Just for the fun of it, in the run-up to the next Earth Day, let's do a thought experiment.
Let's say that Rush Limbaugh is right about climate change ... as he claims to be, all the time, about that and every other topic imaginable.
Let's stipulate that the bloviator-in-chief accomplishes the feat that climate skeptics have repeatedly failed at - he develops and publishes an elegant, credible alternative theory that both explains why greenhouse gas emissions will not change the climate and that stands up to withering scrutiny.
Would we still need to worry about excessive dependence on fossil fuels?
Here are a few things to think about in this Rush fantasy world.
First, there is the evil twin of climate change - ocean acidification. Burning fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide. That's high school chemistry that not even Rush's most fervent acolytes could deny. About half the CO2 that humanity has emitted since the onset of the Industrial Revolution has been absorbed by the seven seas.
The oceans' acidity has measurably increased. Continuing acidification risks grave damage to coral reefs that are the foundation of fisheries that supply healthy seafood and support the economies of coastal communities worldwide.
If ocean acidification is not a convincing reason to diversify our energy menu, there is the tangle of energy security questions to consider. Sweeping aside worries about climate change might ease the path for drill, baby, drill perpetuation of oil dependence, but how wise a course would that be? There is scant prospect that the U.S. could drill its way to freedom from the global oil market, which exposes us to price risks and serves as an endowment to nasty oil-exporting regimes, creating an unending strategic liability for the U.S.
Today, the U.S. imports about two-thirds of all the petroleum products consumed domestically. Last year, the Energy Information Administration estimated that wide-open access to the Outer Continental Shelf would boost total domestic production a mere 3 percent by 2030. Impact on wellhead prices "is expected to be insignificant," EIA concluded.
OK, if oil is not the path to energy security, what about coal? If climate change is not a worry, why not turn to coal as the escape hatch from the cartel craziness of the world oil market?
For all the talk about America as the Saudi Arabia of coal, using black diamonds to put a significant dent in oil dependence would not be a casual undertaking.
Coal can be turned into liquid fuel through the well-understood Fischer-Tropsch process, which involves converting coal into a gas, and then into diesel fuel and naphtha, the second of which can be further processed into gasoline. The technology is very complex, creating production and financial risks.
Coal-to-liquids plants have a large appetite for black diamonds. Producing one barrel of fuel consumes half a ton of coal. To produce 2 million barrels of fuel per day, a bit over 10 percent of current domestic oil consumption, national coal production would have to increase around 40 percent, a 2008 RAND report estimated. Imagine the potential impacts on water, wildlife, and landscapes.
Domestic reserves of shale oil and shale gas beckon with promises of energy riches and security, but water might be a serious bone of contention that obviates the panacea appeal of both. In the arid West, producing shale oil could stir up age-old tensions over water availability. In the populous East, producing shale gas already has stirred fears that the "fracking" production process could contaminate streams and aquifers that supply drinking water.
Then, there are economic drivers for energy diversification. For reasons of their own, other countries are gearing up investments in non-fossil energy technologies. China's leaders, for example, know that poisoning their country's air and water through no-holds-barred expansion of coal-fired energy is not a sustainable development strategy. As China gears up investments in non-fossil energy technologies, China is creating a demand that U.S. technologies could help supply if we decide to goose development of alternative energy industries.
So, if Rush were right about climate change, should we stop worrying and learn to love fossil fuels? Would there still be a strong case for energy diversification? What do you think?
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