The Re-Education of Bill McKibben

One of the biggest hurdles to expanding the responsible development of any form of energy in America – oil, gas, coal, wind, solar, nuclear, wood chips – is dealing with people who prefer endless debate and controversy over real action and workable outcomes.

Unlike most Americans, who simply want good answers to reasonable questions about where and how they get their energy, some folks have a bigger stake in keeping the argument going than coming up with solutions. Sometimes, the stakes are ideological. Other times, they’re financial. Since controversy tends to attract TV cameras, sometimes vanity is what’s at stake. More often than not, it’s a bit of all three.

Truth be told: we’re not entirely certain of what drives Bill McKibben, the founder of the environmental group, although we have noticed he’s no stranger to book tours or the speaking circuit. In fact, McKibben has published more than a dozen books and you can request his services as a speaker through the same agency that represents supermodel Claudia Schiffer, TV doctor Sanjay Gupta, zookeeper Jack Hanna, cable news host Al Sharpton and actor-pundit Ben Stein.

But whatever motivates McKibben, he clearly prefers a good argument to a good solution, based on the way he’s been talking with respect to natural gas recently.

Our story begins in 2009, when McKibben felt so strongly about the environmental benefits of natural gas that he was willing to go to jail in support of them. According to TIME magazine, McKibben was among the “eco-celebrities” who attended a protest outside the Capitol Power Plant in Washington, D.C. “demanding that the plant switch from coal to natural gas power.” Here’s what McKibben said in the build up to the protest:

 “There are moments in a nation’s—and a planet’s—history when it may be necessary for some to break the law … We will cross the legal boundary of the power plant, and we expect to be arrested.”

“[I]t would be easy enough to fix. In fact, the facility can already burn some natural gas instead, and a modest retrofit would let it convert away from coal entirely. … It would even stimulate the local economy.”

A year later, in 2010, McKibben published a book called “Eaarth” (yes, that’s Earth with two As). In the book, McKibben said he supported natural gas and welcomed the expanded production made possible by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in shale:

“Sometimes the news is a little better … the last year has seen new discoveries of natural gas that could help wean us off dirtier coal.”

“And lately, at least in the United States, we’ve found some new supplies of natural gas, which is a good “bridge fuel” between dirty coal and clean sun.”

The term “bridge fuel” means two things in the realm of climate-change policy. First, it’s a recognition that gas-fired power plants produce, on average, about half as much carbon dioxide as coal plants, according to EPA. Second, gas-fired plants can also help expand the amount of renewable electricity on the power grid. That’s because they can start up and shut down much more quickly and efficiently than coal plants, providing vital backup power for solar panels and wind turbines, whose intermittent output varies with changes in the weather.

While on his book tour for “Eaarth,” McKibben explained the “bridge fuel” concept this way:

 “At the moment, solar panels are more expensive than coal and will be for a while. … In the transition, we’ll be using a lot of natural gas to make electricity…”

Jumping forward to 2012, McKibben is ready once more to put his liberty on the line at a protest about natural gas. This time, the demonstration is planned for mid-June in the halls of the Ohio state legislature in Columbus. Here’s how the organizers are promoting the event:

“[W]e need to shake Columbus with the biggest anti-fracking gathering yet seen in the U.S.”

“[W]e’ll be taking over the Ohio statehouse for a people’s assembly…”

“We used to think that natural gas might be a help in the fight against climate change–but new studies have demonstrated … it may be just as dirty as coal.”

Wait, what? McKibben, who once risked arrest as a natural gas supporter, is now willing to be jailed as a natural gas opponent? The environmentalist who praised new natural gas development and demanded Congress use as much of the stuff as possible is now teaming up with Gasland director Josh Fox to shut down the natural gas industry?

That’s quite a flip flop. Clearly, McKibben has some ‘splaining to do. Here’s how he justifies his new position on natural gas:

“I was originally encouraged at the thought of major natural gas finds … [but] in the last year I’ve been joining with others to actively oppose fracking.”

“Well, even when it’s burned natural gas has a big carbon footprint – not as high as coal, but as the International Energy Agency pointed out, a global energy mix heavy in natural gas would still leave us at 660 parts per million CO2, i.e. Way Too High. Worse, when methane escapes from these fracking operations unburned, that [methane] is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 – and the early science makes it look like lots and lots of methane escapes from these fracking operations, perhaps enough to make them worse than coal mines…”

How convenient. As environmental activists who oppose natural gas get more and more media attention, McKibben decides that the facts about natural gas have changed – conveniently freeing himself up to join his fellow activists in front of the press photographers, TV cameras and microphones. But the facts haven’t changed. McKibben is just cherry picking numbers and studies in a desperate attempt to cast natural gas as a high-carbon problem, when he very well knows – or at least, should know – that it’s actually a low-carbon solution.

Let’s deal first with the “lots and lots of methane” charge. That’s a reference to the widely discredited Howarth et al study out of Cornell University. Anti-shale activists still cling to this study, which alleges natural gas is more carbon intensive than coal, even though Howarth’s theory has been rejected by EPA, the Department of Energy, other academics – including other Cornell faculty members – former regulators and independent analysts.  Even research supported by environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund, confirms that natural gas is much less carbon-intensive than coal. Even McKibben undercuts the Howarth paper by admitting the carbon footprint of gas is “not as high as coal.”

Now, let’s tackle McKibben’s distorted representation of IEA forecasts. The way McKibben tells it, IEA is saying the world needs less gas, not more, to lower GHG emissions. But that’s simply not true. The IEA predicts the world needs 26 percent more natural gas, along with increases in other low-carbon energy sources, to stabilize atmospheric CO2 concentrations at 450 parts per million and limit the worldwide average temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius:

“In the 450 Scenario, global energy-related CO2 emissions peak before 2020 and then decline… The share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix falls from 81% in 2009 to 62% in 2035. … By contrast, natural gas demand grows by 26%…” (IEA factsheet, p. 2)

To get around this forecast, McKibben gets creative – opting to manipulate and contort a special “what-if” scenario that’s completely separate from IEA’s regular energy and environmental forecasts. That hypothetical scenario assumes massive increases in worldwide natural gas production (larger than anyone believes are possible) and rules out the possibility of carbon capture and storage (CCS) ever being available as a useable technology. So instead of assuming the construction of between 65 and 130 carbon-capture plants by 2035, as the IEA does in its standard scenario, this scenario pessimistically assumes zero will be built:

“Widespread deployment in gas applications for power generation and industry of technologies, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), has the potential to reduce emissions from gas consumption significantly in the long term, which could result in stabilization at lower levels, but [the scenario] does not allow for this…” (IEA report, p. 120)

That would be big news to the Obama administration, which is working on as many as 10 carbon-capture demonstration projects at present:

“Up to ten integrated CCS demonstration projects supported by DOE are intended to begin operation by 2016 in the United States. These demonstrations will integrate current CCS technologies with commercial-scale power and industrial plants to prove that they can be permitted and operated safely and reliably.” (White House CCS report, p. 10)

It would be even bigger news to the folks in Beulah, North Dakota, who work at a plant that’s capturing carbon dioxide right now, today:

“Dakota Gas captures and sells CO2 produced at the plant to two customers and transports it through a 205-mile pipeline to Saskatchewan, Canada, to be used for enhanced oil recovery in the Weyburn and Midale fields. The first CO2 was sent to Canada in October 2000.”

But even under the pessimistic scenario that McKibben relies on, IEA still says the world needs more natural gas to bring down GHG emissions:

“[N]atural gas has an important role to play in complementing low-carbon energy solutions by providing the flexibility needed to support a growing renewables component in power generation.” (IEA report, p. 43)

So, according to the IEA, the U.S. and the rest of the world needs more natural gas, not less, to cut GHG emissions and add large numbers of solar panels, wind turbines and other low-carbon electricity sources to the power grid. Sound familiar? It should, because that’s what McKibben said he believed – and what he was willing to be arrested for – back in 2009. He restated that belief in his 2010 book, and still again on the publicity tour for that book.

But that was before environmental activists grew bored with the talking points they cribbed from Al Gore’s 2006 movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and found in Gasland a new way to demonize the energy development that supports the American way of life (which they despise). These days, the really inconvenient truth is that America has an abundant, affordable supply of natural gas which will bolster the nation’s energy security and is already cutting GHG emissions from the nation’s power plants.

Sadly, environmentalists who accept these facts now find it harder to grab headlines, get their face on TV, raise money, secure research grants, or even sell books. The path of least resistance, and greatest reward, is pandering to the most extreme voices of the environmental movement.

Times change, and apparently McKibben has decided he must change with them. But the facts have not changed – they’re still the facts. In a rational world, that would matter. In McKibben’s world, though, it’s all about McKibben.


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