EPA, Coal, Clean Energy, Sustainable Energy

Just a few days ago, the EPA announced new rules on the emission of carbon (and specifically carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere. This was specifically aimed at coal fired electric generating plants, being seen as one of the largest contributors to non-organic carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere, especially here in the USA, although also with a nudge to the People’s Republic of China who are opening a new coal fired electric generating plant every week for the last couple of years.


I just read an article from Sheeraz Haji, CEO, Cleantech Group, which took a very optimistic view of how this would be a positive step for utility companies, and pointed to some of the more forward looking of those, especially those who had made investments in Cleantech like the purchase of cleantech companies and technologies.  Those were encouraging signs, but there are also warning posts on every fence post along this superhighway to the future, and I thought it was necessary to comment on at least a couple of them. I’ll try to limit myself to just a couple, because I am sorry to report that despite my usual optimism about getting some of the really “green” and sustainable alternative to overwhelm the practices of today, I tend to have a lump of pessimism in my throat every time I try to imagine that there are not a whole cavalry of well paid lawyers and engineers out there working to preserve the status quo and protect the capital value of their assets in the ground (coal, oil and natural gas, for a start) rather than thinking of new ways to make them worth even more by switching to alternative energy sources and turning their assets into source material for more highly manufactured goods with higher profit margins than $10/ton coal.

Sad to say, there IS NOT SUCH THING AS GREEN COAL. Obviously I don’t mean green colored coal (there probably is some of that somewhere), I mean that no matter how clean burning it, you would have to invent a machine that defied the laws of physics to be able to “burn” coal, extract a net amount of energy from it, and then put the carbon back into the rock and make it part of the geology again, rather than part of the atmosphere. That is the essence of the coal/oil problem, we are essentially taking what geology has turned into “fossil carbon” (by storing that old carbon in rock formations, whether in solid forms like coal, or fluid forms like oil and natural gas) millions of years ago. Now we are taking that fossil carbon, which the earth has, but very slow and natural geological processes, turned into a “stored” form of carbon, and putting it back into circulation in what I call the “living carbon cycle” or “live carbon cycle” in which plants “breath in” the carbon dioxide, and convert it to stored energy either as sugars and starches for short term use, or as long chain carbons like lignin, or cellulose that build the structure of the plants themselves. (Algae, especially microalgae, shortcut this process a bit by only building the shorter end of those, mainly sugars, starches, and a little bit to form cell membranes (but relatively rarely into conventional plant structures like stems and roots and leaves, etc.although California Giant Kelp is also a form of algae and they have PLENTY of stems and leaves, hundreds of feet long).  But in terms of total biomass, microalgae are almost half the known “plant” life on the planet, and are rivaled only by (their former cousins, now recognized as bacteria, not algae at all) cyanobacteria  (although plain old bacteria probably outweigh even those two combined, and who knows how much “biomass” all the active and dormant viruses [virii] there may be) (but I digress, as usual).  Anyway, microalgae start the whole animal food chain, in both oceans and fresh water, and pretty close to every other living thing in the ocean (water) depend on that progression of consumption starting with micro algae being “eaten” by something larger, and so on up to whales. Meanwhile, back on land, the terrestrial plants do much the same thing (except the skipping roots and leaves thing), absorbing and temporarily storing the carbon dioxide, and only releasing it as a result of their own respiration, or as they rot after they die (or are eaten)(which generally speaking, means they are, or at least become dead, too).

So, it stands to reason, that even though all that biomass of microalgae, not-so-micro algae, all the things that eat it, or that eat the things that eat it, the land based plants, including everything from mushrooms and lichen to giant redwood and sequoia trees, ants, grasshoppers, cattle, elephants, gorillas and humans (these last three resembling each other more and more, lately, it seems to me) have a limit on how much carbon dioxide they can effectively process.  Beyond that quantity (and remember that all of these things have cell walls, or at least cell membranes, in addition to the parts for respiration and the creation and storage of energy), carbon dioxide in the atmosphere become “excess”, and adds to the mix of gases in the atmosphere. Now we have to look at the proven effect of more carbon dioxide in a given space of “atmosphere.”

It is well know, especially by people who actually grow things in greenhouses, that if you trap the carbon dioxide that the plants growing under the closed space contained by a “house of glass” (aka a “greenhouse”) absorb and hold more heat that the ordinary atmosphere outside. One of the effect of which allows them to expend less energy heating the glass houses in winter than they otherwise might, considering the rather poor insulating effect of plain old glass. But the really noticeable occurrence of this “capturing more heat because there is more carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air” is on a warm day when it is, say perhaps, 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade outdoors, if you can find a shady spot inside the greenhouse where the plants are enjoying the sunshine, doing their photosynthesis thing that stores the sunlight’s energy in sugars, starches and oils, but outputs large amounts of carbon dioxide, you will find that the temperature inside is at least a couple of degrees warmer, and if you are a person with a scientific bent (and most scientists are at least a little bit “bent”) you put up another greenhouse next door and compare the temperatures on the same day with no plants growing in the same size and type of greenhouse, and you find that it is a little warmer, because the glass prevents the air from escaping upwards (hot air rises, and mixes with other cooler air up there in the clouds), but not as “extra warm” as it is in the greenhouse full of photosynthesising plants putting extra CO2 into the air inside the greenhouse.  Now this easily observed “scientific” fact is what is called the “greenhouse effect”, and it blamed for mankind adding fossil carbon to the atmosphere as triggering a general warming of the air around the planet, which is causing climate changes.

Those changes in climate are blamed for extra hurricanes, and extra violent storms, more tornados, droughts in some areas, and floods in others, hotter summers and colder winters (or in some cases even warmer winters). We have certainly seen all of those things happen. Yet some people argue that the larger, overall trend is toward a colder future because we are sliding right past the peak of the turn and are headed back into another mini-glacier period.  That interpretation is becoming harder to accept because we have seen, recently, that a very large chunk of Antarctica has broken off, and seems to be feeding a current of colder water into the overall pattern of ocean currents that circulate across the entire world. I was going to set aside the whole issue from psychology that people generally have a tendency to see patterns where there is none.  This is especially true of trying to organize “face” patterns from random sets of lines. The addition of extra quantities of cold water from Antarctic ice could result in higher water levels, and a smaller cooling region effect from Antarctica itself, or it could be the turning point of more and more cold water cooling the planet that compensates for the increase in carbon dioxide, the slight rise in temperature and ocean levels so far.

A similar warming trend at the opposite “end” of the earth, the Arctic, has shrunken the polar ice cap there, to the point that the legendary “NorthWest Passage” that took many men’s lives in the 18th and 19th centuries searching for this shortcut across the frozen oceans North of the Western continent of North America (that is to say, the continent to the West of Europe where commerce was centered as far as the Western world was concerned during those centuries). Now the passage across the North of Canada is usually open for the passage of ships during almost the entire year. No sea ice or polar ice cap prevents modern cargo ships from getting through. Indeed Canadian’s ice breaking ships, while now build larger and stronger, are less in demand, at least along this Northern corridor. Larger chunks, too, are breaking off the icecaps of Eastern Greenland. The cumulative effect of cooling the larger flows of global ocean currents at both ends is still fairly unpredictable, although that hasn’t prevented both sides of the “climate change” arguments from trying to latch onto this as a support for their side.

The Northern warming trend has another huge factor, too, which is that so much of the frozen “tundra” of Northern Canada and Russia.  Much of this area is covered by only partially decayed “muskeg”, swampy bogs of partially decayed plants and roots in thick bogs that, although they remain frozen much of the year, come summer, they now get warm enough to melt and the rot progresses. That rotting releases more methane (also known as “swamp gas”) and carbon dioxide. Methane is considered to be some 32 times more harmful to the atmosphere than is carbon dioxide. The total area involved in this melting and rotting muskeg is about equal in size to the Amazon river’s wide tropical rainforest basin. If this is a phenomenon that has not come to your attention, or at least has not been explained to you this way before, please be aware that most (if not all) of the budget to repair leaks in the great Trans-Alaska pipeline is due to the fact that many of the supports that hold the level above the ground to where it is supposed to avoid melting the muskeg from the heated pipes carrying the oil, have been supported on muskeg that was never expect to soften.  The idea was that they would be dug down so deep that these supports would be sitting on “solid” ground. This “solid” ground that was supposed to be solid because it was expected to be permanently frozen because it was so deep. It got warmer up there than they ever expected. It did not, however, get warm enough to promote significant growth, the way that “normal” forest leaves rot on the floor of the area, while the trees above produce oxygen and consume carbon dioxide in photosynthesis. Natural processes are assumed (overall) to roughly balance CO2 production and consumption     

 Now, they say, and by “they,” I mean the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency of the USA (NOAA) that estimates are from about 1750 from which we have little if any real data, CO2 estimates were about 300 parts per million (so that’s about 0.03% of the atmosphere) which rose to about 320 parts per million in about 1901.  And finally it is now around 380 parts per million (which is roughly 0.038%, or to be generous, about 0.04% or 4 one hundreds of one percent, any and all of which is/are the same as 4 parts in 10,000). It is not easy to draw a picture of that, but imagine your bathroom floor (a moderately large bathroom, 6 feet wide, and 9 feet long, filled with 10,000 marbles (each marble is about 1/2 inch across [diameter] which would roughly fill that bathroom floor.  9,996 of those marbles are medium blue, 4 marbles are light blue. Now the next room is exactly the same size, and it has 9,997 blue marbles and 3 light blue marbles in it. That’s how much change there was in the last 250 years, 3 marbles versus 4 marbles in 10,000 marbles.

Okay, now let’s look at the last, say, 100 years, and frankly I don’t think there was a big change in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from 1900 to 1920 despite the best efforts of Henry Ford and his competitors trying to sell automobiles (which ran on methanol in those early days). So let’s say 1920 had 320 parts per million, while today we have (pessimistically) 400 parts per million. Now, conveniently, 400 and 320 are both evenly divisible by 80, which gives us 5 and 4 respectively, so that’s our ratio.  We have gone from 4 to 5 parts in 100 years (including those “worst” years recently since 1980). But if we look at the precentage change, we went from 3 parts to 4 parts over 250 years, and now we’ve gone from 4 parts to 5 parts.  Restated those changes are 4 thirds (i.e. 4/3 or 133% in 250 years) and more recently, 5 quarters (i.e. 5/4 or 125% for 100 years). Obviously that’s a vast degree of acceleration. Translated to “real world” terms, that 6% change over the first 150 years but 20% change in just the last 100 years.

It seems like the biggest change over the last 100 years is the addition of fossil carbon burning by humans.  Anthropogenic CO2 is what they call it. And it seems like a logical explanation. Much of the world, and most of the world’s “scientific community” (especially according to the IPCC report) agree that the “crisis” is man-made. But when people start to call this “settled science” it is more of an indication that they don’t understand science than that the “facts” are proven.  Science is always subject to questioning, and always a matter of the “best available solution” (that can be replicated by others under similar conditions).  Unfortunately, when the whole world is affected, we don’t have the chance to go back and do it again to test if the theory is correct.  But we do have an obligation to continue to look at ALL the possible explanations and to see if some other explanation is equally valid in terms of the facts as best we understand them.

One of the other untested postulates is that the temperature changes we are seeing are due to changes at the earth’s liquid core.  Not something that is easy to test.

Another explanation is that “sun spot” activity are affecting the protective “bow wave” that protects the earth from much of the solar radiation that might otherwise come slamming into our planet.  Perhaps it is, but at such a small level that it only warms the planet by 2 degrees per century.

Another important one to consider is that it has been reported (and fairly well verified) that the total number of phytoplankton in the oceans has declined by as much as 40% since 1950.  Phytoplankton is another name for microalgae. Microalgae “eat” CO2.  They also “breath” (i.e. respire, the process that uses stored energy and oxygen to carry out the process of living, which gives off CO2,) but a lot less than they store. Indeed some kinds of phytoplankton sink to the bottom of the ocean and in a few million years turn into limestone.  Others sink to the bottom of the ocean and a few million years of heat and pressure turn them into … are you ready for this?  Petroleum.  But meanwhile they are taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and turning it into rock or “rock oil” (that’s what “petr-oleum” means) taking it out of circulation in the “active” carbon cycle, and keeping a balance in the atmospheric carbon dioxide content that promotes a stable growing environment. Now some scientists have begun to think that global warming (and specifically warming of sea temperatures) have been killing off the phytoplankton.  They may be right.  But I am inclined to think that it is the dying off of the phytoplankton and their tremendously valuable work as CO2 absorbers that has allowed extra CO2 to accumulate in the atmosphere.

I am less certain, but I am hopeful that a gentleman who died in 1993 according to the biographical information I read about him in a discussion of his theory, may have a solution for much of the decline in phytoplankton in vast, vast amounts of the world’s oceans.  He discovered that by adding a little bit of chelated iron to the water made water that was already rich in the other nutrient needed by phytoplankton (i.e. algae) caused them to flourish there again. He specifically claimed that 1 kilogram of iron would result in something like 3000 to 20,000 kilograms of phytoplankton. It has been 20 years since John Martin (inventor of the theory of iron fertilizer to stimulate plankton growth) but the research has been investigated by 13 subsequent teams who confirm his results. “Mesoscale Iron Enrichment Experiments 1993-2005: Synthesis and Future Directions”Science 315 (5812): 612–7.

Although “sequestration” of CO2 is assumed by some people to mean immediate and permanent removal, there really is no such thing. Trees and bushes are considered by the IPCC as “sequestration” even though they only last a few decades. And even the carbon that become sequestered in sedimentary layers at the bottom of the oceans eventually gets swallowed by the drift of the continental plates, pushed down into the melted core of the earth and comes out again in the form of exploding volcanic eruptions. Which brings me to my final point for the day. If one was to total up all of the volcanic eruptions for the last 50 years, and calculate all the carbon dioxide they put into the atmosphere, I would wager a dollar that you would find the result was more than all the anthropogenic carbon in the entire history of mankind, including cavemen’s cave fires. It’s just a guess, but mankind it rather puny in the face of the vast power of nature, as we have seen recently with the tsunamis, hurricanes, tornados, typhoons, and earthquakes that have killed so many thousands of people in just the last couple of decades.  I am inclined to think it is excessively ego centric to think that “man” has had such a huge effect on the temperature of the earth, but like most things on earth, earth will find a way to be “self-correcting” even if it means making living conditions unsuitable for the offending species.


Stafford “Doc” Williamson




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