The Dilemma of Greenhouse Gas Campaigns

I had the fascinating opportunity of meeting and listening to Dr. Michael Mann at Penn State University a few weeks ago as he explained how he and other investigators (Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes) discovered the “hockey stick” rise in global temperature that occurred during the last 100 years. They did this by collecting information on environmental markers (e.g. tree rings, ice core samples etc.) throughout North America and then used them to estimate average temperature changes from 1750 to the present. They were amazed to see the “hockey stick profile”, shown in the chart below with its sharp rise after 1900.

Image: IPCC and Michael Mann/Penn State
Image: IPCC and Michael Mann/Penn State

Their startling discovery was first published in the February 1994 issue of the American Geophysical Union and, for their efforts and the contributions of others on The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the IPCC and Al Gore won the Nobel Prize in1998. This discovery served as the stimulus for environmentalists worldwide to champion efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, essentially CO2 and methane, through campaigns to reduce the use of hydrocarbons as fuels, a significant contributor to CO2 emissions. They argue that greenhouse gases cause global warming which, in turn, creates the unusual weather patterns we have seen recently and the melting of glaciers that will cause the oceans to rise and strongly impact life along the world’s coast lines.

This discovery led to considerable debate and, during the past 10 years, new government policies were announced in many OECD countries that set major targets to reduce greenhouse gases emissions. For example, many power distribution companies are mandated to increase electricity generated by renewable energy sources to 35% of their portfolio. To support this mandate the governments, at considerable cost, instituted conservation measures (more efficient cars, replace coal with natural gas for power generation) and provides direct funding, carbon credits and/or tax benefits to developers of renewable energy resources, mainly solar and wind instillations. Large solar and wind farms were soon being erected throughout Europe and North America at considerable cost to the population in the form of tax increases payments and higher cost for electricity. It is not uncommon for wind farms in the US to receive $100-200 MWh ($0.10-0.20 per kWh) for electricity that cost only $40/MWh ($0.04/kWh) from combined cycle gas fired plants. The cost to the consumers is even higher because everyone must pay the special transmission costs for dedicated power lines that must be built to renewable sites to collect the “priority” electricity.

Wind and Solar

Image: ExxonMobil 2015 Outlook for Energy

Even the higher cost of electricity might make sense to consumers if the impact of CO2 reduction was truly effective.  Unfortunately that may not be the case. Both the International Energy Agency and ExxonMobil’s recently published oil and gas market outlooks to 2040 summarize the expected growth in CO2 emissions shown in the attached chart. Note that even with the OECD countries, including Europe and the US, reducing their annual CO2 emissions modestly over the next 25 years the rest of the world will cause it to increase by 20% as they pursue their own industrial revolution in an effort to catch up with the OECD countries.

Thus the dilemma. Should we in the West continue to pay for expensive electricity and make every effort to convince China and India to cut back on the use of fossil fuels? Or decide there is no realistic solution to the growing impacts of global warming – we simply have to live with it! The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris November 30 – December 11 may help us answer that question.

One Reply to “The Dilemma of Greenhouse Gas Campaigns”

  1. Good article, Dave.
    It also begs the question about what we can do to help the third world get-off burning biomass and kerosene.
    The end of the age of steam and of the associated smog was certainly not a lack of coal, steam engines or engineers. It was the ingenuity of those engineers and the vision of the investors who supported them.
    The emerging economies don’t necessarily have to follow the same industrialization path that we followed, but they will need lots of cheap, clean energy.

    As Petroleum Engineers, we need to champion:
    – gas as the transition fuel, especially for the emerging economies;
    – LNG and CNG for long distance trucking and public transport;
    – low cost oil as feedstock to petrochemicals and as a means to maintain air transportation;
    – broad ranging R & D into alternate methods of converting; storing and using energy in a more efficient manner; and
    – improving the efficiency of the machine that funds economic prosperity for everyone.

    However, your article also points to a dilemma for politicians going to Paris from countries that are sitting on hundreds of years’ worth of coal and oil. Do these resources have a dwindling asset value if the OECD is intent on a significantly reduced carbon economy by the end of the century?

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