4 Responses to Catholic Social Thought, Economics, Energy, And Environmental Stewardship

  • Eric Brown says:

    I glossed over global warming here because that is an issue in and of itself. For clarification, there is widespread scientific agreement that global warming is occuring. The general consensus is that climate change is a naturally occuring process. The debate lies in disagreement over whether humans contribute to this naturally occuring process and if they do, how significantly does human activity impact climate change compared to the natural causes.

    I presupposed that policies would follow the precautionary principle. Just to clarify.

  • blackadderiv says:

    Energy independence is one of those things that everybody seems to be for, and perhaps for that reason people rarely bother to explain why it would be a good thing. If the aim is to conserve resources, then using the cheapest sources of energy (which is another way of saying using the energy sources that require the least expenditure of resources) would seem to be called for.

    As for wind versus biofuels and the rest, I confess that I have no idea which if any alternative sources of energy are really viable options. I’m pretty positive, however, that the members of the House and Senate don’t have a clue, and I think the history of ethanol is a good case study of why having the government pick which energy sources are going to be the next big thing is a really really bad idea.

  • Ryan Harkins says:

    I have to qualify my comments with two statements. I’m a Wyomingite, and Wyoming has huge reserves of coal, as well as decent reserves of uranium. And I’m also married to a Chemical Engineer whose research deals specifically with coal and oil. But here we go.

    The biggest problem to clarify in the energy issue is in triplicate: what we have, how we can use it, and how efficient that usage is. For example, we hear a lot of things that blur the issue of how we can use what we have. Politicians especially seem to enjoy blurring the distinction between transportation fuels and electricity fuels.

    Currently, the division is about as distinct as it can be (with only natural gas, on a large scale, playing switch-hitter). We use oil for transportation fuels, and we use coal, nuclear, solar, wind, tide, and so on to produce electricity. Yet we have the tendency to, in one breath, speak of electricity-producing fuels as a solution to a problem involving transportation fuels. Price at the pump is $4.00/gallon? We need to increase wind farms and solar panels and so on! Most people nod their heads in exuberance, seeing salvation, while the rest of us think, “Huh?”

    Okay, this does ignore the attempts to produce biofuels, and electric cars, and a few other solutions, but we really need to be clear on the problem. Mainly, our biggest difficulty is ensuring transportation fuel. We have at our disposal more coal than we know what to do with, so providing fuels for electricity is not really an issue. (I’ll get to the cleanliness of coal in a bit.) Oil, on the other hand, is indeed running out, failing any discoveries of new, massive fields. And while we could indeed buy ourselves another few decades by drilling offshore, drilling in ANWR, drilling in other natural reserves and so forth, that is indeed a temporary solution.

    Moreover, our current technology level makes it impractical to speak of using electricity to meet our transportation needs. Ignoring conspiracy theories of companies that have bought up the rights to “efficient electric vehicles”, our best electric motors last a few hours, or 40 miles, whichever comes first, and then need 8 hours or more of recharging. These motors, in order to even reach this optimal functioning, have to be placed in very lightweight (think 2 passenger, at best) vehicles that are impractical for much more than grocery shopping. That means they are impractical for replacing the hinges of our economy, namely our trucks and planes.

    (Granted, doing a little research, I found to my surprise that passenger vehicles do, indeed, consume by far the greatest portion of oil fuels.)

    The point, though, remains the same. Electric motors, currently, will not suffice to replace the standard combustion motors. So, barring some other astounding form of transportation energy (like the cold fusion dream), we’re stuck with fossil fuel-powered engines.

    So here’s my solution. Using the Fischer-Tropes process, we turn coal in gasoline, diesel, and kerosene. Wyoming alone has enough coal to keep us in these fuels for the next 200 years, assuming a mere geometric increase in fuel usage. Next, we turn to nuclear power for our primary source of electricity, since it is cheap and provides amazing amounts of energy.

    Now, some will argue against the Fischer-Tropes process, since it still uses coal and does not change the emissions problem, but then we need to really look at whether or not emissions are a problem. The dirtiness of coal has become less of a factor as time has worn on, especially in Wyoming, where as far as the local ecological factors are concerned, the coal mining actually cleans things up in the long run. (Long story, ask me about it some other time.) But as far as burning coal goes, we’ve made vast improvements. Our scrubbing technologies have allowed us to reduce SOx and NOx emissions to levels lower than what is found naturally in the environment (and SOx and NOx are found naturally, due to such factors as volcanic eruptions), so that isn’t a problem. And for those who are worried about CO2, all I can say is that there’s a lot of hype about CO2, and the hype is not justified.

    For some numbers, consider this. The atmosphere is about 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen. That’s 99% right there. Of our total atmosphere, about 1% is water vapor (which overlaps with the oxygen). This fact is not commonly stated, so I’ll throw out here. Water vapor is the most prevalent greenhouse gas at 95%, though its effectiveness as a greenhouse gas varies and studies put it at no more than 70%. Moreover, there are no real anthropogenic sources of water vapor. I’d recommend checking out the wikipedia article on greenhouse gases to get a notion of how effective CO2 really is as a greenhouse gas. Note that the global warming potential of CO2 is rated at 1, while methane gets a 12, and some CFCs get 1000+. Note that water vapor is never given a GWP, which seems odd to me.

    Now, one can probably draw alarmist conclusions from the link I cited, but to me it rather reinforces the idea that we’ve really done very little to add to global warming, and what we have done has been in the methane, CFC area.

  • Eric Brown says:

    Ryan,

    I just took a course on environmental science, which peaked my interest in energy and environmental politics. My professor was a Franciscan sister and no “out there” liberal environmentalist, so I do have a feeling she is not terribly bias. In her presentation of global warming, which she packed with much empirical data, there is some suggestion that the amount of carbon dioxide released on the part of humans since industrialization virtually is a barely slanted line upward and this is done in combination with the same industrial scale of deforestation — these two activities and more — are doubly lethal than if we had one and not the other. Even from what I’ve seen, the reduction in carbon gas emissions from burning coal does not mean: a) we don’t need to move away from fossil fuels for a host of other reasons and b) even with the reduction, it still, in some sense, presents a problem. In the short-term, we’re stuck with it, but I think we’d be better off moving away from it if possible. Or at least with a plethora of other sources, it will not be done on the same scale as it is now.

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