Earlier this year, America surpassed Russia and China as producers of oil and natural gas and supplied more clean energy than coal. Here’s how.
We should take the win, realize that natural gas is a bridge fuel to what’s next, and bring unconventional energy generation to the marketplace.
- Cameron Smith is CEO of the Triptych Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that engages media, business and public policy to lay the foundation for a better cultural trajectory. He was recently executive director of the Republican Policy Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Climate change acolytes attribute every fire, flood, tornado, act of terror or political protest to global warming. On the other extreme, climate science skeptics love fossil fuels and brand the bulk of environmental policy as a liberal project. At some point, we should realize demanding political consensus on climate change isn’t worth our time.
Agreement about what’s going to happen over the next five, 500 or 5000 years isn’t required to pursue sound policies today.
Too many politicians present the connection between economic prosperity and environmental protection as a zero-sum game. If we move away from fossil fuels, then we damage our economy with higher energy prices. If corporations use more energy to produce the goods and services we demand, environmental harms abound.
Reality is more complicated. Take what’s happened with coal as a perfect example.
The 2019 U.S. energy flow chart from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory shows that coal accounts for just 11.4% of America’s energy consumption, a decline of about 50% from 2010 levels. Prior to COVID-19’s unpleasant arrival, the economy was also doing really well and poverty was down in America.
The role of natural gas
It wasn’t Al Gore and the Green New Deal that caused King Coal’s demise. Natural gas is the chief culprit. It has about half the carbon emissions as coal, it’s extremely cheap, and America has plenty of it.
(Photo: Getty Images)
That’s just one example of how our economy can grow while phasing out higher-polluting, less efficient sources of energy. The fate of coal upsets people across the political spectrum. Nobody in the coal industry likes it. Strident opponents of fossil fuels still hate natural gas. In the end, lasting environmental progress must work for consumers, not against them. We should take the win, realize that natural gas is a bridge fuel to what’s next, and bring unconventional energy generation to the marketplace.
Thankfully, we seem to be doing that.
In today’s chaotic news cycle, policy progress is easy to overlook. For example, the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee recently allowed distributed energy resource aggregators to compete in regional organized wholesale electricity markets. DERs are generally smaller power generation or storage units utilized as alternatives to or in support of traditional electric power networks.
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga installed solar panels on the church’s roof in 2014. It was one part of the congregation’s efforts to improve the church’s impact on the environment. (Photo: Photo submitted by Sandy Kurtz)
Smaller producers with fuels ranging from residential solar panels to electric vehicles can take advantage of modern technology to combine resources and respond to energy demands.
Global tree restoration
Another great environmental idea is decidedly dirty and low tech.
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A 2019 study published in the journal Science found “global tree restoration as one of the most effective carbon drawdown solutions to date.” To that end, U.S. Congressman Bruce Westerman, a licensed forester, introduced a plan to plant 1 trillion trees around the globe. Even with the support of both President Donald Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Democrats and some Republicans dismissed the plan as insignificant.
Planting trees isn’t the only environmental policy Americans should consider, but it’s a policy that’s hard to credibly oppose. We even have evidence that planting new trees has more of a carbon reduction effect than simply preserving old forests.
A recent study from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom found that younger forests “accounted for around 25 percent of the total carbon dioxide absorbed.” We can and should protect the rainforests, but replanting forests after timber harvests is definitely worth our focus as well.
Researchers work inside the reactor bay of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory High Flux Isotope Reactor complex in Ok Ridge, Tennessee on Thursday, June 22, 2017. (Photo: Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel)
Revisit nuclear energy
While we’re modernizing electricity and planting trees, we should seriously reconsider our nuclear energy policies. No technology is capable of reliably producing such vast amounts of energy with so little environmental impact. In fact, nuclear generation actually releases less radiation than coal producing the same amount of electricity.
Have you ever wondered how the United States Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program has operated in the highly corrosive oceans of the world for 65 years without incident? This is in large part due to highly enriched uranium that simplifies engineering, radically reduces reactor size and allows for plenty of innovation.
Rather than building on and developing that technology for all Americans, civilian nuclear policy feels stuck in the 1970s with many policymakers trying to eliminate HEU use entirely. We’re letting fears of potential terrorists block one of the greatest assets for a stable, clean energy future.
If we all agree on the current and future state of our environment, we’re still left with the question of what to do about it. Americans have plenty of policies to discuss and advance between the extremes of a $2 trillion dollar Democratic climate change spending spree and Republicans who claim that climate change is a hoax.
Protecting our environment and growing our economy should be perpetual policy goals. Finding the common ground to advance them is far more important than being righteous about climate change.
Cameron Smith is CEO of the Triptych Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that engages media, business and public policy to lay the foundation for a better cultural trajectory. He was recently executive director of the Republican Policy Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. He may be reached at [email protected]
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