants like the one planned in Coos Bay, OR.

Other problems with renewable energy are space and cost.

To run the U.S. economy on wind would require a wind farm the size of Texas, California and New Mexico combined. And because wind and solar are intermittent, we would still need coal and natural gas to provide backup power.

The cost of subsidized renewable energy is coming down, especially solar. But even if solar panels were free, the power they produce has trouble competing with fossil fuel. For example in sunny Hawaii where electricity is very expensive, solar is growing and LNG is being substituted for oil-fired electricity.

The third issue for fossil fuel is carbon emissions. In Mississippi and China, coal gasification plants are being developed which dramatically reduce greenhouse gases while generating plentiful power on just a few acres. But rather than invest in these technologies, we’re closing coal plants.

Living in relative comfort, American critics have the luxury to recoil at the thought of fossil fuels.  Meanwhile, more than one billion people in other parts of the world have no access to electricity. They burn wood for heat and cooking, but indoor air pollution from wood fires kills four million people a year.

Americans have the ingenuity to export energy and technology if we set our minds to it.

Why not encourage research and development of cleaner fossil fuels, along with solar and wind?

Whether one agrees with Ridley is not the question. What matters is, are we willing to look at opportunities rather than blindly reject options we don’t like?

 


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Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at thebrunells@msn.com.
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