Fifth Estate

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans
Putting the Reins on the Gas Industry:

The free market cannot be trusted with climate security.

By Benjamin Hayward.

Sea levels will rise to threaten coastal cities; droughts will pose a greater challenge to food security; and extreme weather events will cause more damage throughout the world. That the climate is warming, that it is caused by carbon emissions, and that it will continue to wreak havoc on our at-risk populations is undebatable. Only two questions remain: What magnitude of calamity do we consider acceptable? And how will we draw the line on climate change?

Governments around the world have tentatively agreed to a 2-degree-Celsius limit on rising temperatures in order to prevent dramatically altering our climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggested this means a carbon emissions budget for the world of 1,000 gigatons (GTCO2) between now and 2050. The International Energy Agency states that the world’s total proven reserves contain 2,860 GTCO2. Combining these two estimates means that only a third of all discovered fossil fuels that remain sequestered in the earth can be extracted before we reach a climate disaster.

At our current rise in temperatures, however, we are on the fast track to breach 2C of warming unless limits are enforced. Based on today’s rates of carbon emissions, the rise in global average temperature will surpass 2C sometime between 2045 and 2075.

Adding to these dire predictions, new research published late in 2013 suggests allowing even 2C of warming is too much. As the world has already experienced consequences of climate change from little more than 1C of warming over the last century, leading scientist James Hansen suggests striving for a limit of 2C more is “foolhardy”. The study also says that allowing even 1,000 GTCO2 would have a compounding effect with other greenhouse gases and would likely lead to an average warming of even higher than 2C with disastrous consequences.

“The case we make is that 2C itself is a very dangerous target to be aiming for,” he told The Guardian. “Society should reassess what are dangerous levels, given the impacts that we have already seen.” Hansen suggests governments should begin working immediately and seriously towards safer carbon limits to stay within an acceptable level of climate change.

But what is an acceptable level? And what is the cost associated with it? This is why society, with the backing of strong research, should be having a debate over what our climate is worth to us.

Today, the debate is often set in the context of the explosion of hydraulic fracturing. This recently developed technology is changing the face of energy security around the world as new sources of gas are becoming recoverable and new countries are reaping the benefits.

The economic growth produced by hydrofracking cannot be ignored, but the lure of energy wealth must be balanced against the IPCC’s suggestions that nearly two thirds of natural gas and other sources of hydrocarbons must be left in the earth. An obvious obstacle to this is that, by its very nature, the free market will not self-impose this regulation.

Hydrofracking has come with other controversies, such as the contamination of local ground water. Most debate of hydrofracking so far has been on these fronts. The industry holds that if the process is done correctly, no ground water should be contaminated. A growing number of contamination cases, however, have caused concern primarily among residents in the areas of proposed hydrofracking wells. For the gas companies, an unknown chance of contamination is worth the compensation and cleanup it might cost them if caught and held accountable. For the minority of citizens living in close proximity to gas wells, however, their livelihood, health, and homes are not worth the gamble that hydrofracking brings with it.

It is for these risk factors that a number of governments have imposed temporary moratoriums on the use of hydrofracking technology. With the level of profits involved, the gas industry is willing to take on the expense of a small number of out-of-court settlements whenever ground water contamination occurs. This is how the gas industry today is handling self-regulation of its environmental fallout. For this reason, some governments found it necessary to step in with a small amount of ethical oversight.

Any ban or delays on the use of hydrofracking technology, however, have been made on the argument that the risk involved to local ground water must be more carefully scrutinized. Except from environmental activists, there has been little opposition to the industry arguing that we must consider responsible limits for recovering and burning fossil fuels. The gas industry’s policy of ‘Screw up today; pay compensation tomorrow,’ however is unacceptable for climate change.

The free market cannot be allowed to run its course on the use of hydrocarbons. We must weigh the short term gains of economic development from hydrofracking vs. the long term environmental disaster of rising global temperatures and decide where to draw the line. Too many politicians and CEOs today are making decisions regarding hydrofracking and the burning of fossil fuels well aware that the oil industry is unsustainable but also that the fallout of their decisions will not be felt until well after their retirement.

Society must have a dialog to decide what are reasonable and responsible limits on carbon emissions and the resulting climate change. U.N. climate talks are expected to culminate in a global agreement on emissions by 2015. Our governments must put these decisions into action and put strong reins on the oil and gas industry.

Mr. Hayward is a journalist and assistant editor at The Global Intelligence Publications.

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