The Weekly Carboholic: public opinion shifts from the environment to drilling and mining

Posted on July 9, 2008

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carboholic

The AAA overnight survey of gasoline prices found that the national average price for gasoline is at $4.108, and the cheapest gasoline in the U.S. is still $3.930. With prices that high, SUV drivers are increasingly finding themselves members of an unfortunate group, the triple-digit club, people whose large gas tanks and low mileage make every fill-up cost over $100. As more and more people have budget for high fuel prices, their support for environmental conservation has fallen and their support for more energy development and exploration has increased. According to last week’s Pew Research Center for the People and the Press report, support for energy conservation has fallen 10% and support for more energy exploration and development (drilling, mining, etc.) has increased by +12% from February to June and support for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling has increased 8% to 50% of the survey respondents.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that 60% of the country (up 6% from February) supports new energy development, while 34% support protecting the environment. The problem is convincing people that the two aren’t mutually incompatible, and that “new energy development” cannot equal “drill more oil and gas wells, mine more coal, and grow more corn for ethanol”. And with most of the energy technologies that have been featured by the Carboholic over the months, new energy development is eminently possible without relying on even more coal or natural gas power plants and more domestic oil production (that won’t come on line for at least a decade anyway).

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High oil prices aren’t going away anytime soon no matter what Congress and the President do to try and bring them down again. Plans that supposedly curb speculation are specious at best. Plans to increase oil supplies are too far out in the future to matter, and humanity needs to wean itself off oil, not drill more to extend the pain. The best way to adapt to high oil prices is to reduce the amount that you drive, and the best way to do that is to live close enough to where you work and shop that you don’t need to drive and can take mass transit, walk/run, bicycle, or use some method other than the single occupant automobile. The problem is that twenty years or so of low gasoline prices has not only convinced people to buy overly-powered and over-large vehicles, but low gasoline prices also created the low population density suburb. And so long as people live in suburbs and commute long distances, oil demand and prices will both remain high.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, cities are exploring how to increase their population density as an answer to high oil prices, falling home values, traffic, and the problems associated with urban sprawl. The Journal article is a detailed look at the city of Sacramento’s “smart growth” plans and how they’re progressing, especially now that a California State University-Sacramento poll found 12% of Sacramento-area respondents had moved or changed jobs to shorten their commute.

According to the article, Mike McKeever, the head of Sacramento’s regional planning agency, is he person most directly responsible for the largely successful, albeit voluntary, push for new development to become transit-focused and higher density than the usual single-family home on a large suburban lot. He developed a software program that enabled attendees at public planning meetings to observe the changes in traffic, job growth, and pollution as they changed the amount and type of housing, and in the process he convinced not only the regional city governments to do things his way, but he also largely convinced the public and property developers too. The reason it worked was that developers and governments realized that their property values would be less susceptible to to housing bubbles and their inevitable pops if cities had a mix of residential development – apartments, lofts, condos, and single-family homes. People realized that denser development with local transit access would enable them to get around Sacramento to and from their jobs, and that having groceries, schools, restaurants, and shopping within walking distance would also reduce the need for a car. And as a result, Sacramento is now being looked to by much of the rest of the country, where suburban sprawl still dominates, as a possible template for a new American culture, without the singular focus on the automobile.

The popping of the housing bubble combined with high oil prices may well be the Armageddon bell for the suburb, and if that’s the case, the U.S. probably has a great deal more economic pain to go through before we’ve transitioned our culture sufficiently away from a car culture. But as Sacramento-based architect David Mogavero said in the Journal article, “Expensive oil is going to transform the American culture as radically as cheap oil did.”

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A couple of weeks ago, the Carboholic reported that the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had issued a 22-month moratorium on all new solar power generation permits on federal land in the desert southwest. As of July 3, the BLM has reversed that position and will continue to accept new solar permit requests while the 22-month environmental study is in process. According to the New York Times article, lobbying by the solar power industry, citizens groups, and interested members of Congress pressured the BLM to reverse course for the time being.

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Generally speaking, flat screen liquid crystal display (LCD) computer monitors consume less power and generate less heat than equivalently sized cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors. Not only does this mean that your monitor costs less to run, but because it’s operating cooler, LCD monitors require less energy than CRT monitors for climate control around the computer station, saving yet more money. Its for these excellent reasons that most energy conservation experts claim that switching over to an LCD monitor is better for energy conservation and thus also better for addressing global heating. Unfortunately, it may not be quite that simple. According to an article in the Telegraph last week, an industrial compound used in the manufacturing of LCD products known as “NF3” is a potent, and totally unregulated, greenhouse gas.

There are two problems with NF3. The first is that it’s 17,000 times more potent a greenhouse gas (GHG) than carbon dioxide (CO2), and according to the Telegraph article, Professor Michael Prather from the University of California at Irvine estimates that the 4000 tons of NF3 emitted yearly equates to roughly 67 million tons of CO2. The second problem is that NF3, along with many other synthetic industrial compounds, are totally unregulated. If they weren’t used or hadn’t been invented when the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, they weren’t regulated accordingly. Thankfully, however, the Telegraph article quoted a spokesman for the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as saying “This is an issue that affects every country, and we’re working with other members of EU to ensure that all new synthetic greenhouse gases, including NF3, are covered as part of any future UN climate change agreements.”

So if you’re inclined to estimate your computer monitor’s CO2 emissions, don’t forget to add the additional emissions of industrial GHGs too. Assuming you can figure out how much of which gas is emitted per monitor, that is.

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According to the Dayton Daily News, a new project undertaken by the Midwest Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership aims to demonstrate the commercial feasibility of CO2 sequestration in a huge underground saline aquifer, the Mount Simon Sandstone formation. The test will compress and inject 1 million tons of CO2 produced as a byproduct of the Andersons Marathon Ethanol LLC corn ethanol plant and inject them into the aquifer to gather data on both sequestration technologies and whether the Mount Simon Sandstone formation aquifer will safely store CO2 without causing small earthquakes. If the test, slated to be completed in 2014, is successful, then much of the rest of the aquifer may also be viable for carbon sequestration. And if that’s the case, the National Energy Technology Laboratory (part of the U.S. Department of Energy) estimates that the aquifers could hold up to 653 billion tons of CO2. For reference, if we use the U.S. Energy Information Agency’s CO2 emissions data from 2005 as the baseline, the aquifer could store as much as 108 years worth of emissions.

That assumes, however, that we can fill the aquifer (we can’t), that the geology of the aquifer is good everywhere for CO2 sequestration (it isn’t), and that the geologists who estimated the capacity of the aquifer in the regions of interest got their science and calculations right. We’ll find out in 2014.

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