Methane Wars: A Fable–Chapter Two

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Coal

I forgot about Farmer Brown and his cows. Finding a job at the time was more important so I focused my attention there. Six months later I landed a job with an environmental lobby group. Then the cows came home.

EnviroLobby was primarily a lobbying group. They commissioned environmental studies on behalf of their clients. They put a great deal of effort into gathering data and performing analytics about the studies. I was a research analyst. My first project was an effort on plastics recycling looking at the idea that if you made the collection of plastics easy enough and the repurposing of it efficient enough then plastics usage really didn’t need to decrease.

My second project was on greenhouse gas emissions, or more precisely, on greenhouse gas levels. It was then that the cows came home. The director explained the challenge was that the numbers EnviroLobby quoted in the lobbying efforts for the Coal Elimination Act predicted a much more aggressive decrease. The CEA was the same act that created the Bovine Methane Collection Measure that Farmer Brown was implementing. It was our job to provide research that would support a proposal to not only extend the CEA, but expand its scope.

Lots of groups were trying to measure this. EnviroLobby wasn’t in the business of measuring anything. We were in the business of interpreting data with our client’s needs in mind. For the greenhouse gases we used the results from five different efforts and came up with a blended number. One day I was called into the director’s office.

“These latest reports are very encouraging,” he said. “Great job pulling these together. They actually show a decrease in greenhouse gases. And even better, a slight decrease in demand for coal power. I need to plug these into the five-year trend.”

“The numbers are lower than six months ago,” I said. “But only by a small amount. Six months isn’t long enough to see a downward pattern in data that tends to have ebbs and flows.”

“True. So can you get me a graph of the five-year trend for both emissions and coal usage? I haven’t looked at that view in a while. Let’s see what that does for us. We have to have some movement there, don’t you think? I’m trying to think of the right angle of attack from. How do we present this to amplify any movement that’s occurring?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You see, I’m pretty sure emissions have been decreasing. And even though the percentages are small the physical decreases are enormous, considering the magnitude. But the public and the politicians won’t be swayed by incremental progress.”

“You see,” the director went on, “We don’t have numbers convincing enough to maintain support. If Kramer is voted out of office, there is a good chance that the CEA will not be renewed after its seven- year probation period.”

“So what are we hoping these numbers will tell us? They appear to be stable with maybe a hint of decrease.”

“Well, since we are a lobbying group it is our job to help our client reach its goals.”

“And who is our client?”

“Senator Kramer. He needs something explosive to get the Senate’s attention.”

“And he’s not real picky on the ammunition we give him?”

“He’s looking for something to spark action. So we might take the numbers and say, look here, these readings are not going down, we need to extend and expand the CEA. Or if we start to experience much better numbers, then we talk about how well the project is working and suggest we continue and expand it. Damn. These environmental studies take way too long. What’s the ETA on the Human Methane Impact study?”

“I’ve never heard of that study.”

The Human Methane Impact study looked at how much humans, rather than bovine, contribute to greenhouse gases. They were apparently looking to get the data as a backup. If none of the current numbers provided enough punch, maybe the human impact would get their attention. The idea was to push the scope to include human methane collection and then settle for a continuance of the BMCM.

“Well, we don’t want to go there if we don’t have to. These studies have to pack a big punch or those fickle politicians will turn tail. We might be able to get a big enough punch if we combine the positive impacts of reduced emissions and the decrease in demand for coal power. Show some sort of divergence there. We’ll have to see what the studies tell us but if we quadruple the scope of the collection I can’t see how our projections won’t just explode.”

“Pun intended?”

“There’s still a political problem. Positive numbers don’t motivate politicians to act. Urgency makes them act. The initial passing of the CEA would’ve never happened without a doomsday threat. And our doomsday threat is coal reserves. What’s the latest projection on coal reserves?”

“Seven years.”

“It was seven years four years ago. That will never fly.”

“Well, it’s a tough number to nail down since you’re relying on the energy and mining companies to provide you with that data.”

“Thank God for short-term political memory. It would be better if we could get to six years but maybe a “less than seven” spin will work. Less than seven is almost six and six years is not that long to deal with imminent shutdown of coal plants.”

Back at my desk, I looked up the legislation that was creating so much activity.

The CEA was a lengthy piece of legislation. Probably designed that way to obfuscate any politically unpopular measures included in the bill. The act contained lots of politispeak: course corrections on fossil fuels, controlled redistribution of methane gas release, forward-thinking avoidance of unsustainable fuels and so on.  It contained the obvious references to and funding for alternative energy sources. It was, though, at its most fundamental level concerned with two things: the dwindling coal reserves and greenhouse gases created by fossil fuels and other sources.

Despite its name, there were no measures in the act that called for the elimination of coal. In fact, the act was so deferential to coal that if the research that prompted the act had not come along there would have been no need to bring coal up at all.

But this research study was another matter. In fact, the study had been put out by the very organization I was working for. The study purported there was only seven years’ worth of coal reserves left. And drastic measures were necessary to avert a national and global meltdown.

Among the drastic measures that were implemented, besides the increased funding for wind and solar technologies, was a recommendation based on a sub-study to implement bovine methane collection. The premise, and now practical application, was that the collection of gases from bovine provided two major benefits: it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions (methane and carbon dioxide) and provide a valuable collection of gases that could be used in industry: methane for combustion engines, nitrogen for fertilizers, oxygen for welding or hospitals and so on. Gases that would hypothetically decrease demand for coal.

Strangely enough, this part of the study had been underwritten by a research and development firm called UnGastro, a subsidiary of the non-profit American Coal Awareness Coalition. UnGastro had put millions of dollars into developing the methane collection units.

 

 

About joegergen

To evoke a smile. That's all. Author of "Methane Wars: A Fable" and "Lear's Fool" as well as various poems and some these painting things as well.
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