What the Frack? U.S. CO2 Output the Lowest in 20 years.

Natural Gas Usage

Natural Gas Usage (Photo credit: drbrain)

“The best is the enemy of good.” – Voltaire

Good news travels slowly, if at all. Given headlines of the century you might think that good news does not exist. A newspaper will not stay in business without readers—and they need drama to get readers—so even good news often gets described as bad news.

At the risk of biting the hand that nourishes me, here is a pretend headline from real data to show you how it works: “Rate of cancer deaths no longer falling rapidly for women.” Note that the rate is still falling and certainly not rising; it just is not falling as fast for women as it is for men. (By the way, deaths from cancer are much lower for women.) The point is that news outlets do not make money on cheery stories.

Since good news gets downplayed you may have missed a story about a drop in carbon-dioxide outputs in the United States. Why is a lowered CO2 output good news? Because CO2 is a greenhouse gas that most climatologists agree contributes to the warming of the earth, lowering CO2 then is thought to lower the risk of catastrophically heating our planet.

Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg wrote about the drop in CO2 output, “Carbon-dioxide emissions in the United States have dropped to their lowest level in 20 years….The reduction is even more impressive when one considers that 57 million additional energy consumers were added to the US population over the past two decades. Indeed, US carbon emissions have dropped some 20% per capita…”

To achieve a 20 percent drop in CO2 emissions, we must be using more energy produced by renewable resources, such as wind, solar, and hydro, and burning less fossil fuel right?

No, but given public discussion, it is easy to see why one might think that. After all, we hear that renewable energy is essential to preventing catastropic climate change.

“[T]he numbers clearly say otherwise,” wrote Lomborg. Renewables need backups because the wind does not always blow nor does the sun always shine. Consider “Denmark,” wrote energy expert Robert Bryce, “the poster child for wind energy boosters, more than doubled its production of wind energy between 1999 and 2007….[Yet] carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation in 2007 were at about the same level as they were back in 1990, before the country began its frenzied construction of turbines.” And, Denmark’s population has not really increased, whereas the US population has grown 24 percent.

Not everyone cheers our achievement. Why not? Partly because we are still among the highest per capita emitters in the world and partly because of how we did it. We did it the old-fashioned way—we burned it.

The US is substituting cheaper natural gas instead of coal to generate electricity and some environmentalists have problems with that: 1) the way natural gas is extracted from the ground and 2) natural gas is still a fossil fuel.

First, the way natural gas is taken from the earth uses a process called hydraulic fracturing (also known as “fracking”). Fracking has been around for sixty years; but has become more sophisticated in the last ten years. Water and chemicals are forced at high pressure to break up rock formations that hold natural gas in the earth. In a few cases, hydraulic fracturing has contaminated groud water supplies.

Second, burning natural gas to power electric generators is not free of CO2 emissions, just fewer. Burning natural gas releases about half the carbon dioxide that coal does. Using natural gas instead of coal has lessened other pollution as well. By using natural gas we are NOT sending tons of radioactive substances along with mercury into the air that burning coal would.

Robert Bryce sums up the choice to burn fossil fuel this way: “(Our political leaders) want to replace high power density sources that are dispatchable, reliable, and relatively low cost with low power density sources that are not dispatchable, highly variable, and high cost. This makes no sense. I’d call it insane but it’d be an insult to crazy people.”

Remember, “The best is the enemy of good.” Natural gas may not be the best solution to our power needs. But, for the moment, it is certainly better than others and not crazy.

Bibliography

Bryce, R. (2010, April 25). Five myths about green energy. Retrieved April 25, 2010, from WashingtonPost.com: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/23/AR2010042302220.html

Hvistendahl, M. (2007, December 13). Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste. Retrieved Ocotber 19, 2012, from Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste

Lomborg, B. (2012, September 13). A Fracking Good Story. Retrieved September 13, 2012, from project-syndicate.org: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/a-fracking-good-story-by-bj-rn-lomborg

National Cancer Institute. (2012, March 28). National Cancer Institute. Retrieved October 19, 2012, from Report to the nation finds continuing declines in cancer death rates since the early 1990s: http://www.cancer.gov/newscenter/newsfromnci/2012/ReportNationRelease2012

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Working landscapes, environmental correctness

According to a 2001 agricultural economic report, “urban expansion claimed more than 1 million acres per year between 1960 and 1990″ in the United States, and that expansion follows one of two two routes: 1. expansion of urban areas or 2. large-lot development (greater than 1 acre per house). (Heimlich 2001)

 

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Land trusts throughout the United States have reacted to this trend of the loss of agricultural land to urban developers by working to protect farms and ranches (and some mixed-use tree farm operations) by creating easements for them as “working landscapes.” For purposes of discussion, forests have been teased out from the farm and ranching portion of ‘working landscapes’ since even, “Tree plantations are more biodiverse [than an annual crop], even though such plantations may be less complex than a ‘wild’ stand.” (Dekker-Robertson 1998)

Let’s not fool ourselves, no perfect solution exists (whether it be market-driven, government mandated or mixed enterprise) to our environmental needs for open space. On the contrary, compromises must be found. No right and perfect answer exists; only “good enough” exists.

At first glance, the creation of working landscapes appear environmentally correct. One would have thought allowing ranching and farming families to stay in business and ostensibly ward off urban encroachment would have been a good thing. After all, they are our neighbors and as such they hold a special place in our hearts (mine included). Now, I’m not as certain, at least from an ecologic or economic vantage point. Working landscapes now appear to be a form of environmental correctness.

What impresses me about the “working landscapes” solution is that it is neither government mandated nor is it funded by tax dollars (except to the degree that land trusts are tax-exempt as 501.C.3s). Farmers and/or ranchers who agree to a land trust’s requirements to maintain a working landscape bolster the land’s economic production.

What concerns me regarding “working landscapes” is that agriculture is arguably the most ecologically disruptive activities we humans engage in. There is no question that we are better off due to the invention of agriculture. Yet, we have become more efficient at growing food and fiber which means fewer acres are needed to grow food per capita. The upshot then is, saving a ranch or farm may not be our wisest course of action and freeing the land up for other uses (even urbanization) may actually be beneficial. As a result, working landscapes may not be better for our environment than urban development.

Proponents give an array of arguments for preserving, protecting, and maintaining working landscapes. (Arizona Land and Water Trust n.d.) (National Park Service 2008) (Morse 2010) These include preventing:

1. Loss of regional identity, distinctiveness, and character and its corollary loss of context for stories linking people to the land and an estrangement from the landscapes sustaining us

2. Unraveling of traditional social/economic relationships to the land and loss of special products of place

3. Loss of models in sustainable landscapes and living cultures

4. Fragmented landscapes

5. Loss of biological diversity

6. Food insecurity

7. Climate change


Below are my responses to each of these arguments and why I think they are overblown.

1. Loss of regional identity, etc.

Not just in the U.S. but also worldwide, the stories and the character of the land and those who work it are being lost. This comes as a byproduct of progress, the homogenization of time and place. Since humans began trading with one another and thus specializing in the products we did best, we have lost the ability and knowledge of how things are made. We have lost the ability to fashion projectile points from rock. The Stone Age did not come to an end from lack of stones; they were replaced by other and better materials and made into new products. Maintaining working landscapes to prevent loss of regional identity, distinctiveness, and character is, at best, a rear-guard effort that will devolve into a situation where tourists will stop to interact with docents who will explain how it used to be done. In other words, I believe that the working landscapes will become anachronisms


2. The unraveling of traditional social/economic relationships to the land and loss of special products of place.

The second reason to prevent loss of social/economic relationships for those “special products of the place” aligns itself closely to the first argument of preventing loss of place. Prevention again is a rear-guard action. As has been happening for the last ten thousand years because of trade and specialization, places are becoming more similar and less distinctive. Farmers, displaced from the ‘Euxine Lake’ when the sea level rose and broke through the Hellespont, brought their seeds with them, so Northern Europe lost its special products of place when the farmers planted the newer emmer and einkorn wheat grains. (Ridley 2010) The items we treasure as distinctive to place may not be as permanent as we would prefer to believe. Just because something is what we happen to have in our memory does not mean that it has always been that way.

As for those special products of place, we no longer manufacture Acheulian hand axes. After all Acheulian hand axes used to be quite special; the most important item for people, no matter the place, for one million years. (Ridley 2010) Yet, we no longer fret that no one uses them anymore. Once an item or process has been replaced, we have to move on–I do not see how farming and ranching is any different.


3. Loss of models in sustainable landscapes and living cultures.

The term “sustainable” is the term du jour and means many things to many people. Yet the loss of this “sustainable landscape” stems from its inability to provide an income sufficient to ward off other encroaching income streams: farming/ranching became unsustainable from an economic point of view. That is the land succumbs to its “highest, best use.” Rather than being something to mourn, the trade from one use to another may be a natural outcome toward greater sustainability. By trading land for money, the rancher or farmer may prove to be better off than before. “Interdependence of the world through trade is the very thing that makes modern life as sustainable as it is,” says Matt Ridley, “suppose your local wheat farmer tells you that last year’s rains means he will have to cut his flour delivery in half. You will have to go hungry.” Today, you benefit from a global marketplace; “in which somebody somewhere has something to sell you so there are rarely shortages, only modest price fluctuations.” (Ridley 2010)

“Economists have long recognized the welfare gains from specialization and trade,” wrote Steve Sexton on the Freakonomics website. “The case for specialization is perhaps nowhere stronger than in agriculture, where the costs of production depend on natural resource endowments, such as temperature, rainfall, and sunlight, as well as soil quality, pest infestations, and land costs. Different crops demand different conditions and vary in their resilience to shocks. So California, with mild winters, warm summers, and fertile soils produces all U.S.-grown almonds and 80 percent of U.S. strawberries and grapes. Idaho, on the other hand, produces 30 percent of the country’s russet potatoes because warm days and cool nights during the season, combined with rich volcanic soils, make for ideal growing conditions.” (Sexton 2011)


4. Fragmented landscapes.

This argument makes little sense. Farming and ranching patch quilts our landscape. Farming is a disruption of a natural landscape (often through deforestation) to grow food or fiber. Today, much of our fiber, though not our food, can be made from petroleum products with a much smaller footprint than agriculture. Urban areas need much less space compared to agriculture. The urban areas in the United States occupy about 3 percent of the U.S. whereas agricultural land occupies nearly 50 percent. (Frey 1995) It would seem more advantageous to have land revert to its natural state through use of greenbelts around urban areas.


5. Loss of biological diversity.

This argument aligns with the previous: the loss of biological diversity already happened when the area changed to agriculture. Agriculture fragments and disrupts natural habitats. In addition, predators to the crop, flock or herd (which are often displaced by the agriculture pursuit) are subdued through mechanical and chemical means. Maintaining working landscapes means ensuring the loss of biological diversity, not preventing it.


6. Food insecurity.

The desire of the land trusts is to protect small family farms and ranches because they are close by and therefore can provide food and fiber. Steve Sexton, writing on the Freakonomics website says, “[I]mplicit in the argument that local farming is better for the environment than industrial agriculture is an assumption that a ‘relocalized’ food system can be just as efficient as today’s modern farming. That assumption is simply wrong. Today’s high crop yields and low costs reflect gains from specialization and trade, as well as scale and scope economies that would be forsaken under the food system that locavores endorse.” (Sexton 2011)

And, as noted by Jesse Ausubel, this argument does not stand up: “For centuries, farmers expanded cropland faster than population grew, and thus cropland per person rose. When we needed more food, we ploughed more land, and fears about running out of arable land grew. But fifty years ago, farmers stopped plowing up more nature per capita. Meanwhile, growth in calories in the world’s food supply has continued to outpace population, especially in poor countries. Per hectare, farmers lifted world grain yields about 2 percent annually since 1960. Two percent sounds small but compounds to large effects: it doubles in 35 years and quadruples in 70.

“Vast frontiers for even more agricultural improvement remain open. On the same area, the average world farmer grows only about 20% of the corn or beans of the top Iowa farmer, and the average Iowa farmer lags more than 30 years behind the yields of his most productive neighbor. Top producers now grow more than 20 tons of corn per hectare compared with a world average for all crops of about 2. From one hectare, an American farmer in 1900 could provide calories or protein for a year for 3 people. In 1999 the top farmers can feed 80 people for a year from the same area. So farmland again abounds, disappointing sellers who get cheap prices per hectare almost everywhere.” (Ausubel 1999)

Lastly, the United States Department of Agriculture is not sounding the full alarm, yet: “[Urban expansion] is not seen as a threat to most farming, although it may reduce production of some high-value or specialty crops. [emphasis added] The consequences of continued large–lot development may be less sanguine, since it consumes much more land per unit of housing than the typical suburb.” (Heimlich 2001)


7. Climate change.

Preventing climate change (by proclaiming his pet project prevents it) seems to be the last bastion of the scoundrel. Whereas it used to be that everything caused pollution, it now gets weighed by its “carbon footprint.” Sexton says this about the advisability of small farms for lowering carbon emissions, “The Harvard economist Ed Glaeser estimates that carbon emissions from transportation don’t decline in a locavore future because local farms reduce population density as potential homes are displaced by community gardens. Less-dense cities mean more driving and more carbon emissions. Transportation only accounts for 11 percent of the carbon embodied in food anyway, according to a 2008 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon; 83 percent comes from production.”

Summary

So, to a Physiocrat or Romantic, preservation of so-called working landscapes may make sense. They preserve viewscapes, allow a traditional way of life to continue (ranching and farming), help our agricultural neighbors survive in these difficult economic times, and help maintain a region’s distinctiveness and character.

However, from an ecological and economic perspective maintaining agricultural holdings makes very little sense. “The worst thing for the environment is farming,” says Dr. Pamela Ronald, “It doesn’t matter if it is organic [or conventional]…You have to go in and destroy everything.” (Voosen, 2010) We currently use nearly 40% of Earth’s ice-free land for our food and fiber needs. According to one source, that’s an “area 60 times larger than the combined area of all the world’s cities and suburbs.” (Wilcox 2011)

If the area figure cited is even close to true (and it appears that it’s close to the mark), then it is more beneficial to allow farms and ranches to revert to wildland (and urbanized area), especially if they are not economically viable.


Sources

 

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