How the Energy Transition is Like Farting under the Covers

posted in: The Quickening | 1

Every week, I surf through wave after wave of corporate sustainability news. Some weeks, it’s good surfing—I easily ride the wave to the shore, learning some interesting facts and reading some interesting stories—discovering nothing too horrific in the water. Other weeks, like last week, it’s a tsunami of absurdity filled with the dangerous flotsam and jetsam of profit-making madness.

During one week (Monday to Friday1) the news ranged from the growing e-waste crisis, to oil companies’ long-term plans to drill, to green bonds for nuclear power. None of it makes sense, except in a culture that puts consumerism and growth ahead of everything else.

First, on e-waste: A new International Telecommunications Union and United Nations report found that electronic waste grew to 62 million metric tons in 2022 (up 82% from 2010). That’s 7.8 kilograms of e-waste per person per year globally.2 This e-waste comes from our computers and cellphones and small appliances like microwaves, TVs, and vacuum cleaners. Worse is that it’s growing by 2.6 million tons a year, on track for 82 million tons by 2030. You’d think, with all the valuable metals in these gadgets, the recycling rate would be high, but it’s only 22%, which left $62 billion worth of resources unrecovered. And here’s the kicker: by 2030 recycling rates are actually projected to drop to 20% as total e-waste grows and recycling systems get overloaded with this additional growth.

E-waste recyclers in Ghana. Africa had an e-waste recycling rate of 0.7% in 2022. (Image from Marlenenapoli via Wikipedia)

This report alone is enough to get one wringing one’s hands (especially in the context of countless commercials encouraging you to upgrade your phone, computer, etc.). But much worse than that is this report by Carbon Tracker, which finds almost all of the 25 largest publicly traded oil and gas companies are planning for new production increases in the near-term, and most in the longer-term (just three have limited reductions planned ranging from -2%, -13%, and -33%).

The whole premise of the renewable energy transition as a ‘solution’ to the global climate crisis is based on the idea that we are transitioning from fossil-energy to renewables. But when not a single one of these leading oil companies is aligned with the global Paris agreement (not even factoring in the use of their product—i.e. Scope 3 emissions for the eco-nerds) then that quickly shatters the illusion of the transition. As does page 11 of the report that lists large new projects that could be approved in the next three years (almost all in deep water) that will bring more oil into production.

And those are just the five biggest projects. (Table from Carbon Tracker)

Much of the other news is worse, not because of what it means for our future (climate change and toxic pollution) but how cynical the spin is around the green transition. One company, Constellation Energy, offered its first green bond in the U.S. (of $900 million) to finance the “maintenance, expansion and life extensions” of its nuclear energy projects. There’s nothing green about nuclear energy. It may be a necessary evil to use existing nuclear power plants as we transition to less energy use (degrowth) and power our scaled down enterprises on renewables, but the idea that nukes are green is a joke. (In fact, my first housemate after college, 23 years ago, used to tease me that we need “GreeNukes.” It became a running barb, as he worked for incremental change in Congress while I idealistically organized for environmental action with the U.S. PIRG. The fact that two decades later, companies have successfully spun nuclear power as sustainable reveals both how much of a crisis climate change is, and how effective corporate propaganda can be. The funniest part though is the terms of the green bond: it’s got a 30-year maturity. The odds of a functional U.S. economy being around, let alone a still-functioning nuclear plant, are probably not bond-worthy gambles.

Nothing green about this… (or this). (Image from Emmelie Callewaert via Wikipedia)

Now if that were the only news, I probably wouldn’t have gotten all riled up. It was this double whammy that really made me grumpy: Regularly I read about the prospects of “green hydrogen” to help with the energy transition. I personally think that’s complete BS, in fact, I worry that the leakage of hydrogen could cause far worse outcomes than just climate change. And this week, while Iberdrola was announcing that it would aim to produce less green hydrogen by 2030 (due to delays in project subsidies), a new coalition of companies was forming to create natural gas out of green hydrogen (what they call e-NG or electric natural gas). Keep in mind that the vast majority of hydrogen today is made from natural gas (95% in the U.S.). Like GreeNukes, hydrogen is not a solution—but yet another distraction from the more realistic, albeit politically difficult solution of economic degrowth. But when some companies are making natural gas into hydrogen, while other companies are trying to make hydrogen into natural gas, you can see the real motivation much more clearly: $$$ (or maybe €€€).

Even all that just warrants a response similar to a Trix cereal commercial, “Silly Corporations, profits are illusory.” It was this detailed and complicated study that served as the golden nail, melted down from 62 million metric tons of e-waste, hammered into the top of humanity’s collective coffin, that compelled me to write this essay. A researcher with the Center for Applied Environmental Science investigated the area in Louisiana where a multi-billion dollar carbon storage project is planned. However, in that area, he found that there are more than 120,000 abandoned oil and gas wells—13,000 of which were plugged before modern cementing standards were adopted in 1953. At least 1,200 of these abandoned wells penetrate potential storage areas, “creating a direct pathway for leakage.”

One of 2.7 million abandoned oil and gas wells in the U.S. (Image by Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Pixnio)

Again, instead of simply burning fewer fossil fuels, we’re using fossil fuels to pump the CO2 from burning fossil fuels into the ground and spending billions to do so (but also making $$$ doing so). But if that CO2 is just going to leak out then governments like the United States shouldn’t be spending billions to subsidize these projects.3

Around the U.S. there are over 2.7 million inactive or abandoned oil and gas wells. Ignoring the potential for these to leak methane, it becomes clear that carbon capture is ridiculous (considering it is in old oil and gas reservoirs where we’re considering storing carbon). To think that it’ll work is similar to the illusion you have when you fart under your covers in bed. For a moment you think, great, now I won’t have to smell it. But in reality, it’s only a matter of time (and a brief one at that) before the gas starts leaking out through the imperfect seal. A little movement is all it takes—and we can only imagine how much the earth will shift and settle as millions of tons of CO2 are pumped in. And as the pressure grows, more of the gas will escape. So we’ll have used huge amounts of energy to pump CO2 into the ground, and worse, we will have extended oil companies’ license to produce, and no benefits will have been gained.

Instead, any company wanting to invest in CO2 sequestration should be given those same subsidies to cap any and every abandoned or inactive gas and oil well that could be leaking methane right now. This type of project would fall under what is now being called the Beyond Value Chain carbon mitigation. And yes, there was a report on that this past week as well, in which researchers examined the water sector and found that improvements in the sector could reduce 1.6 billion tons of CO2 emissions (such as through improving waste water treatment, drinking water treatment, and irrigation). The point of the report was to sell companies on investing in these to get the carbon credit value—even if the researchers admitted the investments may not be economically viable. But in truth, government subsidies being squandered on delusions like carbon capture should be invested strategically in improving key services that societies rely on and can be made less polluting—whether plugging methane leaks,4 sealing up attics and leaky windows, or fixing up public water systems.

And even more so, the surplus resources we have should be spent shifting cultures so that people are happy using their old phones; living a walkable lifestyle; eating, owning and traveling less; having smaller families and fewer (and smaller) pets; and all the other things that will have to happen if we’re serious about addressing the sustainability crisis. Of course, there’s less $$$ to be made and thus special interests aren’t driving governments to all do this, but that’s what we’d do if we were serious about civilizational survival. Otherwise, we’re just farting under our proverbial covers and hoping to be asleep before the worst smells leak out.5

“Umm, did you…?”  “Who me?” (Image from sasint via Pixabay)


1) Specifically, the week from March 18th to March 22nd, ideally I could have written this last week, but I ain’t that fast.

2) Interestingly, last week the UN also released a report on food waste, in which they found that worldwide, 79 kilograms of food are wasted per person per year at the household level, about ten times the e-waste. The fact that we waste so much food (one billion tons a year) is outrageous, especially when so many hundreds of million people are undernourished.

3) About $17 billion so far, according to this Congressional Budget Office analysis. As well as $1.2 billion specifically in Louisiana (and Texas) to support a direct air capture project.

4) Fortunately that is happening, as this press release details.

5) Which is currently the leading sustainability plan for most people, countries, and corporations.

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  1. Dana Goodman

    There’s no sense in trying to make sense out of nonsense.

    Thanks Erik for all you do… and do not do!

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