Joe Nocera is at it again…

Well, okay.

On May 17th, the New York Times published “Energy Exports are Good!” by Joe Nocera.  It is a sufficiently confused bundle of thinking that it really merits reading:

Nocera begins by approvingly citing an editorial that had been written by Andrew Liveris, the Chairman and CEO of Dow Chemical.  Liveris (and Nocera) point to fracking for natural gas as

  1. Strengthening our economy
  2. Increasing our national competitiveness
  3. Creating jobs.

Nocera then rather obtusely argues that Dow Chemical is hypocritical because they want natural gas prices to remain low (to boost their profits) by limiting gas exports (oh my god, a regulated market!), yet they [Dow] own a stake in a natural gas exporting venture.

Which, when you think about it, is actually a kind of interesting situation for Dow, though not necessarily hypocritical.

Nonetheless, Nocera’s position is clearly that the unfettered marketplace should determine where natural gas extracted from America should go, and that unholy regulation of the market MUST NOT BE ALLOWED.  Oh, and that sure, yeah, gas in the good old U.S.A will stay cheap under this scenario.

Now, Nocera is confused on several fronts here, so let’s just take a stroll through some of his assertions.

Given his endorsement of the three items above, it is clear that Nocera views the combustion of fossil fuel (e.g. natural gas) as not a behavior that America must address.  As I have written (tiresomely, I’m sure) elsewhere, natural gas combustion results in the generation of carbon dioxide, and carbon dioxide causes ocean acidification.  But apparently that concerns us naught.

I suppose we can say that fracking strengthens our economy (point number 1), to the extent that all that drilling puts some people to work, and cheap natural gas makes our manufactured goods more competitive globally.  Of course, there are externalities that may not yet have been priced out.  For instance, if fracking ruins or uses up aquifers, how do we estimate that effect on our economy?  If people have water faucets that can be lit with a match because of gas entrainment in the aquifer, how do we price that?

Somewhat hysterically (as in funny), Joe takes care of the externalities question with a simple stroke of the pen:

“But the answer is to ensure that wells are drilled in an environmentally safe manner. That is true whether we export gas or not.”

Of course!  Why didn’t I think of that?  Maybe Joe can write a sentence saying that we’ll “ensure” cars won’t have accidents anymore, or that planes will never crash.  That’d be great, too!

Point 2 is really a subset of point 1.  Point 1, when you think about it, is a pretty vacuous slogan that kind of subsumes points 2 and 3, but no matter.

The question here is, how does fostering increased dependence on fossil fuels increase our national competitiveness?  Might a country that learns to innovate, to make things more energy efficiently, that begins to learn to cost effectively harness the sun, the winds and the tide for power be even more competitive?  Nah…

Point 3 is probably true, actually.  You’ve got guys looking for gas, guys drilling for gas, guys selling gas, and guys cleaning up the inevitable mess that all the fracking is causing – it’s jobs heaven.  Unless we find out the externalities and our renewed love affair with fossil fuel turns out to be a major strategic error.  In which case we’ve screwed the pooch.

Anyway, Nocera also makes an interesting claim about the wonders of unfettered exportation of natural gas – which mean old (and hypocritical) Dow chemical does not want, viz.:

‘Most studies suggest that the main impact of exports will be to increase U.S. production rather than take away other uses,’ [Michael] Levi says. Thus, it will not likely have a major effect on the price of gas.

So lemme get this straight.   Natural gas costs about $15 a decatherm in Japan, and about $4.00 in the good old U.S.A.  And Nocera finds a source who claims that for-profit energy companies are not going try to globalize natural gas as a commodity?  Hmm.  And I always thought increasing shareholder value was the ambition of publicly traded companies.

LNG Prices

On the other hand, we get a huge discount on the oil we drill here in the United States compared with foreign oil and…Oh, wait a minute.  No we don’t.  Oil is a fungible global commodity and oil from Texas sells for essentially the same price as oil from Saudi Arabia.  Bad example.

Joe ends his column by claiming that Dow was “having [its] cake and eating it, too”, but it’s really Joe who is doing this.  He sees no worrisome environmental issues with fracking or fossil fuel use, and he sees no adverse pricing effects resulting from the exportation of liquid natural gas – gas companies will willingly sell us cheap gas when they could substantially increase their profits by exporting.  The punchline, of course, is that Nocera calls Dow “hypocritical” because Dow knows that unfettered gas exportation will increase their cost of doing business in America.  But that isn’t hypocrisy.  It’s a logical business decision that happens to run counter to Nocera’s received wisdom about unfettered markets.

In point of fact, we are encouraging and increasing our national reliance on fossil fuels, we are ignoring (or treating dismissively) the environmental effect of fracking, and we are moving towards the globalization of the LNG marketplace, with the concomitant price leveling that we see with other global commodities.

Dow Chemical knows better, and so do we.

So when all is said in done, it’s almost admirable how Nocera stitched this narrative together.  Not convincing or logically consistent, but it was a good old college try.

What is Joe Nocera Talking About?

On Saturday, the New York Times published an impressive hand waving exercise by Joe Nocera touting the benefits of gasified coal and carbon sequestration.  The article itself is here:

As is usual when it comes to energy discussions in the United States, there was negligible technical information in Mr. Nocera’s column.  Rather, he asserts that “… because the gasification process doesn’t burn the coal, it makes for far cleaner energy than a traditional coal-fired plant.”  He goes on to quote a representative of the Center for Climate Change and Energy Solutions who states that coal gasification plus carbon capture “is the only technology that can reduce CO2 emissions from existing, stationary sources by 90%.”

Well, that sounds pretty great, don’t you think?

Now, we can take issue with this in a number of ways, but let’s start with some plain horse sense.  As we know from our  posts on combustion, heat is liberated from fossil fuels when carbon and/or hydrogen combines with oxygen.  While it is true that coal may contain a small amount of hydrogen, the vast, vast majority of the energy contained in coal is contained in carbon.  The only way that coal gas makes sense is if there is plenty of carbon in it to burn.  And burning carbon results in carbon dioxide as the predominant byproduct.

Mr. Nocera perhaps thinks that because the coal is “gasified” that it is turned into real natural gas (CH4)  by this process.  He is wrong.  Coal gasification results in a carbon rich stew of chemicals (admittedly without many of the heavy elements contained in solid coal) that still must combine with oxygen to liberate heat.  And create carbon dioxide as a combustion by product.

Secondly, while he attempts to conflate coal gasification and carbon-capture as reducing emissions and being a game-changing clean energy solution, he seems (at least to me) to skirt by the issue of “carbon capture” which I take it to be the end game after the carbon dioxide emissions are utilized for “enhanced oil recovery”.  Basically, use the pressurized carbon dioxide gas to drive oil out of the ground, and then leave it underground where it will presumably stay forever.

Here too a little common sense is in order.  First, if we are trying to reduce carbon emissions, in what way does facilitating “enhanced oil recovery” help the cause?

Beyond this, Mr. Nocera may not realize that septic systems do not last forever, and the plan to dump our power generation waste underground and to assume it will remain sequestered for all time is simply childishly naive.  And to not openly admit that the carbon dioxide will physically be generated and stored in the earth seems an extreme oversight at best.

Then too there is the question of carbonic acid formation over time in moist areas where some of this gas might settle.  Recall that carbonic acid is already damaging ocean corals.  How might acidified soils affect the bacterial and animal life currently housed there?  The question goes unasked.  And the answer is probably not known.

But enough common sense, what about the numbers?  Let’s go the Texas Clean Energy Project site located here:

You will note that this is a 400 MW plant.  Let’s assume it’s going to run 97% of the time.  Then each year it will generate:

400 MW x 8,500 hours = 3,400,000 MWh

Now they say, right there on the page, that 3 million tons of carbon dioxide will be used for “enhanced oil recovery”.  They also say that this is roughly 90% of the plants carbon emissions, meaning the total emissions are about 3,300,000 tons.

Well look at that. 

This plant emits about 1 ton of CO2 per megawatt-hour.  Or about 2 pounds of CO2 per kWh.

This is higher, by the way, than the current average emissions in Boston, which has a supply mix that includes hydro, nuclear and solar.  So this “Clean Energy” project is actually a step backwards from the status quo in Boston.

Thus, the Texas Clean Energy Project may be better than a conventional coal fired plant, but to call it a game changer is magical thinking.

Pretty magical that this got published in the New York Times, now that I think about it.

I think there are a few useful ideas we can take away from this column.

  1. Hiding waste products underground does not mean that they do not exist.  Let’s stop the mendacious practice of calling carbon capture “clean”.   If carbon dioxide is generated as a byproduct, it exists and should be counted.  Where it is located is irrelevant.
  2. Ignoring the qualitative difference between natural gas and coal gas obscures the fact that the products of combustion are not the same, and that natural gas is a more energy-dense, clean burning fuel.  To not state this up front is misleading.  In discussing energy, words need to be specific and defined.
  3. Let us not conflate technologies in a confusing “bundle” (gasification, enhanced oil recovery and carbon capture) and then claim a result that is tenuously linked to the overall package of solutions.  It is not necessary, and engineering doesn’t work that way.  We deserve the details.

I think that Mr. Nocera sincerely believes that the Texas Clean Energy Project is a good thing that will deliver tangible results.  But he owes it to his readers to explore the technical issues, including the chemistry of the combustion reactions, before promoting a “solution” that could be an environmental disaster.