Greenhouse gas emissions are hot news these days — especially in the lead up to an election when candidates, at least those who claim to believe in climate science, vow to do something about the biggest environmental crisis facing our little blue planet: climate change.
In early March of this year, 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, which he successfully accomplished, President Obama trumpeted his half-hearted attempt to put the breaks on climate change 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 later next year. 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 tenacious environmentalists have seen far more victories than defeats when it comes to battling King Coal.
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 when it comes into effect, 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 staggering 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 still riding on the coat-tails of these victories, 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 akin to “clean” coal.
“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 last 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. In 2012 that number topped $2 million.
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 last April when it delayed the release of rules for the oil and gas industry. If the EPA caves to the natural gas industry, as it will likely continue 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 argues 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 an even more toxic planet.
Joshua Frank, Managing Editor of CounterPunch, is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, and of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is now available in Kindle format. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.