Saturday, 16 March 2013

Can McKibben and Nocera both be right?

In a March 15 op-ed in the New York Times, Joe Nocera described a coal gasification plant that the Summit Power Group plans to build in Odessa, Texas, starting this summer. The gasification plant would reduce greenhouse gas emissions perhaps as much as 90% by capturing the resulting CO2 and using it to (1) produce fertilizer and (2) inject into declining oil reservoirs in a process called “enhanced oil recovery.”

Nocera supports this as an important step for addressing climate change. He asked Bill McKibben if he supports the project and quotes McKibben’s response: “the worst possible thing to do with it [CO2] is to get more oil above ground. It’s time to keep oil in the earth, not to mention gas and coal.”

For Nocera, this suggests that McKibben is not thinking clearly, so he ends his article with, “To me, at least, his answer suggests that his crusade has blinded him to the real problem. The enemy is not fossil fuels; it is the damage that is done because of the way we use fossil fuels.

In my view, they are both right – and both wrong. I don’t know the whole quote Nocera had to work with from McKibben, but it should have said something like the following.

“Yes, humanity should focus on carbon pollution, not on ceasing all use of fossil fuels. We must be driving carbon pollution rapidly toward zero, but if that can occur while still using fossil fuels, that’s fine. Maybe as a first step, some CO2 will be used for enhanced oil recovery. But a rapidly growing share of carbon from fossil fuel use must end up as liquid CO2 in deep saline aquifers or as solid carbon that can never be allowed to reach the atmosphere. If this is not feasible, then the use of fossil fuels must decline rapidly.”

And Nocera should have said something like the following.

“I understand why McKibben is reluctant to allow much use of CO2 for enhanced oil recovery because he has done such an excellent job of explaining how close we are to surpassing our carbon budget for preventing harmful levels of global warming. But, while governments dither we should support projects that get the fossil fuel industry working in the right direction.”

And both should have said in unison, “People should read Mark Jaccard’s book, Sustainable Fossil Fuels (CambridgeUniversity Press, 2005), which explains the likely role of fossil fuel use in a world in which humanity rapidly reduces its greenhouse gas emissions while providing much-needed energy for even the poorest on the planet.”

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