Friday, December 23, 2011

Getting Off Fossil Fuels--A guide for Intellectuals, Hippies and Poets

   What does it really mean when people speak of  "getting off fossil fuels?"  I hear about that a lot from people who may not know what they are talking about (including presidential candidates).  But it is more than talk, it is actually part of our national policy, as the President has stated that our national coal is to reduce our greenhouse (CO2) emissions by some 83% by 2050.  This means that the US will emit CO2 at the same levels as third world countries do now.  As an educator, I feel compelled to inform people as best I can what the full implications are, as we seek to compel our civilization to not utilize trillions of dollars of oil, natural gas and coal.  
    Although there is enough fossil fuel  for global needs for hundreds of years, in America we have decided that we can not wait for the fossil fuel age to end on its own, and instead we need to hasten its demise in order to promote development of futuristic new fuels with near-zero environmental impact.  Hence,our politicians are happily creating new tough legislation to create environmental standards in order to hasten the  shutdown of older power plants, in anticipation of the happy day when alternate energy is cheap and plentiful.  According to the Associated Press, some 32 to 68 power plants nationwide are expected to be closed as new regulations take effect.
     While we celebrate this exciting "improvement," keep in mind that China will commission about 50 new power plants in 2012 alone, so there will in fact be a continuing increase in carbon dioxide generation.  
   Before we go off and celebrate the demise of the fossil age, I think it is important to consider what other industries depend on fossil fuels.

1.  The agricultural industry depends upon petroleum chemicals in order to grow food (and in case you are wondering, the effect of fertilizer is to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere).  There is no cost-effective replacement for petrochemical fertilizer.  Currently, over 40 million Americans are on food stamps and could ill afford a major price hike in food.  But Americans are the lucky ones. For example, in countries like Haiti,the per-capital gross domestic product of only $700 per person.  In such countries, the average person does not have access to clean water or sanitation and buying food accounts for 90% of the money that they do have.  A significant increase in global food prices would surely kill many third world people.

2.  Textiles, including the clothes on your body, are made from petrochemicals.  First of all, the cotton fabrics are grown with petrochemical fertilizer, just like food.  Synthetics, such as polyester, nylon, rayon, etc., are all made directly from petroleum.  These industries simply can not function without petroleum.  What's the alternative?  

Even Lady Gaga's meat dress comes from petrochemical fertilizer which is used to grow the grain that feeds that cattle that were slaughtered to make the dress.  

3.  Almost all plastics come from chemicals made from petroleum, natural gas and coal.  Plastics include the polyethylene for pop bottles and the like, polypropylene for milk cartons, and hundreds of other variants.  

4.  Paints, adhesives, wood treatments and other coatings are  derived from fossil fuel sources. 

5. Iron and Steel are made using coke made from coal, in order to process iron ore to make the iron used by the steel industry.  By the way, deciding to import steel from overseas does not solve the problem, but only changes the location from which coke is consumed and carbon dioxide is emitted.   Even recycling requires the use of electrodes made from petroleum coke and coal tar pitch, not to mention huge amounts of electric energy.  

 Blast furnaces consume fossil fuels (coke, made from coal) to make iron.  They are polluting ad emit copious carbon dioxide.  America's plan, therefore, is to shut down as many as possible and import what we need.  The People's Republic of China now produces 7 times as much steel as the US.  Just another way that America is reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, and our politicians are proud of themselves. 

6.  Aluminum and other non-ferrous metals are made by an electrochemical process that requires an amazing amount of electrical energy, while also consuming oil and coal derived carbon in smelting cells.  Aluminum can not be made without producing carbon dioxide.

7.  Roads are made from asphalt, which is a petroleum product.

In addition to these products, there are any number of materials that depend upon energy in order to process.  For example, cement and glass are energy-intensive processes that require heat (i.e., burning of fossil fuels) in order to be successful.  Cement in particular causes limestone to decompose, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  It's very difficult to imagine using substitutes like burning wood to produce cement or glass.  

In addition to materials, manufacturing industries need these materials in order to manufacture goods.  To cite just a few, automobiles are made from materials like steel, aluminum, plastic and rubber.  Good luck making cars out of wood.  Ditto for ships, locomotives, aircraft, buses and all aspects of the transportation industry.  The computer you are using to read this blog is made out of metals and polymers that derive from fossil fuels.  The construction industry uses concrete and steel to make modern high performance structures.  It just doesn't make sense to use wood for everything, as we would certainly defoliate the entire country. 

Just about every REAL industry that we have utilizes fossil fuel in one form or another.  Energy is one aspect of fossil fuels, but it is also a materials building block that just about every aspect of the economy depends upon.
   If you take a minute right now and consider how much of your surroundings are dependent upon fossil fuels.  Start with the computer you are reading this on--a machine made of plastic, steel, aluminum and polymers.  Your clothes are made from petroleum polymers or cotton grown with chemical fertilizers.  Your body is nourished by food grown with petrochemicals.  What are the walls of the room you are in made out of?  Paint?  Concrete?  Plastic?  Where do these materials come from?
     THERE IS NO ECONOMY WITHOUT FOSSIL FUELS.  That's the sad and awful truth.  We engineers have failed the poets and hippies who seek a world without fossil fuels and without environmental consequences.  We scarcely know how to have an economy at all without consuming fossil fuels.   
     Nevertheless, our elected leaders are moving towards dismantling fossil fuel enterprises, starting with power plants, steel plants, chemical plants and manufacturing.  The predictable result is that the economy will contract as we impose new austerity measures to regulate the use of coal, natural gas and petroleum.  And if we decide to abandon these resources, poorer countries will wish to take advantage of them, dining off the scraps from out table, so to speak.  If we wish for these countries to not consume petroleum, natural gas and coal, I believe we will have to back up our wishes with force.  Otherwise they will seek to improve their standard of living with these fossil fuels. 
     Our politicians sometimes talk about "class warfare" when they are really talking about our petty squabbles about taxation theory and the like.  Real "class warfare"  will come when America decides that petrochemical fertilizer production needs to be curtailed, and that the price of food should rise to the point where it is too high for Third World people to eat.  Moreover, we will have to compel Third World people to not alleviate poverty through the use of fossil fuels. They will seek to industrialize, and I don't see how to prevent that other than by force of arms. 
    Does anyone honestly think that OPEC will willingly decide to reduce production of oil?  Or that people in the Third World will willingly pledge to stop eating in order to diminish demand for petrochemical fertilizers?  That China will decide not to allow its people to industrialize and drive cars?

   Mind you, I believe that most of our people seeking to "get off fossil fuels" have the best of intentions.  They have convinced themselves that energy companies are evil, and so they will be doing the world a great favor by curtailing the fossil fuel economy.  
      Vice President Gore in his movie "An Inconvenient Truth" suggested that many polar bears will die if we fail to curtail fossil fuel utilization, thus causing the Arctic to warm up by a degree or two in the winter time.  I personally am not sure whether that is true or not.  I suspect not based on the failure of the real-world climate to obey the best climate models put forward by our best climatologists.    
     But there is no doubt in my mind that failure to think clearly about the full implications of "getting off fossil fuels" has terrible consequences indeed. Contrary to the hopeful wishes of my friends who are intellectuals, hippies and poets, there is virtually no real-world economy without fossil fuels. Moreover, there is no plausible non-violent mechanism to compel other countries to refrain from using fossil fuels in order to better their economies. 
     In other words, I doubt whether anyone  will really die from some climate-induced death.   I believe it is much more likely that people--a lot of them--will die if we succeed in our attempt to shut down the use of fossil fuels. 
     So who are the real intellectuals?  The real hippies?  the ones who value human life and aspire to lend a helping hand to others?  Are they really the ones seeking to get off fossil fuel and beat down the energy companies?  Or might there be a case for extending the fossil fuel economy for another few decades until the alternatives are actually developed? 
 Most scientists believe in the predictions of climate models (red line), not in the actual data which shos that global average temperature rise has paused since 2002 (blue line, least squares fit).  The Village Elliot believes that global average temperature did rise between 1975 and 2002, but is not convinced that the situation is worsening. Could it be that  there are other factors at work besides carbon dioxide?


1.  US Department of Energy EERE Network News, President Obama Sets a Target for Cutting US Greenhouse Gas Emissions, December 2, 2009,  . 

2.  New EPA Pollution Rules May Force Shutdown of Dozens of Coal-Fired Power Plants (ecember 19, 2011

3. Marisa Jacott, Fronteras Comunes, Cyrus Reed, Amy Taylor and Mark Winfield,  Energy Use in the Cement Industry in North America: Emissions, Waste Generation and Pollution Control, 1990-2001,  2nd North American Symposium on Assessing the Environmental Effects of Trade, May 30, 2003 .

4.  National Climate Data Center,

1 comment:

  1. Hi Anonymous, I liked your comment, although for some reason it got deleted by blogger (not by me). Perhaps it was because it mentioned a website, a very good one.

    I am in fact an advocate of using solar technology, but I think there are limits to the amount of market share that it can achieve.