By Humaira Taz
FOSEP at UTK came up with the novel idea of having online discussions on Slack. For those unfamiliar with Slack, it’s an online platform that enhances communication and discussion within a group. Since with a campus group it is often difficult to coordinate and schedule a physical meeting to discuss topics of interest, we thought it might be more convenient to have weekly discussions on Slack so that people can join in from wherever they are. Our first discussion was last Thursday, 28th September…..and (drumroll) it was a success!
The topic for our discussion was “An America First Energy Plan”, the current government’s initiative to make America energy-independent from other nations. Here are some highlights of what this plan aims to accomplish:
- ” President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule. Lifting these restrictions will greatly help American workers, increasing wages by more than $30 billion over the next 7 years.”
- “The Trump Administration will embrace the shale oil and gas revolution to bring jobs and prosperity to millions of Americans. We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own.”
- “The Trump Administration is also committed to clean coal technology, and to reviving America’s coal industry, which has been hurting for too long.”
- “Protecting clean air and clean water, conserving our natural habitats, and preserving our natural reserves and resources will remain a high priority. President Trump will refocus the EPA on its essential mission of protecting our air and water.”
We at FOSEP had several questions: is it feasible to exploit shale oil, gas, and coal, and still protect the environment? What would be the economic costs of not tapping into resources present at home? Is it good for the economy? Is it good for the environment? Is there an alternative?
The discussion began with a promise for nuclear energy being the middleman between energy security and saving the environment. Although nuclear seems like the go-to solution at a glance, it’s still not as cheap as oil and gas. One FOSEP member said, “With Westinghouse filing for bankruptcy recently and nuclear struggling to complete with low natural gas prices, it’s hard to make a “raw” economic argument in favor. You have to consider the benefits to national security, the environment, etc. for it to really look beneficial.” Although the current Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, made a statement to “make nuclear cool again”, there is no mention of it on the government’s plan.
Nuclear power has its own baggage too. First and foremost, the government still has not figured out how to process the spent fuels. Typically nuclear power plants store the spent fuel inside pools to contain the radiation, and according to our secretary, Holly Ray, many facilities have filled pools and are having to rent out pools. She also mentioned that it takes several years to transfer the spent fuel from these pools to dry storage, where they can be stored for more than 30 years….but then again, for how long? The more storage is required, the more cost builds up.
Alternately, the US could recycle the spent fuel like many other European countries. However, there is a security issue related to that; and more importantly, reprocessing is technically hard and really expensive compared to just mining more uranium.
From there, the focus of our discussion shifted a little to how the policies are made more with a focus on the short-term economic goals. Joy Buongiorno, one of FOSEP’s public relations officers, mentioned that for the average John Doe, the worry is more about where the next meal is coming from instead of thinking ahead into the next 20 years. While there’s nothing wrong with being concerned about the imminent future, one needs to consider how the environment is going to be affected…because let’s be honest, we cannot relocate to Mars yet. Thus we should not be taking the same steps as those taken during the Industrial Revolution of England. There is not doubt that the revolution flourished their economy, but it initiated a terrible, non-reversible damage to the environment. Technology has brought us far from that time period, so there is no excuse for this era to make those same mistakes.
So what can we do as scientists to work with a government that is already determined to exploit fossil fuels?
One option is to tag along with private investors and get R&D projects going on renewable energy. However, the catch is that at some point there “will have to be state or federal adoption of their technologies (plugging into the grid, etc)” as explained by another member. She suggested we focus on saving the Arctic, which brought us to a new tangent of discussion: how much of the Arctic does the US own? Turns out the US is one out of 8 nations to have land in Arctic… and that includes Alaska. My personal understanding was that fossil fuel reserves have been discovered in the Arctic, instigating nations like Russia and China to post their flags on the ice-covered region. However, the logistic difficulties of exploring the Arctic along with the availability of fossil fuel reserves already available have slowed down the approach to the Arctic. Regardless, there is a high chance that within a few decades the Arctic will become a hot topic.
Coming back to the government’s plan on exploiting fossil fuel, we discussed how cheap they are currently that there is economically no initiative to make a switch from them to something more environment friendly. It was mentioned that natural gas is so cheap in some states that they burn it as a by product of the oil because it would cost more to actually STORE it. Ouch.
At this point, there was some basis to say that the America First Energy Plan might have some negative effects on the environment. However, there are still steps we can take to make sure that if the government is going to exploit fossil fuel at all costs, we might as well minimize the damage done to the environment. Some common technologies in that regard are carbon sequestration (by subterranean storage), and also conversion of the by-products to useful materials and liquid fuel. Once again, it all comes down to the cost of it since big corporations only care about their profit margin and not about possible side-effects on the environment. I was naive enough to suggest the government could hold them accountable for all the damage done by the increasing number of natural disasters, but I was quickly shut down since it alluded to carbon tax. A carbon tax will not be a popular idea in the current political situation.
Another member in the group mentioned something very interesting: how to get the government to listen. He said, “I got to meet one of the white house program director for USDA funding activities in bioenergy and biomaterials. He showed really great ways to leverage “conservative political concerns” to support biomaterials and bioenergy.”
“One fact was that for everyone 1 bioeconomy job created in the US, 1.85 other ancillary jobs are creating in support. That has remained constant for the last 5-6 years. Those statistics he said have helped him boost initiatives in bioproducts (not fuels),” he continued.
So the gist of it all was that if you could show that a renewable energy source is creating jobs and has price parity, you could potentially get the support of our political leaders. In addition, once there is price parity, consumer choices can force big companies to make the shift to more responsible supply chains. “BASF is an example, they have plans to to move some of their specialty chemicals to fully biobased. Dow is moving that way too with a 20 or so year plan,” he mentioned. Another member mentioned that Chevron has been gearing up building a renewable energy group for years now, and Halliburton does a lot of the services for geothermal wells and carbon sequestration tech.
Therefore, methods still exist to make environment-friendly energy sources more palatable to the government and to the average John Doe. We just have to know the right techniques to approach them. If, instead of pressing how solar power is good for the environment, we highlighted how it is creating a whole new set of jobs such as solar installers who are skilled tradesmen, we could get more support for it throughout the nation.
At the same time, we are talking about politics here, and lobbying is a big part of it. Even if the economic aspects of a renewable energy make sense, there is usually a strong negative lobby against it. Regardless, if scientists can learn the language to communicate and convince the general public, there will still be hope to make environment-friendly policies even with the current government.
Last word from me: we will have engaging and thought-provoking Slack discussions like this every Thursday at 8:30PM (EST), so please join Slack at fosep-utk.slack.com/join/signup to participate!