Thursday, March 14, 2013

Climate, Shale, Methane Hydrates, and Climate Politics

by Duncan Gromko

There's been a lot going on the last two weeks, so I though I'd do a round up.


Last week there was some pretty frightening news about just how unusual the global climate is.

Source: Grist, originally Science
Mann et al. were able to get data about climate changes from 11,300 years ago. In this period of relative stability, the last few decades stand out as being dangerously abnormal.

Shale gas

Resources for the Future has done some excellent analysis on the impact of shale gas development on local water sources. I'd say it's a must read for folks interested in natural gas. The two big conclusions are: 1) the presence of treatment plants that treat waste water from fracking is associated with increased chlorine concentrations and 2) the presence of shale gas wells is associated with increased concentration of solids in water. John Quigley points out that the report also found no evidence of systematic spills or leaks of gas in surface water.

It's an important report because the researchers used over 20,000 water quality measurements taken over 10 years (all in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania). The report should guide regulators as they look to minimize the impact of natural gas development. Michael Levi does a great summary here.

This report comes on the heels of an interesting take on the way that fracking is transforming economies in greater Appalachia.

Methane hydrates

Japan has successfully extracted gas from offshore methane hydrate reserves. Development of methane hydrates is still at an experimental scale, but if/when these resources are commercially extractable, the viable carbon reserves of the planet would double. Technical challenges had kept developers from getting at the hydrates, but Japan seems to have solved the problem. Keep your eye on this one.

Climate politics

Keystone continues to be the divisive issue in the climate movement, especially in the mainstream media. Joe Nocera of the NY Times has continued his confused attack on James Hansen and the anti-Keystone folks; the Washington Post editorial board also came out against the Keystone movement, saying that they are fighting the wrong battles. On the other side, the NY Times editorial board and Thomas Friedman wrote that they support fighting the pipeline. Here's where I stand, if you're curious.

Concurrent with the increasing attention over the pipeline, four Democratic Congressman announced a "discussion draft" of a bill that would tax carbon. Both Brad Plummer and David Roberts have good takes on the bill.

Why are they introducing the bill now when it has zero chance of becoming law? Repeat: zero chance. I wonder if they're trying to signal climate activists, saying "Hey, ease up on Keystone and come support us." Or if they're sending a message to President Obama: "You know this has no way of passing; you gotta lead here."

Theda Skocpol has weighed in again with her take on the climate movement (if you read one link from this post, read hers). I think the important take away is that the climate movement has not done a good job creating support outside of the upper middle class:

"Global-warming reformers must stop being blind and tone-deaf to the real-life circumstances of typical American families in an era of astonishing socioeconomic inequality. The current fashion is to suppose that severe weather emergencies will, in and of themselves, prompt most Americans suddenly to support governmental actions with real bite. I really doubt this. Severe weather events are not self-interpreting; they are most likely to be understood as signs of global warming by educated people who already believe in the reality of this threat. Beyond that, humans have, for thousands of years, grown accustomed to adjusting to weather events and trends. People just devise work-arounds and truck on, and that is what will happen if global-warming reformers cannot do better than cheer for speeches by President Obama that point to weather emergencies. Anti–global warming policies that ordinary Americans can understand, policies that deliver concrete benefits to ordinary families, plus the construction of far-reaching networks of allied organizations able to push Congress — these are what it will take to pass carbon-capping legislation next time."

Talk about laying down the gauntlet. Skocpol's case is augmented by this take on why it is really difficult to get people excited about climate. Skocpol's argument is especially poignant in the context of the Keystone discussion and the introduction of carbon tax bill. We can see where we are now, how far away we are from where we want to be, and a glimmer of how we might get there.

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