Pro-gas Obama's EPA-based Plan To Reduce Coal-based Pollution Amounts To Climate Change Inaction
By Dr Gideon Polya
07 June, 2014
The worsening climate crisis has finally been recognized as a major issue by the Obama Administration. However the latest policy announcement on climate change by President Obama - 30% off 2005 greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution of America's dirty power plants by 2030 enforceable by the US Environment Protection Authority (EPA) under the Clean Air Act [1, 2] - represents too little too late and falls far short of what is needed to address the worsening climate crisis. Thus the annual GHG pollution to be saved in 2030 through this measure will be only 4.5% of America's current total annual GHG pollution that is re-assessed at 10.3 billion tonnes CO2-e (CO2 equivalent) if the latest data on methane emissions are considered. In stark contrast, the whole world's 2010-2050 terminal carbon pollution budget that must not be exceeded if we are to have a 75% chance of avoiding a catastrophic 2C temperature rise is 600 billion tonnes CO2  and the US finally used up its “fair share” of this terminal carbon pollution budget in 2014 .
Thus, notwithstanding this latest move by Obama - that is ferociously opposed by the terracidal US fossil fuel industry, the Republicans (the Tea Party and the racist religious right Republicans (R4s) in particular) and the many Democrats successfully bribed by dirty energy lobbyists - the US remains firmly committed to disproportionately polluting the one common atmosphere and ocean of all countries and to stealing the entitlement and amenities of all other countries. This represents an egregious further example of the extraordinary exceptionalism of “e pluribus unum” ( “one out of many”), the motto of the United States of America which has invaded 70 countries since 1776 [5-7].
US global hegemony has come at a huge human cost. Thus 1950-2005 avoidable deaths from deprivation on Spaceship Earth with the US in charge of the flight deck total 1.3 billion for the whole world, 1.2 billion for the non-European world and 0.6 billion for the Muslim world , the latter carnage being 100 times greater than the WW2 Jewish Holocaust (5-6 million Jews killed, 1 in 6 dying from deprivation) [8, 9] or the “forgotten” WW2 Bengali Holocaust in which the British with Australian complicity deliberately starved 6-7 million Indians to death for strategic reasons [10, 11]. 1950-2005 avoidable deaths from deprivation in countries occupied by the US in the post-1945 era total 82 million . Currently 18 million people die avoidably each year in the Developing World under US hegemony.
However climate criminal climate inaction by the US and its allies also exacts a high human cost. Thus DARA estimates that each year 5 million people die from climate change (0.5 million) and carbon burning pollutants (4.5 million) with such deaths expected to total 100 million by 2030 in the absence of requisite climate change action . It has been estimated by several leading climate scientists that only 0.5 billion may survive climate change inaction this century, this corresponding to a climate genocide in which 10 billion people will perish avoidably this century due to political stasis on man-made global warming .
For all its “too little too late” shortcomings, Obama's plan to substantially, albeit only partly, cut pollution from dirty power plants - by 30% off 2005 levels by 2030 - at least partly addresses the huge problem of American deaths linked to such pollution. Thus is estimated that 1.3 million Americans die preventably each year [14, 15] of whom 70,000 die from carbon burning pollutants . The World Health Organization (WHO) recently estimated that 7 million people die each year worldwide from the effects of air pollution, this mainly being from carbon burning pollutants .
According to the US EPA, in 2012 U.S. greenhouse gas emissions totalled 6,526 million tonnes CO2-e of which 9% (587 million tonnes CO2-e ) was due to methane (CH4) and 82% (5, 351 million tonnes CO2-e ) was due to CO2 from coal, gas, oil and wood burning and cement manufacture . Consonant with this estimate, data from US Energy Information Administration (US EIA) indicate that 2012 energy-related CO2 pollution was about 5,500 million tonnes CO2 . Past and projected energy-linked CO2 pollution is in the range of 5,400 -5,600 million tonnes CO2 annually in the period of 2009-2030 . The US EPA indicates that in 2012 electricity production accounted for 32% of GHG pollution (2,088 million tonnes CO2-e) and about half of this is now gas-fired due to the big shift from coal-fired l to gas-fired electricity generation in recent years (the coal-to-gas electricity generation ratio shifting from 2.3 in 2007 to 1.2 in 2012 .
The US Energy Information Administration has assessed a remarkably constant US energy-related CO2 pollution (in millions of tonnes CO2) as follows: 5,418 (2009), 5,608 (2010), 5,381 (2015), 5,454 (2020), 5,501 (2025) , and 5,523 (2030) (average value about 5,500) . If systemic methane leakage is ignored (however see below), the 30% reduction plan would affect only the ostensibly dirtier, coal-based electric power plants and hence encourage a further shift from coal to gas . Ignoring cement production, assuming the 30% reduction only affects coal-fired plants, that the 2005 coal/gas electricity generation mix was about 3, and that total GHG pollution was about the same in 2030, then the savings in 2030 would be 0.3 x 0.75 x 2,088 million tonnes CO2-e = 470 million tonnes CO2-e i.e. 470 x 100/6,526 = 7.2% or a derisory circa 7% decrease in total GHG pollution in 2030 (however, as shown later, when the revised natural gas leakage contribution to total GHG pollution is re-assessed, US total annual GHG pollution is revealed as 10,343.3 million tonnes CO2-e and the Obama Plan's 470 million tonnes CO2-e savings in 2030 will be only 470 x 100/ 10,343.3 = 4.5% ).
Making the same assumptions, the maximum decrease in energy-linked, carbon burning pollutant-related deaths would be 470 x 70,000/ 5,500 = 5,982 or only about 6,000 fewer carbon burning-related deaths per year in 2030. One notes that the pro-gas Obama plan ignores the deaths from carbon burning pollutants from carbon burning other than coal burning for electricity. Thus MIT researchers from have estimated 53,000 untimely deaths annually in the US from vehicle exhaust fine carbon particulates (PM 2.5 ) as compared to a total of 200,000 such American deaths annually from PM 2.5 particulates [ 22]. One notes that PM 2.5 particulates are a significant pollutant from gas-fired power plants  and that the WHO has found no threshold for adverse effects of such fine carbon particulates .
Pro-gas Obama has only been exceeded by the pro-fossil fuel Republicans in contempt for the lives of ordinary Americans, of whom about 200,000 die avoidably each year from the effects of carbon particulates and ozone from carbon burning. Thus Caiazzo et al. from 83-Nobel-Laureate Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): “ Combustion emissions adversely impact air quality and human health. A multiscale air quality model is applied to assess the health impacts of major emissions sectors in United States . Emissions are classified according to six different sources: electric power generation, industry, commercial and residential sources, road transportation, marine transportation and rail transportation. Epidemiological evidence is used to relate long-term population exposure to sector-induced changes in the concentrations of PM 2.5 and ozone to incidences of premature death. Total combustion emissions in the U.S. account for about 200,000 (90% CI: 90,000–362,000) premature deaths per year in the U.S. due to changes in PM 2.5 concentrations, and about 10,000 (90% CI: -1000 to 21,000) deaths due to changes in ozone concentrations. The largest contributors for both pollutant-related mortalities are road transportation, causing ~ 53,000 (90% CI: 24,000–95,000) PM 2.5 -related deaths and ~ 5000 (90% CI: -900 to 11,000) ozone-related early deaths per year, and power generation, causing ~ 52,000 (90% CI: 23,000–94,000) PM 2.5 -related and ~ 2000 (90% CI: -300 to 4000) ozone-related premature mortalities per year. Industrial emissions contribute to ~ 41,000 (90% CI: 18,000–74,000) early deaths from PM 2.5 and ~ 2000 (90% CI: 0–4000) early deaths from ozone. The results are indicative of the extent to which policy measures could be undertaken in order to mitigate the impact of specific emissions from different sectors — in particular black carbon emissions from road transportation and sulfur dioxide emissions from power generation” .
Natural gas (largely methane, CH4) is a dirty energy source because on combustion it yields the greenhouse gas (GHG) CO2. Burning 1 tonne CH4 yields 2.75 tonnes CO2 whereas burning 1 tonne of carbon (C; the major constituent of coal) yields 3.67 tonnes CO2. However CH4 is a gas, leaks and has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) 105 times greater than that of CO2 on a 20 year time frame and taking aerosol impacts into account . Accordinglym to assess the GHG effect of a natural gas-based economy (as the US is rapidly becoming) one needs to know the extent of CH4 leakage. Expert US scientists from top US institutions have now found that CH4 leakage is much higher than reported by the US EPA [26-30].
Mark Golden writing in the Stanford News gives an excellent layperson's summation: “Natural gas consists predominantly of methane. Even small leaks from the natural gas system are important because methane is a potent greenhouse gas – about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. A study, "Methane Leakage from North American Natural Gas Systems," published in the Feb. 14 issue of the journal Science, synthesizes diverse findings from more than 200 studies ranging in scope from local gas processing plants to total emissions from the United States and Canada.… Several other studies have used airplanes and towers to measure actual methane in the air, so as to test total estimated emissions. The new analysis, which is authored by researchers from seven universities, several national laboratories and federal government bodies, and other organizations, found these atmospheric studies covering very large areas consistently indicate total U.S. methane emissions of about 25 to 75 percent higher than the EPA estimate” .
The EPA estimates that in 2012, U.S. GHG emissions totaled 6,526 million tonnes CO2-e and that 9% of this was due to methane  i.e. 0.09 x 6526 million tonnes CO2-e = 587.3 million tonnes CO2-e. However this has to be corrected for (1) underestimation of the leaked CH4 by a conservative factor of 1.5 and (2) EPA underestimation of the GWP of CH4 by using the 100 year GWP of 21 rather than the 20 year GWP (with aerosol impacts included) of 105, this requiring a correction factor of 5 i.e. the corrected CH4 in CO2-e (CO2-equivalent) = 587.3 million tonnes CO2-e x 1.5 x 5 = 4,404.8 million tonnes CO2-e.
Accordingly , the actual annual US GHG pollution = 6,526.0 – 587.3 + 4,404.8 = 10,343.5 million tonnes CO2-e (rather than the 6,526 million tonnes CO2-e proclaimed by the US EPA). Accordingly the 470 million tonnes CO2-e savings in 2030 through the Obama Plan will only be 470 x 100/ 10,343.3 = 4.5% of the total annual US GHG pollution - a derisory saving in view of the worsening climate emergency.
The US population is 313 million (2012) i.e. the US annual per capita GHG pollution is 33.0 tonnes per person per year. By way of comparison, the World population (2012) is 7,000 million and the World GHG pollution is 63,803 Mt CO2-e (2009) (the FAO estimate of 41,755 Mt CO2-e corrected for livestock impact ) and accordingly the annual per capita GHG pollution is 9.1 tonnes per person per year for World, 3.6 times lower than for the US . Reported in the South China Morning Post (2014) “ China 's greenhouse gas emissions would only peak in 2030, at around 11 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent. Emissions now stand at between 7 billion to 9.5 billion tonnes” . A China population (2014) of 1,391 million gives an annual per capita GHG pollution of 9.5 billion tonnes CO2-e /1.391 billion persons = 6.8 tonnes CO2-e per person per year, 33/6.8 = 4.9 times lower than that of the US. Thus, compared to China and the World, the US is disproportionately polluting the one common atmosphere and ocean of all countries.
CH4 has a Global Warming Potential 105 times greater than that of CO2 on a 20 year time frame and taking atmosphere aerosol impacts into account . Accordingly, natural gas can be dirtier than coal GHG-wise depending upon the rate of CH4 leakage. By way of example, in Victoria, Australia for example, an average gas-fired power station could generate 0.75 tonnes CO2-e/MWh of electrical energy, roughly half that of a dirty coal-fired power station's 1.5 tonnes CO2-e/MWh.
If the gas leakage is 2.6% the GHG effect of the leaked gas would equal the GHG effect from burning the remaining 97.4% of the gas and accordingly tonnes CO2-e/MWh would increase by a factor of 2.0 to give 2.0 x 0.75 tonnes CO2-e/MWh = 1.5 tonnes CO2-e/MWh (i.e. as dirty as a coal-fired power station's 1.5 tonnes CO2-e/MWh).
If the gas leakage is 3.3% (the US average  ) then tonnes CO2-e/MWh would increase by a factor of 2.3 to give 1.73 tonnes CO2-e/MWh (i.e. 1.2 times as dirty as a coal-fired power station's 1.5 tonnes CO2-e/MWh) .
If the gas leakage is 7.9% (the upper estimate with shale formation-derived gas ) then. tonnes CO2-e/MWh would increase by a factor of 4.3 to give 3.2 tonnes CO2-e/MWh (roughly 2.1 times as dirty as a coal-fired power station's 1.5 tonnes CO2-e/MWh) .
Professor Robert Howarth from 43-Nobel-Laureate Cornell University and his colleagues have concluded that natural gas is dirtier than coal GHG-wise on a 20 year time frame: “We evaluate the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas obtained by high-volume hydraulic fracturing from shale formations, focusing on methane emissions. Natural gas is composed largely of methane, and 3.6% to 7.9% of the methane from shale-gas production escapes to the atmosphere in venting and leaks over the life-time of a well. These methane emissions are at least 30% more than and perhaps more than twice as great as those from conventional gas [1.7 to 6.0%] . The higher emissions from shale gas occur at the time wells are hydraulically fractured—as methane escapes from flow-back return fluids—and during drill out following the fracturing. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential that is far greater than that of carbon dioxide, particularly over the time horizon of the first few decades following emission. Methane contributes substantially to the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas on shorter time scales, dominating it on a 20-year time horizon. The footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years” .
The coal-to-gas transition touted by the pro-gas Obama Administration and the US gas industry means replacing one dirty energy source (coal) with another dirty energy source (natural gas) that , as exampled above, may indeed be dirtier than coal GHG-wise depending upon the extent of systemic natural gas leakage.
However non-scientist Obama is unfazed by or ignorant of such considerations and was happy to falsely declare that natural gas is “clean energy”(2013): “Today, we use more clean energy – more renewables and natural gas – which is supporting hundreds of thousands of good jobs” . To reiterate: natural gas is dirty energy and can indeed be dirtier GHG-wise than coal.
One can at least give some credit to the pro-gas, climate criminal Obama Administration for “baby steps” in the right direction and for good rhetoric about the need for climate change action, in contrast to the climate change denialism and effective climate change denialism of the terracidal fossil fuel industry and the terracidal Republicans [37, 38].
Thus Obama (2013): “Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest” . Well, many human collectives from corporations to towns, cities, states and countries are investing for 100% renewable energy ASAP  and many organizations including towns, cities, universities, colleges , churches and investment funds are divesting from increasingly risky fossil fuels . Secretary of State John Kerry in a powerful speech in Jakarta , Indonesia (2014) warned of the seriousness of global warming, slammed the climate change denialists and stated: “Today I call on all of you in Indonesia and concerned citizens around the world to demand the resolve that is necessary from your leaders. Speak out. Make climate change an issue that no public official can ignore for another day. Make a transition towards clean energy the only plan that you are willing to accept” . Fine words but pathetic action from the Obama Administration as outlined above.
Summary and conclusions.
The Obama Administration recognizes the serious threat to Humanity from man-made global warming but is hamstrung by a climate criminal, Neocon American and Zionist Imperialist One Percenter Establishment and a Congress that has been successfully lobbied by the terracidal fossil fuel industry in Murdochracy, Lobbyocracy and Corporatocracy America .
The best the Obama Administration thinks it can do is to invoke the Clean Air Act and achieve 30% off the 2005 level of the GHG pollution by dirty, coal-fired power stations by 2030. It is estimated that this will achieve savings equivalent to only a derisory 4.5% of the current total US annual greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution estimated from taking upwardly revised estimates of methane leakage into account. Annual American carbon burning–based deaths would decrease by only about 6,000, noting that annual carbon burning-related deaths from fine PM 2.5 carbon particulates alone have been estimated at 200,000.
The significant effect of Obama's EPA-based move (assuming that it survives legal assaults by the Republicans and fossil fuel corporations) will be to further promote the current dramatic shift from coal-based to gas-based electricity. However this policy is flawed because (1) gas is dirty energy and a coal-to-gas policy locks in this dirty energy for decades , and (2) high systemic gas leakage means that using natural gas to generate electrical power can be dirtier GHG-wise than using coal.
The Obama plan is too little too late . The whole world's 2010-2050 terminal carbon pollution budget that must not be exceeded if we are to have a 75% chance of avoiding a catastrophic 2C temperature rise is 600 billion tonnes CO2 and the US finally used up its “fair share” of this terminal carbon pollution budget before mid- 2014. . The US is already stealing the residual carbon pollution entitlement of all other countries. With an annual per capita GHG pollution 3.6 times greater than the world average and nearly 5 times greater than China's, the US remains remorselessly committed to disproportionate pollution of the one common atmosphere and ocean of all nations. The war criminal, climate criminal, Neocon American and Zionist Imperialist One Percenters running the US are characterized, whether in warmongering or climate change inaction, by genocidal racism, murderous hegemony, global larceny and utter mendacity.
We are running out of time to prevent climate catastrophe [41, 42]. What can decent people –and especially the young - do in the face of worsening climate injustice and intergenerational injustice ? Decent people must (a) inform everyone they can, (b) urge and apply Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against all those climate criminal people, politicians, parties, companies, corporations and countries disproportionately complicit in the worsening climate crisis and climate change inaction , and (c) vote 1 Green.
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Dr Gideon Polya has been teaching science students at a major Australian university for 4 decades. He published some 130 works in a 5 decade scientific career, most recently a huge pharmacological reference text "Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive Compounds" (CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, New York & London , 2003). He has published “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950” (G.M. Polya, Melbourne, 2007: http://globalbodycount.blogspot.com/ ); see also his contributions “Australian complicity in Iraq mass mortality” in “Lies, Deep Fries & Statistics” (edited by Robyn Williams, ABC Books, Sydney, 2007: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ockham/stories/s1445960.htm ) and “Ongoing Palestinian Genocide” in “The Plight of the Palestinians (edited by William Cook, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2010: http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/4047-the-plight-of-the-palestinians.html ). He has published a revised and updated 2008 version of his 1998 book “Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History” (see: http://janeaustenand.blogspot.com/ ) as biofuel-, globalization- and climate-driven global food price increases threaten a greater famine catastrophe than the man-made famine in British-ruled India that killed 6-7 million Indians in the “forgotten” World War 2 Bengal Famine (see recent BBC broadcast involving Dr Polya, Economics Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen and others: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/social-economic-history/listen-the-bengal-famine ). When words fail one can say it in pictures - for images of Gideon Polya's huge paintings for the Planet, Peace, Mother and Child see: http://sites.google.com/site/artforpeaceplanetmotherchild/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/gideonpolya/ .
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