As a reminder, the words “smoking gun” in a blog title here at Atomic Insights means that the post will be about a direct attack on the use of nuclear fission by someone who represents one of its many energy supply competitors – oil, coal, natural gas or one of the weaker alternative energy sources. Sometimes the criticism of atomic fission is straightforward, sometimes it is a bit more subtle and involves the passive aggressive technique of “damning with faint praise”.
On July 8, 2009, former Senator Tim Wirth was invited to give the keynote address to the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s Rocky Mountain Natural Gas Strategy Conference. Tim Wirth is a former six term congressman and single term senator from Colorado and is currently serving as the President of the UN Foundation, a non-profit founded by Ted Turner in 1998.
This speech provides a wonderful insight into the political and economic strategy of the natural gas industry – it is so revealing that I am surprised that the video has not been censored or taken off of the web. Perhaps no one else has noted just how clearly Wirth lays out the recommended industry strategy to ensure a firm base of demand for its “low” carbon product. You can find the strategy speech at the home page of COGA by looking for the link titled Watch Sen. Tim Wirth deliver the keynote address at the Rocky Mountain Energy Epicenter Conference You can also watch it as an embedded video on Joe Romm’s ClimateProgress blog on his post titled Game Changer 4: Tim Wirth delivers must-read “extreme words” to natural gas execs. . .”
In the video accessible the COGA site (Joe did not include this part in his embedded version), you will hear Senator Wirth being introduced as a “one of natural gas’s strongest champions, most intelligent and literate champions”. The introduction continued “Tim was a consistent, early champion of natural gas worked with COGA often to help us get markets, get transportation to help us get understood as the clean burning fuel that we were. He had early recognition was an early thought leaders and also someone who took action.”
The introduction also included a mention of Wirth’s current position as the leader of the UN Foundation “which is a project partially, perhaps totally of Ted Turner’s, who is a champion of natural gas and has a thousand gas coal bed methane wells on his ranch in Vermeho and is very proud of the relationship that he has developed with the natural gas industry.” The introduction concludes with the following statement: “This is a man of character and integrity and vision who has stood with this industry for many years and who right now has a vision for the future that I think we need to listen to.
After being introduced, Senator Wirth passed on well wishes from his boss.
“I also bring special greetings from Ted Turner. As Fred says, Ted is the largest landowner in American. He has a 650,000 acre ranch in a range in southern Colorado going down into northern New Mexico. That’s one of 24 ranches that he has. And on the Vermeho he has a very large natural gas operation. He has a thousand wells there. As many of you know Ted is a fierce entrepreneur and also an extraordinarily outspoken Environmentalist. He combines both of these in the work that is going on in natural gas on the Vermeho which is real state of the art as to how to do it. He will be very happy to welcome anybody who wants to come and see how he and El Paso have worked out this arrangement. It’s just very, very well done.”
You can read the text of Wirth’s speech, but there are a few places where he departs from his prepared remarks – which are pretty clear with regard to the need for natural gas to establish and expand its markets anyway – where he emphasizes the importance of fuel competition. Right after a bullet list of points where natural gas interests should have been included in the legislation (on page 3 and 4 of the PDF of the speech text) Wirth admonished the assembled members of COGA
“Your brothers in the fossil fuel industry aren’t leaving you alone, but you are leaving them alone.
Of course, in order to qualify as a “smoking gun” Wirth’s speech must also include criticism of nuclear energy, but remember, this man is a professional politician who clearly understands the value of casting aspersions on his opposition without upsetting them too much. Wirth damns nuclear energy by including two references to the dangers of nuclear proliferation to nations like Iran and by listing it after energy efficiency, fuel switching, renewable fuels like wind, solar and biomass on his comment about the need for “all technologies in our portfolio.” For people like me who read between the lines, he also makes it very clear that there will be a battle over the electrical generation market – he calls out the coal industry specifically for its careful positioning in Waxman-Markey, but there is no doubt that the audience knows that nuclear energy already has a 20% share of that market and is poised to grow it quickly in a carbon constrained world – unless they take effective action.
During the question and answer session, Wirth is even more clear about the need for the natural gas industry to fight for provisions in the climate change legislation that will help them to establish a continuing market demand for their product. He warns about imported LNG and about the provisions that coal advocates successfully included in the Waxman-Markey bill passed by the House of Representatives.
What’s the option. You can stay where you are today with vast amounts of natural gas coming in from all the new sources domestically; the Liquified Natural Gas market around the world has collapsed so I bet you anything that almost all of that is going to come into the United States. The price of natural gas is going to continue to decline and your industry is going to continue to wallow. That’s your own choice. From my perspective, why do I think that’s a bad deal? What’s going to happen is that coal is going to continue – as it has – to have this major claim on the future for how we generate electricity and that’s exactly the wrong thing in terms of global climate change. That’s exactly the wrong thing to have happen. That’s why I am here today. You all should be moving in aggressively into that generation and there are lots of ways of doing it. You all should be doing it and why is that important? Because you are a low-carbon fuel; you are the bridge to the future.
I have watched the video carefully – several times – and Senator Wirth seems to be a very sincere man, but it is hard to understand how increased use of a fuel that produces at least 50% (and probably much more) of the CO2 when burned as its coal competition can POSSIBLY achieve the stated goal of 90% CO2 emissions reductions by 2050. The math is simply impossible, unless you also reduce the total amount of fossil fuel consumption compared to today by at least 70%. I also noticed that Wirth uses the prescription that has been the natural gas mantra since Amory Lovins proposed it in his 1976 article for Foreign Affairs when he claimed that natural gas is “the bridge to the future.”
It is time for the nuclear advocates to get aggressive as well. We do not need a slightly lower pollution fossil fuel eating our lunch and dissing us by ignoring our existence or dismissing the value of our technology. Neither coal no
r gas are “the most abundant American fuels”, uranium and thorium found in domestic sources each have tens of times more potential energy stored in their nuclei. Heck, there is probably more potential energy stored in already mined uranium in used fuel pools and in the “depleted” uranium tails containers than in all of the fossil fuels ever found in North America.
Natural gas may be a slightly lower carbon fuel than oil and a bit more rosy when compared to natural gas, but we have a ZERO carbon fuel available that is so clean it can operate inside a sealed submarine. Aside: You cannot expect that the current nuclear industry will lead this charge. Remember who their friends are.
Update: (Posted on August 22, 2009 at 0954) The Environmental Capital Blog has an interesting post about the relationship between the wind and gas industries. Wind and Natural Gas: Frenemies Forever.