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Throw In The Towel?

by Rudy M. Baum
October 17, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 42

I keep promising myself that I’m going to write about energy and climate issues less often on this page. It’s difficult to keep this promise because developments in these areas are coming fast and furious. Developments of late, however, suggest that there may not be much point in continuing to write about them because, well, the game may be over.

Consider: A National Research Council study concludes that it is unlikely that the U.S. will produce anything close to the amount of cellulosic ethanol by 2022 that is mandated by the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (C&EN, Oct. 10, page 12).

What’s fascinating to me is that, in the preface to the NRC report, Ingrid C. Burke and Wallace E. Tyner, the cochairs of the committee that produced it, write: “Yet with all the expertise available to us, our clearest conclusion is that there is very high uncertainty in the impacts we were trying to estimate. The uncertainties include essentially all of the drivers of biofuel production and consumption and the complex interactions among those drivers: future crude oil prices, feedstock costs and availability, technological advances in conversion efficiencies, land-use change, government policy, and more.” Biofuels are supposed to be important in mitigating climate disruption, but “we do not have generally agreed upon estimates of the environmental or [greenhouse gas] impacts of most biofuels,” Burke and Tyner admit.

Consider: A distinguished panel formed by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a group founded by two former Republican senators and two former Democratic senators, concluded recently that the U.S. “should embark on a focused and systematic program of research about climate remediation”—that is, ways to fix the climate that we are disrupting through emissions of greenhouse gases. The task force “strongly believes that climate remediation technologies are no substitute for controlling risk through climate mitigation (i.e., reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases) and climate adaptation (i.e., enhancing the resilience of human-made and natural systems to climate changes).” Nevertheless, the U.S. “needs to be able to judge whether particular climate remediation techniques could offer a meaningful response to the risks of climate change,” in part, because that change could be catastrophic, and in part, because some other countries might decide to pursue climate remediation on their own.

Consider: The U.S. State Department is evaluating a proposal by TransCanada, an energy production and supply company, to build the Keystone XL pipeline to transport crude oil from oil sands deposits in Alberta to the Gulf Coast of the U.S. For a variety of reasons, oil sands are one of the most environmentally problematic of all sources of petroleum. The State Department appears to be inclined to recommend approval of the project.

That should come as no surprise. According to news reports, TransCanada’s chief lobbyist in Washington, D.C., was a top official in Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign and has cozy relationships with State Department officials. Oh, and TransCanada selected the company, Cardno Entrix, that prepared the environmental impact statement (EIS) on Keystone XL for the department. The EIS takes a relatively benign view of the pipeline project. So it’s business as usual in Washington when it comes to energy development.

And finally, consider: The op-ed page of the Oct. 6 Wall Street Journal carried a piece by Robert Bryce, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, entitled “Five Truths About Climate Change.” The first “truth” Bryce cites is: “The carbon taxers/limiters have lost,” pointing out that in the past decade CO2 emissions have risen 28.5%. Bryce concludes his essay: “It’s time to move the debate past the dogmatic view that carbon dioxide is evil and toward a world view that accepts the need for energy that is cheap, abundant, and reliable.” This isn’t climate-change denial; it’s climate-change indifference. We’re going to burn more coal and oil, much more, come what may.

Maybe it is time to throw in the towel.

Thanks for reading.


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