We can't tackle fossil fuels without addressing freight, flying, plastics and chemicals

We can't tackle fossil fuels without addressing freight, flying, plastics and chemicals
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A few years ago, a prominent energy CEO told Congress how important government support was to the continued growth of his industry. He noted tax provisions that were key to attracting investment, allowing them to innovate, and to take risks in order to “fail over and over again.”

This wasn’t a renewable energy company CEO asking for tax extenders. The CEO making the plea for continued support, was oil tycoon Harold Hamm. It’s probably not surprising that the senators agreed to preserve the well over 50-year-old tax incentives. What may be surprising is that, at a high level, I think Hamm’s argument was largely right.

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In fact, he significantly undercounted the depth of the U.S. Government support for the breakthrough technologies of directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing. In addition to the incentives for private sector risk taking, DOE’s national labs had spent many years and millions of dollars to get to the point where the private sector could even begin to make money. That’s the way it’s supposed to work — the government helps take the risk early on and then shapes the market to deliver benefits to society. What Hamm misses is that America’s energy goals have changed over time. It’s not 1976. We now have the technology to deliver energy security and economic growth without compromising the world our children inherit. 

To hear the politicians aligned with the oil industry, advocates for renewables and the Green New Deal want to pull the plug on the fossil fuel party just when it’s getting going. They make it sound like they’ve just discovered vast new reserves that can finally deliver the “American energy dominance” we’ve craved since the humiliating energy crunch of the 1970s when OPEC turned off the flow and we saw how dependent we really were on hostile foreign powers. But the crisis we face today isn’t one of gasoline shortages. Today, we know the rising accumulation of CO2 threatens the planet. 

A few facts: We currently consume 12 million barrels of oil in the U.S. every day. That’s about eight Exxon Valdez supertankers every single day consumed and turned into miles traveled and products made. The transportation sector alone sees about 5 million metric tons (yes, tons of air) of heat-trapping CO2 added to our atmosphere each day that was previously locked away underground by plants and animals millions of years ago.

As I’ve pointed out before, there is nothing remotely controversial about the scientific fact that thickening the atmosphere by converting subterranean carbon into new CO2 will trap more heat. If we are to avoid imposing human suffering on a scale humanity has never approached before, we have to take these enormous numbers down to zero within our lifetimes — 20 to 30 years, at the most.

When it comes to oil, that means figuring out a way to not only replace the half a barrel of oil that becomes gasoline. But we will also need to replace the products we've learned to make from crude oil — which make up the other half of our nation’s oil consumption.

This is where government R&D becomes a huge factor and where the Trump administration’s ridiculous ideological budget shows itself as completely divorced from reality. Even if the administration doesn’t want to make a big show of it, we’ve made incredible strides in producing everything from plastics and rubber to jet fuel to chemicals and composites from sustainable sources. Replacing gasoline with low carbon biofuels is important. But replacing petroleum with bio-based products for bio-plastics, bio-based chemicals, and non-gasoline fuels is also a critical step in solving climate change.

Despite this progress on many fronts, people still seem to talk about biofuels as if it were only about ethanol added to gasoline for replacing a percentage of the fuel burned in our individual cars. To be sure, we have made tremendous progress on making sure the ethanol we use today in the U.S. has the lowest carbon footprint it ever has. But there’s no need to stop the progress there. Consistent policy support, R&D, and deployment incentives can make the larger bio-economy envisioned by the experts at Energy Department and the USDA a reality, harnessing the know-how of our farmers and lifting rural economies in the process. Such government investment led to cheap natural gas, the first nuclear reactors, and lower cost solar panels. Now we need it to drive innovation in the 21st-century bio-economy.

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The reason is pretty simple. If you take the problem of eliminating carbon intensive fossil fuels seriously, we have to think holistically about replacing fossil fuels. Cars are part of that equation. But moving freight, flying and producing everything from consumer plastics, to tires, to chemicals, to roads, currently uses refinery byproducts that liberate fossil carbon. We have to replace that too.

Plants have developed a powerful process for turning atmospheric CO2 into useful structures, we can’t afford to keep ignoring this tremendous leg up nature has given us on solving humanity’s thorniest problem. It’s good for the planet, and good for America’s farmers and entrepreneurs working to find ways to turn plants into valuable products. The benefits for America will be enormous, and the federal government needs to stop writing reports and invest in making this future a reality.

Mike Carr is the executive director of New Energy America, an organization that promotes clean energy jobs in rural America. Previously, he served as principal deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy.