Op-ed: If COVID-19 and the lockdown aren’t enough to stop climate change, what is?

Much of our economy has come to a standstill. For the past month, millions have been out of work, and millions more have been cloistered in their homes.

Chris Provost has been working in the oilfield since he was 17 years old. He said he’s taken a 55 percent pay cut, and he’s worried about supporting his family; his father was recently laid off from Chevron. Record low oil prices and the coronavirus caused at least 2,500 oil and gas layoffs in 10 days.

The easing of stay-at-home restrictions in Texas this weekend doesn’t change the fact that the world has, in many ways, simply stopped. Yet for all the deserted highways, closed factories and shuttered schools, global carbon emissions are believed to have fallen by about 5.5 percent, according to newly released estimates from the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization. But UN climate scientists believe the reduction needs to be about 7.6 percent every year to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

To put it another way, we’ve drawn much of the economic activity in the industrialized world to a standstill, and we’re not even close to preventing calamity. Last week, I pointed out that it’s a good first step, and it is, but it isn’t a sustainable one.

As it is, it may take years for the global economy to recover. Some companies never will. For millions of people, trying to stay healthy and alive has come at the price of prolonged financial hardship.

Which makes it hard to even ask what we would have to do to reduce carbon emissions the rest of the way. Would we ban the use of air conditioning? Limit delivery days to twice a week nationwide? Eliminate all gasoline or diesel engines?

The last thing people who have already sacrificed so much want to hear is that it isn’t nearly enough. This is the part that environmentalists don’t like to talk about, but the reality is that buying a Toyota Prius was never going to save the planet. Personal choices are admirable, but by themselves they aren’t enough.

Which is why whatever we do to reduce emissions — and we need to do something — it needs to focus on the supply side of the economy, not the demand side.

We need systemic change. Make affordable electric cars that are reliable and fun to drive, and more people will stop using gasoline — eventually. But it may be too little, too late. Most U.S. delivery companies already switched their fleets to compressed or liquefied natural gas, significantly lowering their emissions. In January, the global shipping industry adopted cleaner standards for bunker fuel — one of the dirtiest forms of transportation fuel. Both of these are large-scale changes, pre-pandemic, that have had at best a modest impact on global carbon output.

We’re already making a massive move by transitioning more of our electricity generation from coal to natural gas. By 2012, we had met the terms of the Kyoto protocols that the United States refused to endorse seven years earlier. Back then, with oil and natural gas appearing scarce, President George W. Bush feared the commitment would cripple the U.S. economy. Now, armed with abundant natural gas reserves unlocked through hydraulic fracturing, the market drove compliance. The economy not only wasn’t harmed, it thrived.

By 2019, natural gas was the preferred generating fuel, accounting for more than 38 percent of all electricity generation, compared with 23 percent for coal. (Renewables — wind, solar, biomass, hydropower and geothermal combined were only 18 percent.)

Switching away from coal on a global scale would reduce carbon output by 1.2 gigatonnes and cut power sector emissions by 10 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. As more renewables scale up, and as their economics benefit from that scale, the downward trend would likely continue.

Renewables are cheap, clean and efficient until the clouds roll in or wind dies down. Then, we need something that can jump in quickly to pick up the slack. And that something, at least for now — until better battery technology or some other innovation comes along — is natural gas. Gas plants ramp up and down more quickly than coal or nuclear facilities, offsetting renewables’ intermittency, and it’s the abundance of U.S. natural gas that has spurred much of the growth in renewables so far. It’s not a stretch to say the wind farms of the Panhandle owe their existence to the frack jobs of the Permian Basin.

Of course, as natural gas production has increased, so has the amount of methane leaking from pipelines and storage facilities, which has undermined some of the progress. And the West Texas drilling boom focused on oil. Much of the gas — enough to power the entire city of Houston — is burned off, which is both wasteful and a climate change accelerant. The boom also caused companies to get sloppy, which has led to more instances of water contamination, and the sheer volume of wastewater that has to be reinjected into underground storage areas has been tied to a rise in earthquakes.

I’ve made the point before that George Mitchell, the Houston oil man who perfected fracking and who, as a pioneer of sustainable development, was also concerned about its impact, would have said these are fixable problems. The bust will take the edge off of companies’ worst practices for now, and innovation will play a role in the future. Researchers are developing lasers and drones that can spot methane leaks, for example, and gas that’s currently being flared may eventually be converted to liquid fuel such as methanol. But we also need better oversight. The Texas Railroad Commission has the authority to regulate it, but rarely enforces the current rules.

As for wastewater, Houston-based companies such as Halliburton and Baker Hughes have developed processes to treat wastewater from wells enough that it can be reused, which reduces the amount of freshwater needed for fracking, as well as the need to dispose of it underground.

Producing energy — even wind and solar — has environmental impacts. But as the population grows, we will need to find a way to produce more energy while reducing its carbon footprint and improving efficiency.

The only realistic way forward involves tradeoffs, and we need to focus on big gains that are both ecological and economically sound. We don’t have easy choices. We can’t afford to continue living in lockdown indefinitely. And we can’t afford to return to the way we were.

Steffy is a former Chronicle business columnist and the author of three books about the oil business, including George P. Mitchell: Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet. Erin Douglas contributed to the reporting.

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