Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Another Cost of Fossil Fuel Dependence: Waste (That is Also Pollution)

Sometimes we learn about new twists to the story of how humanity's burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas) is causing a blanket of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) to build up in our atmosphere.

In this particular case, Grist reports that faulty wells, pipelines and other infrastructure problems are causing leakage of an unbelievable amount of methane into our atmosphere (methane is 25 times more potent of a heat-trapping gas than CO2).  This waste is not just mind-bogglingly polluting, but is also obscenely expensive -- it could could be worth over $50 billion per year! 

The NY Times and Grist provide more details.  Here are a couple of highlights:

The EPA estimates that 3 trillion cubic feet of the invisible gas unintentionally escape into the atmosphere each year from patchy gas and oil wells, pipelines, and tanks. This accidental loss alone is equivalent to about half of the global warming power of all U.S. coal power plants emissions.  That is the same climate impact of a quarter billion cars.

Roger Peilke Jr., professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, does an admirable job of estimating the commercial value cost of leaking methane at $24 billion. But there is more to the story—the cost to society of this methane leakage adds up to a much higher number.

Methane, like CO2, carries a social cost which must be accounted for—each ton emitted into the atmosphere exacts a toll.  Weather variability will threaten crops; rising sea levels will submerge coastal lands; insurance premiums will rise as more homes are at risk of flooding and fires.  As global warming worsens, these costs will become sharper, causing economic pain across the globe. Though no one benefits from leaking methane, we all pay for its effect on our climate.

Recently, the Department of Energy used a conservative estimate, $19, to price out the cost to society of a ton of CO2 emissions.  Knowing that, and the fact that methane is 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide, we can do some simple multiplication and determine that the social cost of leaky methane hovers around $29 billion annually.  This is in addition to Professor Peilke’s commercial value lost, bringing the grand total to over $50 billion.

Yeesh!  This is another reminder of just how beneficial to America it will be to get climate change and clean energy solutions legislation passed in Congress ASAP.  The sooner we can get ourselves off of these damaging fossil fuels, the better.

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