Natural Gas Will Not Save the U.S. Economy

We're racking up environmental debt, and still borrowing more

by Lew Daly, Sean McElwee | March 6, 2014

photo credit: VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images

Economist Kenneth Boulding famously said, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” But it's not just economists who believe that anymore. Such ideas are still widely accepted by thought leaders, journalists, and politicians who, together, form a strong consensus that the U.S. recovery should be bolstered by natural gas exploration and production. The McKinsey Global Institute claims in a recent report that a natural gas boom is one of the most important “game changer” ideas for U.S. economic growth, while The Economist writes, “Become a champion of a global fracking revolution, Mr. Obama, and the world could look on America very differently.” And in his recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said "I'll cut red tape" for factories that use natural gas, and that "Congress can help by putting people to work building fueling stations that shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas."

But the belief that natural gas can be a “bridge fuel,” allowing us to grow rapidly in the age of global warming, is fit for a madman.

The current consensus is that if global temperatures rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the consequences would be catastrophic (the Arctic melt would raise sea levels by tens of meters). So scientists have proposed a “carbon budget”: the total amount of carbon dioxide that can be released into the atmosphere without raising temperatures by 2 degrees. Using a conservative carbon budget of 450 parts per million—which has been endorsed by the International Energy Agency and Britain's Stern Review—economists Humberto Llavador, John Roemer, and Joaquim Silvestre have thrown cold water on the idea that natural gas is our nation's economic savior. In a forthcoming paper, they argue that given that budget, the world's two largest CO2 emitters, the U.S. and China, must keep GDP growth within the threshold of 1 percent and 2.8 percent of GDP per year, respectively, for the next 75 years.

These results may sound surprising, but they are in line with a growing body of research on stranded carbon assets, which are assets such as fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) that will lose their value well before they're expected to. This can happen as a result of, say, market disruption (rapid advances in green technology like wind and solar polar or divestment) or government regulation (a carbon tax or stricter fuel economy standards). That latter is more likely because, even now, we have found way more fossil fuels than we could possibly burn without inviting long-term environmental disaster.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's carbon-budget model, widely considered the most reliable, puts the budget for 2012-2100 at between 886 and 1119 gigatons of CO2. Total known fossil fuel reserves in the world, if burned, would add 2860 gigatons of CO2 to the atmosphere. Thus, simple math indicates that almost two-thirds of all known fossil fuel reserves must remain unburned if global temperatures are to remain habitable. And these are optimistic estimates. James Hansen of the Columbia Earth Institute and other leading scientists and economists argue that all extraction of coal and other unconventional fossil fuels, like the Canadian Tar Sands, must cease immediately and the extraction of conventional fossil fuels, like oil and natural gas, must be significantly pared down.

Projects like the Keystone XL pipeline and other attempts to revive the U.S. economy based on fossil-fuel extraction are the equivalent of running up billions in debt and then running off to borrow more. The international community is already blowing through its carbon budget; the IPCC predicts that given “business as usual,” we’ll burn 1,000 gigatons of CO2 between 2012 and 2033, depleting the more conservative budget entirely and nearing the upper bound. We’ve already seen the consequences of temperatures growing by less than one degree Celsius, yet we’re on track to see them rise by more than six degrees by 2100. Our current trajectory tempts ecological and economic collapse, and yet, many are arguing that we accelerate the process.

Part of the problem is that our measure of growth, GDP, does not take into account the costs or sustainability of growth. One billion dollars of growth in the production of solar energy is not the same as $1 billion produced by coal in terms of ecological harm and sustainability, but GDP counts them equally. Instead we should measure progress using more extensive metrics like the Genuine Progress Indicator, which factors the impact of greenhouse gas emissions into its calculations. Further, we should institute a carbon tax, preferably an international one. Some companies currently price carbon internally—meaning that they put a price on the carbon produced by their projects, and subtract that from any expected returns—but do so at widely varying rates. A Carbon Disclosure Project study finds that nine of the largest energy companies in the United States internally price carbon dioxide emissions, at a cost ranging from $15 per ton (Devon) to $60 per ton (ExxonMobil). Governments should consider the social and environmental cost of carbon dioxide when they are making infrastructure and research investments, regulating extractive industries like fracking and offering tax incentives. Against the EPA's recommendation, the State Department decided not to consider the social cost of carbon in its analysis of the Keystone pipeline.

The State Department also didn't consider the very likely possibility that the pipeline will become a stranded asset. We can only hope it will—because that would mean we've finally learned that if we don't live within our carbon budget, the long-term ecological and economic harm caused by our relentless extraction and burning of fossil fuels will obviate any short-term benefits to the economy. If we build our recovery on natural resources that need to remain underground to keep global temperatures stable, then we'll be like the foolish builder in the Gospel of Matthew "who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

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