The Nation calls; I answer

Chris Hayes of The Nation (That famous Liberal bias you can’t find anywhere else) tweeted:

chrislhayes Can someone write an awesome, definitive 8-10k magazine article about the current natural gas boom, fracking and climate? kthxbai

and I tweeted back:

@chrislhayes I could, but I’m too busy educating millions of poor children so that they all will be able to do it.

This is not rocket science, even if NASA satellites are one of our most important sources of data. We are talking about measuring temperature and its causes and effects. Then we have to think about the causes of the causes and the effects of the effects. All of the scientific concepts required (but not all of the experimental techniques, and certainly not the supercomputer modeling) are well within the limits of high school physics, chemistry, and biology. Of course, there are also questions of Economics and Political “Science” involved that nobody is taught correctly. For example:

  • It isn’t a Free Market if corporations have the power to set prices.
  • It  especially isn’t a Free Market if corporations are able to buy legislative, administrative, and legal favors, including subsidies, tenured professorships for their tame Economists, and favorable treatment in textbooks.
  • It isn’t a Free Market if you and I can’t find out what is going on behind closed doors at corporations or in government, but legislators can trade stock based on information received in closed-door hearings. Which they can do, only because Congress exempted itself from the Insider Trading laws.
  • It isn’t a Free Market for anybody who isn’t permitted to get to it, including not just poor people the world over, but entire governments of poor countries that have no representation in global financial institutions, while the biggest countries often get to name the people running the institutions, or may have a veto over any meaningful action.
  • It isn’t a Free Market when “freshwater”/Great Lakes “economists”/Market Fundamentalists of the Milton Friedman Chicago school can deny the existence of market bubbles and crashes without being hooted out of the room.
  • Likewise for the Arthur Laffer school, also at Chicago, of “trickle-down”/supply-side/Voodoo economics.
  • It isn’t a Free Market of ideas when Creationists and pandering politicians can claim that Global Warming is a hoax without being hooted out of the election cycle. (A Creationism in schools bill was introduced in Indiana, where I live, only a few weeks ago. It appears to have been hooted off the stage. I blogged here about it, and about how much science you have to disbelieve in order to be an informed Creationist.)

But let’s get back to climate science. Here is the most important single fact about Global Warming: the reality is consistently worse, every year, than the supposed Worst-Case Scenarios in the scientific models of previous years. Yes, the models are all wrong. It’s worse. Much worse, in fact. We don’t even know how much worse, yet, but it is a safe bet that it will get worser and worser, as Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have put it.

  • The sea, air, ice, and land are all warmer than scientists thought possible by now, and will therefore continue warming at a faster rate for longer than they thought possible.
  • The seasons are shifting, and animal habitats are moving toward the poles or further up the mountains, except for species already living on mountaintops with nowhere to go.
  • We are having more and worse storms, along with more and worse droughts as evaporation increases and wind patterns shift.
  • Arctic permafrosts are melting faster. They have been holding in vast amounts of methane, which is a stronger greenhouse gas than CO2.
  • Glaciers are shrinking everywhere from Greenland to Tibet to Mt. Kilimanjaro to Antarctica, and sea levels are correspondingly rising.
  • Sea levels are also rising from expansion of the water as it warms.
  • Something like a quarter of the excess carbon dioxide is dissolving in the oceans, making them more acidic (carbonic acid, H2O+CO2=H2CO3) and weakening the calcium-based skeletons and shells of corals, shellfish, and other ocean life.
  • Warmer ocean water is killing corals, and putting at risk everything that lives in or around coral reefs.

The facts on natural gas are easy:

  • Methane has the formula CH4, and octane, as in gasoline, is C8H18. So the ratio of hydrogen to carbon is better in methane by a factor of almost 2 to 1, and natural gas is thus only half as carbon-intensive as gasoline and other petroleum-based fuels. Coal is nearly all carbon, so it is the most carbon-intensive. So natural gas is better than oil, which is better than coal, and we should substitute it in many power plants.
  • However, better is not the same as good. Cutting our carbon footprint in half is nowhere near good enough.
  • So the self-congratulatory advertising you see from oil companies (if you watch TV at all) about how wonderful their natural gas production is comes down, in the language of the unfortunately unreliable Politifact, to Pants-on-Fire! lies surrounding irrelevant truths.
  • We need renewable, carbon-neutral energy, and even more than that we need carbon-negative conservation, which turns out to save money right on the corporate bottom line. Unfortunately, conservation managers usually don’t get no respect inside corporations.

The issues around fracking are harder to explain clearly, not because of the inherent difficulty in the subject, which does exist, but is not essential for understanding the issues. The real problem is that it is harder to winnow the facts out of the propaganda from both supporters and opponents. Again the essential points require no more than high-school-level science. Here is what I think I know so far:

  • Fracking can be done safely, but sometimes (occasionally? frequently?) is not. Only a modest number of wells, apparently drilled by a few rogue companies, have been definitely found to have gone bad, leaking natural gas into groundwater, out of the many thousands drilled. A few companies have not used the proper bore sealing techniques for the parts of the holes penetrating groundwater formations, and those that have been caught have been penalized, sometimes even barred from further drilling. Many more companies have been found mishandling used fracking fluids returned up the boreholes, allowing them to contaminate soils, water, and air. Here enforcement appears to be lagging.
  • The fracking industry operates under the so-called “Halliburton” exemption to the Clean Water Act, championed by former Vice President Dick Cheney, previously CEO of Halliburton. Among other things, this prevents the EPA from requiring disclosure of fracking fluid composition.
  • Water wells can penetrate gas-bearing formations, notably in Pennsylvania. This occasionally results in water that can be set on fire at the tap. There are isotopic tests that can distinguish these from gas coming out of much deeper shale formations via fracking, but there appears to be no public data source covering enough such test results. Neither the Corporate Right nor the Populist Left is willing to discuss such results in public.
  • Noted fracker T. Boone Pickens has publicly denied the existence of any of the known problems. Others in the industry have compared the opposition to fracking to an insurgency, and claim to be using military counter-insurgency and psychological warfare techniques on opponents.
  • On the other side, the documentary Gasland fails to acknowledge that gas contamination of wells can come from natural sources.

As with Global Warming, we have a question capable of scientific answers, which is unfortunately mired in pseudo-economics and partisan politics.

All of this can, as I said above, be explained at the high school level, and should be addressed in Open Education Resources. We also need to put this to elementary school students, and find out how much of it we can explain to them. What would happen if we could teach a billion children at a time about all of this stuff, and get them together to discuss what to do about it?

About mokurai

Generalist; End poverty at a profit for all
This entry was posted in Economics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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