Home > Uncategorized > Why Tom Moran, While Getting Key Issues So Right, Got It So Wrong On Fracking and Climate

Why Tom Moran, While Getting Key Issues So Right, Got It So Wrong On Fracking and Climate

 Moran & PSEG can’t see the climate forest for the emissions trees 

My good friend and homie Star Ledger editorial board writer Tom Moran got it badly wrong in his most recent editorial, which, relying on PSEG CEO Ralph Izzo’s analysis, chastised environmentalists for a “blind spot” on fracking, see:

Methinks perhaps Moran thought he was rising to Menkenian heights in attempting to hoist liberals and environmentalists on their own petard with a dose of hard scientific reality.

First, let me note that Moran gets the key climate issues absolutely right about the scientific consensus: 1) a disaster is looming, 2) we must make deep emissions reductions very quickly, and 3) we’re not even close to meeting those reductions:

But climate change is shaping up to be a global catastrophe. When you hear about threats to the food supply, think about starvation and war. When you hear about rising sea levels, think about millions of refugees fleeing Bangladesh. And when you think about severe weather, imagine Sandy on steroids, with higher sea levels. […]

The scientific consensus is that emissions must be cut 80 percent by the year 2050. To get there, the United States would have to eliminate all emissions from electricity, transportation, and industry.

“If you converted the entire electric system to renewables, and the entire transportation system to electric vehicles, you would just make it,” he says. “That gives you an idea of how far we are from achieving what we need to do.”

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail, but will quickly dismiss Moran’s key point he gets so wrong, a hangover from the old “gas as a bridge fuel” mythology, which he stated thusly:

I hate to be a Green Grinch, but this is one of the environmental movement’s blind spots. Cuomo’s decision is a disaster for the environment where it counts most – on climate change.

Fracking has created a boom in natural gas production, driving its price below that of coal. And when a power plant switches from coal to gas, its carbon emissions are cut in half. That is the key reason America’s carbon emissions have been dropping since 2006, despite the political stalemate.

Here’s the three main reasons, documented in many scientific studies, why Moran can’t see the climate forest for the emissions trees (and why music majors should tread lightly on science):

1. When a coal plant switches from coal to natural gas, its carbon emission are cut, but overall greenhouse gas emissions and global warming potential are not reduced by 50% and actually may increase.

Moran may not know this, but PSEG’s Mr. Izzo surely does: comparison of coal versus natural gas fuels and emission of carbon dioxide at individual power plants, is completely misleading and the wrong way to analyze the issue.

The issue is greenhouse gas emissions. Natural gas (methane) is a powerful greenhouse gas.

Recent studies have shown that when you consider the “lifecycle emissions” of fracked gas – from drilling the well, emissions from the well, leaks from the pipelines, fugitive emissions etc –  then natural gas may have even larger global warming impacts than coal. While there is no scientific consensus on exactly how significant lifecycle fracked gas emissions are, there is agreement that the 50% reduction number used by Izzo is not accurate or credible.

2. Methane is far more potent as a global warming gas than carbon dioxide, especially in the short run.

In addition to being a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, methane acts more quickly. Short run rapid warming could be catastrophic. The rate of warming is highly significant.

Scientists are saying we need to reduce emissions quickly to avoid critical tipping points that could trigger runaway irreversible climate change, therefore the rate of warming is significant.

So, even if the 50% reduction were true – which it is not – 50% less carbon dioxide emissions is not equivalent to a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions or warming potential.

It’s the warming potential that matters, not the superficial numbers Moran regurgitates from Izzo.

3. The artificially low price of fracked gas delays transition to renewable energy sources

Before climate change was even an issue, clean air regulators unsuccessfully tried to encourage the electric power industry to shut down those old dirty coal plants and switch to “cleaner burning” natural gas. The utilities balked.

In fact, PSEG earns a significant share of their profits on transmission investments (a higher ROI that any other investment), i.e. the majority of its huge profits from transmission lines to import this dirty coal power from Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley, greenhouse gas emissions that are not counted in NJ  emissions inventory –  inconvenient facts Moran omits.

Moran forgets that, historically, what slowed the rate of conversion to the cleaner burning natural gas he celebrates was the cheap price of coal.

It wasn’t until natural gas prices plummeted due to the fracking technology that PSEG and others began converting to gas and regulators approved those changes.

The obvious lesson here is that price matters.

The same market forces and economic cost arguments that blocked conversion from coal to natural gas are now blocking conversion to renewable energy. The market model fails:

The emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) harms others in a way that is not reflected in the price of carbon-based energy, that is, CO2 emissions create a negative externality. Because the price of carbon-based energy does not reflect the full costs, or economic damages, of CO2 emissions, market forces result in a level of CO2 emissions that is too high. Because of this market failure, public policies are needed to reduce CO2 emissions and thereby to limit the damage to economies and the natural world from further climate change. 

The mistaken public perception is that fracked natural gas is cheap and wind and solar are expensive.

The laws and energy policies require that wind and renewable power pass a “cost test” before they can be approved by BPU. In fact, that cost test is what Gov. Christie’s BPU is using to kill offshore wind.

All fossil fuel prices are artificially low. Those prices undermine the economics of renewable energy and delay the conversion that even Mr. Izzo realizes that we must rapidly make to avoid climate chaos.

Here’s just one recent study Moran and Izzo should read:

[End note: Moran arbitrarily selects 2006 as a baseline year to claim US emissions have declined. Again,that is totally misleading:

First, US emissions don’t include huge emissions from imported good made in China. US consumption is driving these Chinese emissions and should be assigned to the US not China.

Second, the 2008 economic recession accounted for a considerable portion of the alleged reductions. Once the economy begins to grow, those short term emissions reductions will be wiped out.

Third, as noted above, the alleged emissions reductions are not real and greatly exaggerated because they rely on discredited emissions factors like the 50% reduction from coal to gas conversion touted by Izzo and Moran.

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