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Ferguson: Fossil fuel Whack-A-Mole

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a plan

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a plan to cut power-plant carbon pollution by 30 percent nationwide by 2030. Photo Credit: iStock

The proposed rule by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants has been hailed by many leading environmental organizations as a breakthrough.

The Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beineke calls the EPA rule "the single most important thing our nation can do right now to fight climate change." Like the NRDC, the Sierra Club also supports the new rule and is urging members to tell the EPA they approve of the agency's proposal.

So if the "big greens" are lining up in support of the EPA, why are some leading scientists and many environmentalists convinced that the rule will do little or nothing to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions, and may even exacerbate climate change?

The rule's opponents are no fans of fossil fuels, but they'd probably agree with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that the proposed rule unfairly targets coal. That's because the regulation calls for replacing coal-fired plants with ones powered by clean burning natural gas, which emits much less carbon dioxide.

By the narrow standards of the proposed rule, coal looks very bad, indeed, because most of the greenhouse gas it produces is carbon dioxide, released into the atmosphere when it's burned. The problem with the new rule is that it applies only to carbon dioxide emissions from smokestacks. It ignores greenhouse gases that are emitted during the extraction, processing and transportation of fossil fuels -- and it disregards greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide.

But there's a dirty little secret about natural gas: It also emits significant quantities of greenhouse gases not when it's burned, but during the extraction and transmission. Natural gas and its "fugitive emissions" are both primarily methane, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Pound for pound, methane can trap up to 86 times more heat than carbon dioxide, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which reports that methane is responsible for 60 percent as much atmospheric warming as carbon dioxide. We cannot afford to ignore methane's destructive potential, yet the new EPA rule does exactly that.

This troubles Robert Howarth, professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology at Cornell University. He is the principal author of a 2011 study that found natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing -- the kind we rely on today -- has a carbon footprint "at least 20 percent greater, and perhaps twice as great" as coal for the first 20 years after it enters the atmosphere. If Howarth is right, and the preponderance of evidence indicates he is, then it makes no sense to replace coal-burning power plants with ones burning fracked gas. This isn't progress; it's fossil fuel Whack-A-Mole on a grand scale.

The EPA says power plant emissions account for almost a third of greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States, and they must be reined in if we are to avoid the climate chaos that will accompany global warming. But meaningful rules must account for the total life cycle emissions associated with each fossil fuel. When that's done, fracked gas is no better than coal. At that point, it should become apparent to everyone that we cannot afford to swap out one fossil fuel and replace it with another. The only way to extricate ourselves from a carbon trap of our own devising is to swiftly and resolutely set about developing sustainable energy systems.

Bruce Ferguson is a member of the Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, an all-volunteer, grassroots organization.


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