Energy security, independence remain issues
Last week I sat in the third row of the plenary session at the Energy Information Administration's annual conference at the Washington, D.C. convention center, listening to our shiny new Energy Secretary, Dr. Steven Chu.
The good doctor danced around the issues of energy security, energy independence, and without saying a word at all he displayed a command of the idea that our fossil fuel production is in irreversible decline.
Chu's predecessor was Samuel Bodman, who's name you've never heard. Bodman was the CEO of Cabot Corporation, a Boston based specialty chemical firm listed as one of the top five polluters nationally for its particulate emissions and implicated in the Democratic Republic of Congo's civil war.
Much of the chaos in the DRC is funded by profits from coltan, a mineral mined there for its niobium and tantalum. Both used in electronics manufacture and the conflict is sometimes called the PlayStation war.
While Bodman's company was stirring the pot in African civil conflict Dr.Chu, a Bell Labs research fellow, was busily figuring out how to actually make the previously theoretical Bose-Einstein Condensate, a feat which earned him a Nobel Prize in physics in 1997. The difference in talents and motivations of the two men couldn't be more stark.
One of the hope I have for Dr. Chu's tenure as Energy Secretary is that as a nation we'll put to bed once and for all the so called 'debate' regarding anthropogenic global warming.
There are more than 140 known subglacial lakes in Antarctica. The largest of these, Lake Vostok, a Lake Ontario sized body of water, was the site of an ice core recovery a decade ago. The 11,890' column of ice contained a record of atmospheric gases spanning 420,000 years. The inputs are multifaceted but the record is clear - the Earth humans have known has at least 180 parts per million of carbon dioxide and not more than 280 parts per million.
While not perfect the hundred parts per million dance from minimum to maximum seemed to take about a hundred thousand years.
Then we learned to use fossil fuels, first coal, then oil, then natural gas. The carbon that had been buried was brought out into the atmosphere and a change of a magnitude that would have taken a hundred thousand years happened in two short centuries. But we didn't start with 180 parts per million; our Industrial Revolution began when atmospheric cabon dioxide was already near the peak.
We're a hundred parts per million outside the norm and we've set things in motion, such as the thawing of Siberian permafrost, that ensure those numbers will trend upward even if most human life were suddenly snuffed out by some extraordinary event. The Holocene era is over and the Anthropocene era has begun.
The scientific consensus on this was achieved long, long ago. Consensus, not unanimity. When nearly a thousand peer reviewed papers on global warming were examined, three quarters of them indicated humans are the cause, and the remainder merely stated that warming was occurring but didn't say what causes it, well, that's consensus. When Senator Inhofe runs out of real scientists and trots out science fiction author Michael Crichton to testify before the Environment and Public Works committee, that's a scam. The few remaining scientists disagreeing with the global warming consensus yet still qualifying for the honorific doctor are not taken seriously by their peers.
The funding for their 'studies' often tracks back to the likes of oil spiller Exxon or mountain top remover Peabody Energy.
Part of this new focus on fact versus fiction is the Markey-Waxman American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. The 648 page draft of the bill has four separate titles: Clean Energy (I), Energy Efficiency(II), Reducing Global Warming Pollution (III), and Transitioning To A Clean Energy Economy (IV). The drill, baby, drill chant of the 2008 campaign season, which petroleum geologists tell me was never going to work in the first place, has given way to a rational assessment of what we can and can not do, taking into account the three axes of energy, environment, and economy.
Things look fairly grim around the region, with thousands of layoffs in manufacturing associated with auto, residential, and commercial real estate.
The new direction set with this bill will mean there are buses, trains, passive solar heating modules, and other goods needed that could be made with the equipment and workforce we have. Much like the United States of December 1941, we face a massive retooling to deal with the twin threats of fossil fuel depletion and climate change, and a retooling of our beliefs and attitudes is going to be a large part of the change we face.
(I have a regular weekly column in the Paxton Record which reaches Ford and Iroquois counties in eastern Illinois. This one appeared 4/15/2009.)