President Obama knocked it out of the closed park—closed in that the audience was not open to the public with even the environmental representative attendees hand-picked; there were no hecklers such as Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin in that crowd. The President batted 900 hitting many of the right notes: that 2012 was the hottest year on record; that we’re experiencing super storms, drought, and wild fires, all causing loss of life and property; drought and heat is devastating agriculture causing rising costs of food; and all due to climate change. Central to his plan is converting the nation’s power plants to clean energy—more on that to come. There was some really good language about the dire need for the U.S. to lead the world in combating climate change for his and our children’s future—even some complimentary language about how the U.S. was doing compared to other countries:
The President stated, “No country has reduced its carbon footprint as much as the United States.” Sound good? Well, yes and no. While it’s true that the US has had declining CO2 for a few years running, declining CO2 is only one way to look at the data—it doesn’t take account of how many people live in each country. If you look at per capita emissions, a different picture emerges where:
• The US is still number one in terms of per capita emissions among the big economies – with 18 tonnes emitted per person
• China, by contrast, emits under six tonnes per person, India only 1.38
• For comparison, the whole world emits 4.49 tonnes per person
“We’ve doubled our output of wind and solar energy,” he said. A quick statistic check shows that in 2007 and 2008, more wind power was installed in the United States than in the previous 20 years combined — a $27 billion investment. However, the net result of that for today, or by end of 2012, is that wind energy accounted for just 1.4 percent of U.S. electricity generation. Whereas, in other parts of the world, particularly in European countries, they are meeting more of their electricity demands through wind power with much less land area and resource potential compared with the United States. Denmark, for example, already meets about 20 percent of its electricity demand from wind power. Wind generation also accounts for about 13 percent of the national power needs in Spain, and 8 percent in Germany.iii
And Solar? Just .4 (4/10) percent of electrical power in the U.S. in 2012 was generated by solar, compared to over 3 percent of Germany’s energy being derived from solar. Solar power in Germany has been growing considerably due to the country’s feed-in tariffs for renewable energy which were introduced by the German Renewable Energy Act. Prices of PV systems have decreased more than 50% since 2006. The truth: The world’s largest economy, the United States is not leading the world in combating climate change and in converting to renewable energy. Rather it is falling further behind many other countries, with Germany taking the lead with 25 percent of all energy derived from renewable sources; their goal to be at 80 percent by 2050, with many experts predicting they will reach that goal by 2035.
And what country leads in investing in renewable energy development? A U.N. study shows that China now leads the world in investment in renewable energy. China’s $52 billion was almost one-fifth of total global investment of $257 billion on renewable energy last year.
Now back to converting our dirty power plants: the President gave us the same depressing language about clean energy—clean being natural gas. His vision is the same as the natural gas industry: we will replace dirty coal with ‘clean natural gas’ to fuel those electricity generating plants. He also heralded the completion of a new nuclear power plant (as clean)!
While natural gas does burn cleaner, emitting less carbon into the environment, the process of extracting it from shale rock is anything but clean. The camps are divided about methane emissions from hydraulic fractured wells versus traditional natural gas wells, with the natural gas industry-paid studies showing ‘very little’ increase (in methane leaks) from fracked wells. Even a new EPA study released in April 2013 has shifted its position and is now saying they think the methane leaks can be managed with better technology. However, the EPA said it made the changes based on expert reviews and new data from several sources, including a report funded by the oil and gas industry. The estimates aren’t based on independent field tests of actual emissions, and some scientists said that’s a problem.
Robert Howarth, a Cornell University professor of ecology who led a 2011 methane leak study that is widely cited by critics of fracking, wrote in an email that “time will tell where the truth lies in all this, but I think EPA is wrong.” (Of course, the EPA is also heavily beseiged by corporate lobbyists and defunded by a right-wing corporate controlled Congress.) Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea, a civil and environmental engineer, reported that fracked wells leak 40 to 60 percent more methane than conventional natural gas wells. When water with its chemical load is forced down a well to break the shale, it flows back up and is stored in large ponds or tanks. But volumes of methane also flow back up the well at the same time and are released into the atmosphere before they can be captured for use. This giant belch of “fugitive methane” can be seen in infrared videos taken at well sites. And how does methane impact global warming? Molecule for molecule, methane traps 20 to 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than does carbon dioxide.
In addition to the methane emissions, the non-disclosed chemicals used to fracture the shale have demonstrated that they leak into ground water, underground aquifers, and into the soil, causing human and animal health issues—even evidenced deformities and death of animals exposed to the contaminated water and vegetation. Humans have also gotten sick and died. But since we don’t know what the chemicals are (they’re industrial secrets) the natural gas industry simply denies that the illness or death was caused by their chemical’s poisoning of the water and soil. And there is no way to conduct controlled tests to determine long-term effects on the environment. At least that was the case in the past. Some communities are now setting up controlled water, air, and soil testing standards to have on record before the fracking giants come in and contaminate, so they will be able to prove their case in court.
It also takes vast amounts of water and sand to frack, thus increasing water shortage when we’re already experiencing major droughts that are anticipated to increase due to climate change. The sand is being obtained by scraping off entire swaths of land, making it an unsightful, unusable blight unable to support any form of animal life or vegetation, and ruining adjoining property values. And did I mention earthquakes? Oh well… what’s a five point Richter-scale earthquake compared to natural gas profits?
Bottom line: natural gas is not clean, and it is a huge environmental threat to life, health, and a future planet able to sustain life.
While Obama did mention the Clean Air Act passed in 1970, there was no mention of the Clean Water Act from which the ‘fracking’ natural gas industry was exempted (in 2005).
The President also did a shout-out to WalMart as an exemplary global company committed to lowering its carbon footprint. WalMart has adopted a policy to reduce their carbon footprint by 20%, first by 2015, now they’re saying by 2020. They’ve passed this directive onto their suppliers. However, at the same time, they’ve requested their suppliers to cut costs by 3 to 5 percent. Most of their suppliers are in China, Bangladesh, Indonesia and other global south countries that provide slave-wage labor. The other inconvenient truth reported about WalMart’s supposed progress reports, is that 70 percent of their products are produced by ‘shadow factories.’ In other words a contract supplier with WalMart gets a large order they cannot fill in the time frame, and they, in turn, sub it out to a shadow supplier, who is not audited by WalMart. WalMart’s devastating economic impact on American communities aside, their progress toward their stated goal of reducing their carbon footprint is not real and it is deeply flawed.
Finally, and perhaps most important, while the President made a dramatic speech on climate change – and I herald this badly needed discourse—this is the same President who is secretly trying to pass the TPP trade agreement. This agreement, along with the EU trade agreement will lock polluting corporate global colonialism into place for the entire 21st century. Nothing will raise the carbon footprint more than those trade agreements where corporations are free to rape and pillage a country’s resouces, and pollute, and where any local legal oversight (including in the U.S.) is trumped by the trade agreement designed in corporations’ favor to reap their profit without accountability.
Enforcing the law (which the EPA already passed and which has been upheld up in the courts) to convert the nation’s power plants to clean energy is badly needed. But let’s not pretend natural gas is the solution – not even an interim solution. If the President is serious, he needs to be talking about converting those plants to solar and wind. And he needs to stop talking in secret about locking us into the TPP and EU trade agreements.
And the Keystone XL Pipeline–we’ll wait and see if the evidence shows it will have a negative impact on the environment? Come on!