Paris Climate Conference
From November 30th to December 11th of 2015, representatives from across the globe assembled in the Le Bourget suburb of Paris to address the building concerns faced by climate change. With nearly 200 nations in attendance, the Paris Climate Change Conference, or the 21st United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP21), set out to develop and ratify formal legislation to curb global carbon emissions.
The ensuing discourse at the conference symbolized a monumental stride in worldwide diplomacy as the first universal climate agreement was cobbled together. Twelve days of ’round-the-clock dialogue culminated in the 31-page Paris Agreement, proposing both legally binding and voluntary means to a fossil fuel-free future.
The campaign is clear: restrict global temperature rise to less than 2°C, peak greenhouse emissions as soon as possible to undertake rapid reductions thereafter, and raise $100 billion globally per year through 2020 to aid nations directly dealing with the threats/impacts of climate change. When the gavel dropped and cheers erupted through the Le Bourget Conference Center, it was understood that this was not the final solution, but rather an emblematic first step towards putting the fossil fuel industry to sleep.
COP21 and the resulting Paris Agreement are notable for their transparency in a vast majority of their proposed solutions. Flaws and the need for improvement are in no way denied by the organizers and leaders of COP21, and are in fact emphasized in many ways among the mainstream media, scientists, and politicians alike. However, what remains significantly troubling is the elephant in the room: natural gas and the employment of fracking. While the Paris Agreement strongly centered on phasing out coal, it largely swept the negative impacts of, and concerns over, natural gas under the rug.
what remains significantly troubling is the elephant in the room: natural gas and the employment of fracking.
From Burning Coal to Natural Gas
A transition to natural gas is a highly contested topic as the natural gas industry presents itself as a plausible stepping stone towards renewable energy. Threatening emissions statistics, however, render many purported benefits questionable, at a minimum. In this sense, COP21 and its leadership finds itself in a conundrum.
While the bold rhetoric of the Paris Agreement and conference leaders warrants celebration, hard facts show that the proposed 2°C threshold is unattainable given current plans and the allowances for natural gas and its extraction. It should be noted that the sheer size of the coal, oil, and natural gas industries gives them a firm grip on world economies for coming decades, at the very least; this is especially true for developing nations.
With this reality in mind, the argument for a shift to natural gas and away from coal is posed as a viable option until more cost-efficient, clean energy technologies develop. However, the advertised notion that natural gas produces roughly half the greenhouse emissions as burning coal is shaky, especially when government records are challenged. The blueprint drawn up at COP21 becomes blurred as the debate rages on as to whether natural gas funding should be used more directly toward sustainable innovation. Given this ongoing debate and the implications on the future of the Paris Agreement, natural gas and its retrieval processes, like fracking, deserve further examination before being adopted as a ‘bridge’ fuel towards clean energy.
Natural gas and associated power plants currently fly under the radar and are less regulated than ‘dirtier’ fossil fuels since government studies pin it with carbon dioxide emission levels below the legal limits imposed by the 2015 Clean Power Plan. That plan, put into action by the Obama administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), carries a similar message to the Paris Agreement. The ruling put American power plants under strict regulation by way of installing emission limits with a basis in scientific and legal precedent. Its direct aim at taking out coal in favor of a push towards renewable sources sets up natural gas as an ideal link between the fossil-fuel era and clean energy. Thus, natural gas has taken the energy industry by storm, and alongside it, new methods of obtaining said gas have arisen.
Fracking and its Dangers
Enter fracking: hydraulic drilling both vertically and horizontally in order to reach subterranean gas storages, known as shale gas. This latest extraction process has garnered controversial attention over the past few years. While its global employment is relatively limited, it is widely used in the U.S. and has brought extensive rewards in many areas. Previously unreachable reservoirs of shale gas are being tapped into, and because of this fast tracked innovation, the U.S. and and Canada now possess an estimated century of energy security.
So with this success, alongside studies showing natural gas to produce far less greenhouse gas emissions as compared to current coal burning processes, what is there to debate?
Opposition to fracking and natural gas usage highlights that switching one fossil fuel for another is not a permanent solution to the dangers posed by climate change and ozone deterioration. From this perspective, it is noted that the transition to natural gas from coal openly undermines the purpose of COP21 by painting the 2°C threshold as mathematically unattainable. This positioning is supported by pointing out that while burning natural gas is reported to emit half the amount of carbon dioxide as coal, natural gas is composed of a heavy percentage of methane—itself being a potent greenhouse gas.
Consequently, between both the intentional safety releases/leaks and unintentional leakage due to imperfect valves and pipes, the reduced carbon dioxide emissions may be accompanied by increased methane emissions, thereby nullifying the purported benefit of natural gas. The dangers of natural gas are known by the government and energy authorities, but what remains shrouded in a number of unanswered questions are the dangers of the natural gas extraction process – fracking.
Within the U.S., fracking and its success has been followed by incidents of pollution and industrial disasters in a disturbingly large number of regions in which the drilling has taken place. Such accidents include reports of polluted groundwater supplies, polluted air, wildlife deaths, and power plant malfunctions, all on top of the existing greenhouse gas emissions generated from the process.
While fracking is indeed an innovative, revolutionary drilling technique, it is also a new, and comparatively unregulated, process. The onsite issues associated with accompanying natural gas power plants are coupled with deceiving emissions statistics; largely attributable to the simple fact that the EPA is unable to accurately measure the amount carbon and methane being released at every single one of the many nations facilities.
What Can We Do?
At home in Southern California, fracking proposals have real implications for the local community. In the wake of the May 19, 2015 Plains All American Pipeline spill at Refugio (a non-fracking related spill), thirteen new offshore fracking permits have been granted for the Long Beach region, only 150 miles south of the Plains spill. The unfortunate dangers posed by the oil and gas industry are all too fresh in the memories of Santa Barbarans, and these feelings translate into wary policy-making by elected leaders such as Congresswoman Lois Capps.
Despite lacking satisfactory safety regulations, fracking projects continue to go forward under the pressure of corporations and energy demands. Congresswoman Capps’s recent campaigns push for increased regulation, upkeep, and monitoring of safety standards through a revised Pipeline Safety Act. She does not stop there, as the environmentally-minded congresswoman has introduced legislation calling for a halt to offshore fracking until a full review of the practice is completed. However, Congresswoman Capps cannot fight the battle on her own. The calls for transparency and settlements to prevent overeager approvals for new fracking permits must be visibly backed by the community in order to gain attention.
This sort of unity amongst the public is taking place through organizations like the Santa Barbara County Water Guardians. Their continual push for clean energy options rather than new drilling techniques directly relates to the issues addressed at COP21 and in contemporary research being conducted. With both sides to the argument possessing truths and reasoning, the key message for everyone facing fossil fuel extraction in their communities is to become educated.
One thing is certain: climate change is real, it is ongoing, and the risks are mounting. COP21 and the Paris Agreement illustrate a huge diplomatic success, but it will remain an abstract victory until communities and citizens raise their collective voices in a call for action.
- Figure #1: www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-35084374
- Figure #2: www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-35084374
- Figure #3: www.aep.com/about/IssuesAndPositions/Generation/Technologies/NaturalGas.aspx
- Figure #4: www.bbc.com/news/uk-14432401
- Figure #5: www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=74&t=11
- Figure #6: www3.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html