The downside of cheap gas

1376314458-cheap_gasEarlier this year, the Energy Information Administration announced that the U.S. now pollutes more from transportation than the electricity sector. Embedded in this dry government statistic is a host of complex questions, not least of which is how the U.S. is ever going to make serious progress on climate change while we remain in love with giant vehicles.

To some degree, the news revealed some good news: greenhouse gas emissions from electricity is going down because a shift to natural gas from coal for power generation and the rise of solar and wind.

But take a look at the transportation sector and it’s hard to see how the U.S. – or any country – will ratchet down emissions during times of cheap oil prices. As an editor at The Conversation, I’ve tackled this question – how to reduce emissions from transportation – from a few different angles.

Perhaps most surprising is how fickle consumers are and how incredibly important our daily choices are to this global problem.

As gasoline prices peaked and started to slip downward in mid-2014, there was a clear shift in what cars and trucks consumers were buying. The University of Michigan found that the average fuel economy of new vehicles peaked at 25.8 miles per gallon and started to drift down. It’s pretty simple: cheaper gas leads to sales of more gas guzzlers.

That’s not good for the environment but it has a number of policy implications as well. We pay for the upkeep of our highways and bridges through a gas tax, so cheaper gas means less funding for our infrastructure.

Cheap gas and lower fuel economy also threatens one of President Obama’s signature climate initiatives. In 2009 as prices were climbing towards $3 per gallon for gas, Obama announced much more stringent fuel economy rules, known as CAFE standards, that would culminate in cars and light-duty trucks having an average of 54 miles per gallon by 2025.

Now, though, those are in serious doubt. Car manufacturers, which grudgingly accepted the rules, are already saying that consumers are not willing to pay a premium for fuel efficiency in a time of low gas prices. They’re already pushing to reevaluate and push the timeline out for adhering to them.

Will technology come to the rescue? Not really. Sales of electric vehicles went down in 2015 compared to 2014 even as auto sales overall roared to a new high. Certainly, there are consumers who buy electrics and prioritize fuel efficiency because they want to reduce their personal environmental footprint or use less oil. But that still appears to be a small group in the grand scheme of things and electric vehicles still have a few cost and infrastructure hurdles before they go mainstream.

It’s also worth noting that researchers have found the most cost-effective way to reduce emissions is through fuel efficiency of conventional gasoline-powered cars and trucks. That means that a number of readily available techniques, such as more efficient gasoline engines, lighter materials, and more aerodynamic designs, are the best bet for reducing emissions – and meeting the more stringent CAFE standards. If only consumers would care.

Learning to live with wildfires – it’s complicated

The Tripod Complex fire of 2006 in eastern Washington.

The Tripod Complex fire of 2006 in eastern Washington.

The worst experience I’ve ever had with wildfires was smoke impinging on a vacation to New Mexico. But for people who live in the western US, wildfires are a part of life. As an editor at The Conversation, I’ve commissioned a few articles to explore the theme of adapting to intense wildfires in the West.

For starters, wildfires in the West are getting worse. Anthony LeRoy Westering from UC Merced wrote a paper ten years ago that established a clear link between a warming climate and wildfires in the western U.S. Then in May, 2016 he published a historical review of how and why fires have changed since the 1970s and ’80s.

The number of fires hasn’t gone up but they’ve become more intense: bigger, longer and more damaging. The basic reason comes down to temperatures: the warmer the winter, the less snow pack, the drier the forest, the better conditions for big fires.

The implications for the future are clear: climate change is raising the chances for more severe fires. When his latest peer-review paper came out, he wrote an article for a lay reader, which I edited and you can read here.

There are, of course, a lot of other reasons for the intense – and increasingly expensive – wildfires we’ve seen in recent years. Top among them is a policy of fire suppression. Following devastating fires in 1910, the US Forest Service adopted a policy of stopping fires as much as possible. It’s one reason forests became denser and more loaded with fuel.

Does that mean we can we restore forests to their “natural” state, a time when fires benefited ecosystems and led to healthy regrowth?

To answer that question, I turned to Stephen Pyne from Arizona State who is writing a history of fire in the western US. In theory, thinning forests will make forests less prone to massive fires but putting this into practice is very complex, I learned.

Each type of tree has its own fire regime – what works for Ponderosa Pine in the Rockies, for instance, will not work in the shrublands of California – and forests are changing over time anyway. Plus, there will always be people who oppose letting fires burn, either because of the potential for damage to property or wildlife. He describes the mashup – a mix of old and new practices – that many forest managers are now adopting.

And finally, an article from the front lines. Forest ecologist Susan Prichard from the University of Washington and the US Forest Service describes the shocking impact that a series of huge fires has had on her community in Methow Valley in eastern Washington over the past decade.

She also offers some good news: her research shows that thinning and prescribed burns have shown to be effective in restoring the mixed ecosystem of forest, grassland, shrubland and dense, multi-layered forest that was once more common. That change has shown how it is possible to make the forests – and the communities that live in them – more resilient to powerful fires.

A year of editing at The Conversation



2015, the year that was: environment and energy

Martin LaMonica, The Conversation

As we approach 2016, we look back at the big – even world-changing – stories of The Conversation’s environment and energy coverage this year.

The biggest story of 2105 from the environment and energy desk is a clear choice but, paradoxically, its impact is still murky.

The COP21 United Nations climate summit in December yielded the Paris Agreement, which includes pledges from nearly 200 countries to dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions in the years ahead.

Most everyone can agree that it’s a remarkable demonstration of the world’s commitment to combat climate change, but whether it’s a historic turning point in greenhouse gas emissions is very much a matter of debate.

Indeed, moments after the gavel went down in Paris amid much celebration, a number of questions arose, including how accountable countries will be to their commitments and whether there will be sufficient money to help developing countries adapt to the effects of climate change and move off of fossil fuels.

Here in the US, the question was: could Congress and a subsequent president unravel or block Obama’s signature climate policies? (Short version: it wouldn’t be easy.)

How the energy system is changing – or isn’t

In the run-up to Paris, The Conversation published a number of articles to explore the effects of climate change and how our energy system is (or isn’t) changing.

Given how much capital is already invested in our fossil fuel-dominated energy system, it will take decades to replace the energy infrastructure, even with climate-friendly policies.

Our academics also explained why energy innovation is so slow, what to do about earthquakes linked to oil and gas drilling, why Tesla’s home batteries are such a big deal and how rooftop solar is disrupting the power grid.

The tension between our dependence on fossil fuels and climate change was a theme in many articles, including a look at the merits of hybrid solar-and-natural gas power plants, the emissions cost of shutting down aging nuclear plants, the slow progress on carbon capture and storage, Shell’s decision to drop plans to drill in the Arctic and, most dramatically, the Obama administration’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline.

From California to the Arctic

Much environmental news came from the West this year: California’s punishing drought, the rise of a giant El Niño, the warm “blob” in the Pacific Ocean that’s wreaking havoc in surprising ways and the devastating wildfire season.

Making sense of a changing Arctic.

In climate science, we published scientists’ studies on melting ice sheets in Antarctica, the so-called hiatus in global warming and whether natural variability in the atmosphere and ocean masks the long-term warming trend.

Elsewhere, we focused on the fast-changing Arctic.

We unpacked the latest science on whether a warming Arctic can explain North America’s brutally cold weather last winter, how quickly polar bears can adapt to warming, plans to open up commercial fishing and whether the far North will shift from being a carbon sink to a source of carbon.

The Anthropocene

With all the changes humanity is bringing to the planet, we will most certainly hear more of the term “the Anthropocene,” the notion that we are in a new geological epoch defined by our species’ dominance over the Earth.

Our academics weighed in on various aspects of the Anthropocene, including the value of nature, the ethics of “rewilding” large portions of the Earth and what preserving nature means.

Perhaps the biggest newsmaker in the environment came from an unlikely source this year: the Vatican.

Making waves: Pope Francis speaks to the European Parliament earlier this year.
European Parliament, CC BY-NC-ND

Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment known as Laudato Si’ raised the issue of humanity’s treatment of the Earth into the realm of moral philosophy and reached millions of people.

Also in politics and policy, we covered the link between the climate change-worsened drought in Syria and its civil war.

In Washington, DC we documented Obama’s attempts to build a strong legacy on climate change despite his political foes.

What did our readers like? Certainly all of the above, but who doesn’t like a good story about animals and wildlife? Here we had a number: eastern coyotes, feral cats, urban wildlife, dogs and elephants.

For more of what you liked, below you’ll find links to the 10 most-read articles from environment and energy this year.

The Conversation

Martin LaMonica, Deputy Editor, Environment & Energy Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

My new job at The Conversation

Several months ago, I ran across a TED talk by Andrew Jaspan, a former editor at The Age in Australia who talked about an experiment in journalism. In spending time at a university, he saw a parallel to news rooms: much like there are beat reporters in different topics, university departments have experts in their areas of research. What if the academics wrote articles themselves, rather than published in academic journals or provided quotes on news articles?

He put that idea into practice with The Conversation in Australia. Next came The Conversation UK and in the fall of 2014, The Conversation US. The editorial model is to have academics write articles for a general audience to provide insight and analysis of important issues. Articles are commissioned and edited by journalists.Conversation business card

That’s what I started doing this week. I’m the Deputy Managing Editor of The Conversation US and in charge of the Energy & Environment desk. All articles are published under a Creative Commons license and can be reprinted with attribution. It’s independent and not-for-profit.

If you’re academic and have done research on a subject you think deserves a wider audience, please get in touch with me at If you’re in a university media relations office, I’d also love to hear from you.

I had great fun and formed some wonderful relationships over the past two and a half years working as a contributor to MIT Technology Review, Xconomy and other publications. But I’m looking forward to helping make The Conversation US a success.

Fracking out your back door

Anybody who follows energy knows that the biggest story, by far, is fracking. The combination of the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and horizontal drilling has opened up huge reserves of natural gas, oil, and other hydrocarbons in the U.S. It’s pushed the U.S. closer toward the once-fanciful notion of energy independence and is bringing massive investment as chemical companies seek to take advantage of cheap natural gas. It’s no wonder other countries are trying to hatch their own fracking revolution—and perhaps avoid the mistakes the U.S. has made. (More below the images.)

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Last month, I toured around western Pennsylvania, upstate New York, and eastern Ohio to learn about fracking. I was one of 18 journalists who traveled by bus to talk to industry people and local residents to see and hear what it looks like when fracking comes to town. The trip was organized by the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources, a non-profit whose goal is to improve the knowledge of environmental journalists.

I found a complicated picture. There is no doubt that oil and gas exploitation is bringing much-welcomed money to these states and communities. The county of Carroll, Ohio, with a population of 30,000, was shriveling and the hotel was about to shut down before the shale revolution came to town. Now, our group couldn’t get a room because it’s filled with petro-workers, many of whom come from other oil and gas states.

I came to appreciate how ingrained oil and gas is to western Pennsylvania. The industry began there in 1859 when “Colonel” Drake hit a pocket of oil just a few hundred feet from Oil Creek, a place where Native Americans would collect the naturally occurring liquid for curative properties. Old-style pump jacks dot the landscape, from national forests to farmland. People–at least those who own land–love oil and gas there.

But as we all know, fracking is controversial. (See Gasland and many more movies.) There are worries that poorly cemented, or “cased,” wells can cause methane to seep into water supplies. Each frack job uses five to eight million gallons of water and the water that comes back carries the chemicals, aka fracking fluids, along with trace minerals, including heavy metals and radioactive radium. And because drilling is happening in rural areas, it can transform quiet towns with a rural character into industrial areas, with heavy truck traffic and the noise and air pollution of heavy industry. Another issue is disposal of waste water in injection wells, which has been linked to tremors and earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma.

The natural gas bonanza has shifted power plants from coal to natural gas, reducing U.S. emissions over the past five years. But one can’t wonder about the tradeoffs and whether regulations can keep pace with this drilling boom. More fundamentally, the entire trip reminded me of how attached we are to our fossil fuels. This slideshow of photos from my trip will give you a feel for what fracking looks like to the people above the Marcellus and Utica shales.