Two articles that appear in the New York Times on June 15, 2011 should help to make it more clear to more thinking people – Russia, the world’s largest natural gas exporter, stands to gain the most money by an illogical, politically driven shift away from nuclear energy.
It baffles me why there is so much reluctance among even my friends and colleagues to accept my assertion that there is a relationship between that monetary gain and the strength of the antinuclear movement that is pushing the ill considered policies. Some sincere antinuclear people are not on the payroll of the natural gas pushers, but they have been conditioned through advertising and repetitive statements by “experts” that gas is “the cleanest fossil fuel” that it is a “bridge fuel” to a renewable energy utopia, and that it is “abundant” and “cheap”.
Let me remind you of a fact about methane (aka natural gas). It is an inferior fuel product. Sure, it burns fairly cleanly – for a hydrocarbon fossil fuel. However, it is a GAS, otherwise known as a VAPOR that is difficult to store and expensive to transport. You cannot move it from its place of origin to its place of consumption in simple, atmospheric pressure tanks. You cannot move it from a local storage location into an engine or boiler with a simple liquid pump. You cannot accept minor leaks in piping systems without risk of explosions.
There is a good reason why, even today, there are flares that continuously burn such large quantities of gas that they show up clearly on satellite photos. Without an immediate demand from a large, well-connected market, methane is a dangerous waste product that requires immediate disposal in order to protect workers and equipment.
It was methane that exploded in Middletown, Connecticut on February 7, 2010, destroying the still under construction Kleen Energy Plant, causing a boom that was heard 15 miles away, cracked home foundation more than a mile away and killed 7 workers. It was methane that exploded at the Upper Big Branch mine accident in April 2010 and killed 29 coal miners.
It was methane that exploded at the Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, killing 11 workers and initiating an oil gusher that dumped millions of barrels of toxic, nasty crude oil into a reasonably clean and productive body of water over a period of more than half a year. It was methane running in large pipes directly under a peaceful, unsuspecting neighborhood that exploded in San Bruno, California in September 2010, killing at least 6 people who were simply going about their daily business.
The network of natural gas (methane) pipes in the US and Europe is tens of thousands of miles long. Some sections were installed during or immediately following World War II and have an ever increasing probability of explosive ruptures. Many of those pipes, quite logically, run directly under heavily populated areas as they bring the product from the source to the market.
Natural gas has some very rich and powerful friends who have a keen understanding of the techniques taught in advertising schools. Contrary to popular mythology, natural gas is not produced mainly by “mom and pop” drillers; the industry is dominated by multinational corporations like Exxon (50% of its energy production comes from gas), Chevron, Gazprom, Shell, and BP. The well-funded marketing professionals who work for those companies are skilled at employing distraction as a propaganda technique. They obscure what should be well-known weaknesses and instead emphasize the beneficial aspects of their product.
They deploy carefully conceived messaging designed to take advantage of the chemical fact that oxidizing (burning) CH4 (the molecular symbol for methane) produces about 60% as much CO2 per unit of heat released as oxidizing (burning) C (which is the element symbol that most closely represents coal) because some of the energy that is produced comes from oxidizing the hydrogen to produce H2O.
That improvement is just not impressive enough, so they teach spokesmen to wave their hands a bit more to explain that the heat engines that run on methane can be sophisticated combined cycle gas turbines that use the latest advances in materials and computational fluid dynamics, and those machines can be as much as 50% more efficient than the old fashioned steam plants that run on carbon (coal). They do not like to mention that methane burners can also be simple cycle, highly responsive aeroderivative gas turbines that operate at a LOWER efficiency than many base load coal plants.
When you ignore the effect of potential leaks in the fuel supply chain, it is possible to claim – almost honestly – that the most efficient methane burners produce just 45% of the CO2 of the average coal burners. Not surprisingly, the complexity of that discussion is rarely mentioned in the 10-30 second sound bites published as advertising or as quotes from the energy experts published in advertiser supported media outlets or opined during political strategy and decision meetings in back offices in Washington DC..
By the way, if anyone happens to question that myth and produce honest technical material exposing the reality that burning methane is just about as bad for the environment as burning coal, watch out. The natural gas industry and its fan base will react indignantly and seek to do all they can to discredit the source of information so that it slowly disappears from the public eye. That is part of the strategy taught by marketing experts – suppress negative information in the knowledge that the public memory can be mercifully short if more recent stories (or careful editorial decisions) push the reminders off of the front pages.
Advertising classes also teach, however, that the public memory, however, can be encouraged to be quite long by frequent repetition of myths and legends – like the complete fabrication that thousands of people were killed by a nuclear plant accident in the Ukraine more than 25 years ago. With repetition, the public may also be taught to remember the more recent lie that the spent fuel pool Fukushima Unit 4 experienced a fire that dumped large quantities of radioactive material into the environment. (The truth is that the spent fuel pool at Unit 4 did not burn and did not release any dangerous quantities of material.).
The truth is that, unlike burning methane, fissioning uranium or thorium is not just somewhat less polluting that burning coal; it is so good at preventing gaseous pollution that it can be used as a power source inside sealed submarines. Not surprisingly, people who fight against nuclear energy respond indignatly when anyone claims that nuclear fission is emission-free power, even when thousands of us can offer personal testimony about sharing a tiny volume of air for months at a time with an operating power plant.
Professional nuclear opponents love to make wild calculations about all of the energy that must be involved in the fuel cycle even though it only consumes about 70,000 tons of material every year. They point to the energy invested in the plant construction effort – which uses significantly less material per unit of energy output than their favored sources of wind or solar.
It is odd that when it comes to trying to force the shut down of already built nuclear plants, professional antinuclear activists have no problem forgetting how worried they were about all of the CO2 produced during the plant construction effort. They are quite willing to waste all of that invested energy and to force near term production of even more CO2 by pushing for an immediate plant decommissioning. The logically better plan for the atmosphere would be to allow the plant run for a few more decades while producing emission-free power. Remember the mantra – reduce, reuse, recycle. For a true environmentalist, throwing useful resources away violates a fundamental philosophy.
I have to get back to the main point. When operating nuclear plants are illogically forced to shut down as a result of an overreaction to a natural disaster that destroyed vulnerably located plants but did not cause any negative health effects, the natural gas industry immediately benefits. The consumer demand for the power did not disappear.
Replacing the power output of a large nuclear plant requires burning an additional 180 to 200 million cubic feet (5 – 6 million cubic meters) of methane (natural gas) each day. That means that someone SELLS an additional 180 to 200 million cubic feet that they were not selling the day before the nuclear plant shut down.
Selling more fuel means putting more money in their pocket. The prospect of earning millions of unexpected dollars every day is a strong motivation for working to force the nuclear plant to shut down even if there is no logical reason for taking that action. I refuse to believe that large masses of people will, on their own, make irrational and self-defeating decisions. I can believe, however, that it is quite possible through the skillful use of modern communications tools, to hypnotize large masses into making silly short term decisions that may soon be regretted. That fact has been proven many times by some very nasty people.
Pay attention to the hard sell effort that is working to force nuclear plants to shut down and to delay new plants from being built and operated. FOLLOW THE MONEY!
Ask yourself, do I really want to continue to live in a world dominated by natural gas pushers? Then ask the same question of your neighbors, your colleagues and your elected representatives. Do you want live in a world where the oligarchs at Gazprom or the greedy executives at BP have their hands on the valves that control the fuel supply?
If you are a utility decision maker, ask yourself and your board of directors if you should be planning to build new plants that can only burn gas or distillate fuel oil. Is it really a profitable strategy to be buying cheap gas on short term contracts in a commodity market where prices that have proven that they can follow the pattern displayed in the below graph?
Wouldn’t it be a better strategy to be taking advantage of slack labor markets and low interest rates to be building durable new nuclear capacity as fast as you can so that you are ready when the inevitable price spikes occur? Wouldn’t it be better to be able to be sanguine when the people who have been warning about the negative effects of dumping 20 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year are proven to be close to reality in their predictions?
Why is anyone listening to the methane marketers and the petroleum pushers who have so much to gain from an illogical effort to halt nuclear energy development? Why is it so hard to get people to notice that they are being led down a primrose path into a very dangerous neighborhood?
Energy Tribune (June 20, 2011) Russia End-Winner of Anti-Nuclear Wave