GEORGE KENNEDY: Environmental disasters, decisions come closer to home

Friday, July 12, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:47 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 22, 2013

COLUMBIA — Anybody who wasn’t paying close attention is likely to have missed the most important news of the summer so far.

I’m referring, of course, to the report on May 10 that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached a level that bodes ill for the continuance of life as we know it.

The third paragraph of the New York Times account explained the significance of an instrument reading that showed an average daily level of 400 parts per million of the gas that contributes the most to trapping heat, and thus to global warming:

“The best available evidence suggests the amount of the gas in the air has not been this high for at least three million years, before humans evolved, and scientists believe the rise portends large changes in the climate and the level of the sea.”

The Times then quoted a couple of those scientists who devote their careers to monitoring the state of the atmosphere.

One, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, noted that the reading demonstrates the failure so far of efforts to reduce emissions.

Another, at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was even gloomier: “It means we are quickly losing the possibility of keeping the climate below what people thought were possibly tolerable thresholds.”

The unprecedented executive actions announced a month later by President Obama, if they actually make it through the bureaucratic maze, will help, but they won’t be sufficient to reverse the effects we’re already seeing.

The American West is on fire. The sea level is rising, and the oceans are becoming more acidic. The ice caps at both poles are melting. Extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts and floods are becoming more common and more damaging.

We’re in trouble and headed for more.

Which brings me to last week’s City Council meeting.

The city staff proposes to replace several diesel-fueled trucks and buses with equipment that burns compressed natural gas instead. Natural gas burns cleaner and produces less heat-trapping emissions than either gasoline or diesel. It’s also cheaper and in good supply from American sources. Looks like a step in the right direction, doesn’t it?

Not to the dozen or so protesters who argued, both inside and outside the council chamber, that natural gas isn’t really a renewable resource, and its production by the latest technology – hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking – does great environmental damage itself. Those damages include groundwater pollution and the emission of methane, a gas that traps even more heat than carbon dioxide.

Several of the protesters advocated electric-powered vehicles instead. Even better, you’d think. No carbon dioxide or methane comes from those tailpipes. Just plug it in and charge it up.

But where do we get our electricity? Mainly from burning coal, which is even dirtier than diesel and much worse than natural gas. The most important item on President Obama’s list of actions is figuring out how to cut emissions from power plants.

There are cleaner sources of power, such as solar or wind, but good luck finding a solar-powered dump truck or a wind-driven bus.

So if we want to do our bit down here at the local level to slow, at least, the onset of global warming, what should we want our city government to do?

Given the current state of technology, it seems to me that vehicles powered by natural gas make sense as a kind of transitional step toward something cleaner that we have to hope isn’t too far over the horizon. Take the good until the perfect comes along.

Turns out that Kermit the Frog had it right. It’s not that easy being green.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Mark Foecking July 12, 2013 | 6:46 a.m.

The issue I have with using natural gas as a transportation fuel is there's some good evidence that the shale gas supply has been significantly overestimated as far as economically recoverable gas. Fracked wells deplete much faster than conventional ones, so to get the same volume of gas you have to drill two or three wells, and go to the expense of fracking them and cleaning up the water used. Drilling comapnies tend to concentrate on the "sweet spots" first, so it is likely even more effort and expense will have to be expended for the same amount of fuel.

There's also the issue of building fueling infrastructure that might only be used for a few years. I'd rather we continue to rely on liquid fuels and work on efficiency, since the days of electric trucks and buses (which could get electricity from any electric source including wind and solar) are far in the future, if ever.


(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 12, 2013 | 7:24 a.m.

Yet not one mention of nuclear power or water-powered turbines (from dams). No acknowledgement that solar and wind power require large amounts of MINED rare earth metals.

Personally, I remain convinced that our ultimate goal has to be energy from hydrogen/oxygen-from-seawater using an efficient catalyst we do not currently have. Oh, and we still don't have the technology to use these gases safely, and we aren't doing much about that, either.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 12, 2013 | 8:17 a.m.

If a carbonaceous fuel (and that definitely describes natural gas) is mixed with oxygen (present at <21% in air) and the mixture is ignited, one of the products of combustion will be carbon dioxide.

The inference is obvious (to a thinking person): to reduce carbon dioxide emissions we must increase use of energy substitutes for combustion. (See Williams' post, above.) Time is NOT on the side of this getting done to avoid both further global warming AND catastrophic energy shortages.

[I continue to be amazed that MU and MS&T are forced (since 1870) to share the same university. What could these two campuses possibly have in common? Only in Missouri!]

(Report Comment)
Skip Yates July 13, 2013 | 10:12 a.m.

@Ellis: By bringing MU and MS&T together, the stature of MU in enhanced.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 13, 2013 | 1:47 p.m.

@ Skip Yates:

You are indeed a very humorous fellow!

I would prefer to see the state of Georgia's solution: University of Georgia and Georgia Institute of Technology, as entirely separate institutions. Unlike Virginia Tech, Clemson, Purdue, Auburn, etc., which are first and foremost ag schools (but do have substantial engineering schools), Georgia Tech is not an "A&M" institution.

Cows aren't us! Please, no unkind remarks regarding coeds. At MS&T we have a ton of women, just not many individual ones.

"I'm a ramblin' wreck from Georgia Tech, and a hell of an engineer-

A helluva, helluva, helluva, hell of an engineer.

I like my women randy, I drink my whiskey clear.

I'm a ramblin' wreck from Georgia Tech and a hell of an engineer."

"If I had a daughter, sir, I'd dress her in White and Gold*,

And put her on our campus, to cheer for the brave and bold.

But if I had son, sir, I'll tell you what HE'D do -

He'd yell 'TO HELL WITH GEORGIA**!' like his daddy used to do."

[I wouldn't trade campus locations with Georgia Tech. I really like Atlanta, but the Tech campus isn't in one of the better parts of the city. Similar situation to University of Chicago or University of Southern California: just step off campus and you're in a combat zone.

*- MS&T school colors are silver and gold. Team colors are now Kelly green and gold.
**- University of Georgia (Athens, GA).

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