Climate Control Requires Fossil Fuels, For Now22 Jan 2021
Forgotten, it seems, in much of the discussion of climate change is the phrase “climate controlled.” This seemingly oxymoronic word pairing usually refers to buildings, which use heating systems and air conditioning to keep what is inside insulated from whatever occurs outside.
Clearly climate control does not refer to humanity’s ability to manipulate or control global weather and climatic phenomena, to include winds patterns, oceanic variations, solar inputs, natural emissions, and a host of other geologic and biological factors.
When it comes to modern life, heating and cooling our homes requires a lot of energy. To do so practically requires a lot of low-cost energy. Beyond heating and cooling, we also need electricity for lights, refrigeration, and basic appliances. Cooking would be virtually impossible without freely available energy in the form of electricity or natural gas.
No one argues that energy is not an essential pillar of modern society. But many argue that we must swiftly transition away from the sources of energy that built this society and facilitate modern life. Some point to climate change and the threat of a looming crisis to prioritize an immediate shift to less efficient, less reliable, and more costly forms of energy development. But for now, to maintain climate control means continuing to rely on low-cost, abundant energy. That continues to be found in fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels do not have to be dirty words. In fact, over time, innovators have taken enormous strides to clean up the way we produce energy – even coal. But beyond coal, the most effective weapon in the arsenal of fighting climate change, facilitating a transition to renewables, and maintaining climate control indoors is natural gas.
Natural gas has half the emissions of coal. Even as natural gas production has ramped up, methane emission in the U.S. have fallen by 70 percent in the last decade. When transported by pipeline, it has a 99.999 percent arrival rate without leak, spill, or incident. Presently, natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, far more energy-dense and reliable on a moment’s notice than solar and wind, and when transported by pipeline, natural gas arrives safer, quicker, and more efficiently than by any other transport method.
We can rely on natural gas, even with climate at the forefront of our minds, to continue to provide relatively clean, reliable energy. In fact, vast abundant energy is needed to mine, transport, and develop green and renewable energy infrastructure like solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, industrial batteries, and more. You cannot build a greener world without the massive energy inputs from fossil fuels, and natural gas is the cleanest, cheapest, and best way to produce the energy needed.
This does not mean natural gas is without fault, nor should it be developed with wild abandon. And while pipelines are the safest transportation method every implemented in the U.S., it also does not mean we should simply green-light every proposed pipeline project. But the benefits outweigh the costs, even when considering climate concerns.
If we restrict natural gas and pipeline transportation, we are forced to turn to short-term reliance on coal and petroleum power generation for the energy demands presently drawing on the grid. That energy demand is for safe food and water, heated and cooled homes, cooking, lighting schools and hospitals, and protecting people inside from the variable elements outside. In fact, as the climate changes and heat waves or cold spells pass through, we rely on abundant energy to keep us safe indoors in our climate controlled homes, businesses, community centers, and buildings. Of course we can power these things and the grid with renewables and store excess energy in industrial batteries, but these take time, investment, and energy to develop – and they are not presently available 24/7 with instant dial-up capability.
Climate control indoors requires energy, and climate resilience outdoors requires it too. We must rebuilt our infrastructure and harden its features to be resilient to floods, storms, heat and drought, and other natural phenomena. As we build this new world, we must have energy – a lot of it and at a low cost. The most effective way to do that is to draw on the widely abundant, low-cost, and cleanest option: natural gas.
Realistically, society demands huge amounts of energy, and when schools and hospitals flip their switches, they rely the lights coming on. The most effective way to guarantee massive amounts of power at the literal flip of a switch, is to develop abundant, cheap, energy-dense material. Those materials are fossil fuels and they are essential right now. That does not mean we must use them forever, but it does mean we must use them to facilitate their replacement. So when activists shutter pipelines or block fracking, they risk setting us back by inhibiting our ability to maintain climate control indoors with low-cost, low-emission energy, and they restrict the energy inputs needed to develop resilient infrastructure and renewable power assets.
Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.