Bridge to Nowhere
Remember the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska? It gained notoriety as one of the most remarkable examples of blatant pork-barrel spending in recent years.
The bridge was to connect the town of Ketchikan with its island airport, even though there was not much need for a massive new bridge to carry 1,000 people per day. The real need being address by Sen. Ted Stevens and other Alaska politicians was for federal money to provide construction jobs in the state.
“Bridge to Nowhere” is now in our language as a synonym for “boondoggle” or just “stupid”.
I’m concerned that US energy policy is a bridge to nowhere on a vastly greater and more dangerous scale. There’s lots of talk about building a bridge, but from what I can see, it will not take us any where different.
Bridges can be good when they provide an appropriate way to the other side. A bridge that doesn’t take us to where we want to go, though, is no help at all.
For many years, clear back to 1981, natural gas has been celebrated as a “bridge fuel”, a way of moving us from coal to renewable energy. Gas, we’ve been told, is a cleaner and lower carbon fuel that we can use while we develop innovative new ways to power our society. (Recent studies have shown that natural gas, especially when obtained by fracking, may produce less carbon than coal when burned, but it can be at least as bad as coal overall when the greenhouse effects of leaking methane are taken into account. With that in mind, gas isn’t a very good bridge, no matter where it goes.)
Gas is a bridge, we’ve been told, because it can help us move between two very different energy contexts. It is a wonderful image, providing a transition across a difficult place so that we can settle into the exciting new world of genuinely clean energy. The bridge metaphor is intuitive and comforting, so we hear it used over and over again.
Give some thought to the image, though. If you want to build a bridge, then it is reasonable to enter into the project with lots of planning and development for what will be on the other side. What good is a bridge when there is nothing in place to welcome us at the far end? So the idea of a bridge fuel requires a commitment to the desired goal of clean energy, and that commitment has been sorely lacking in the US.
A bridge fuel should be a fairly temporary “single-use” bridge. We don’t want to go back and forth across this transition — we just want to move everybody away from fossil fuels and never go back. So it is reasonable to make such a bridge as small and transitory as possible. Think of the pre-fab pontoon bridges that the military quickly moves into place to get troops and supplies across a river. A one-time bridge doesn’t need to be elaborate or beautiful. Indeed, investing that much in a temporary bridge would be a waste.
When I think about bridges in that way, natural gas does not look like a bridge at all. US energy policy seems to be directed toward a long-term natural gas system. It is not trying to move us quickly and decisively to renewable energy. A few brief examples:
- Here in Colorado, as in several other states, our governor is a cheerleader for widespread and loosely regulated gas drilling as a driver for economic growth. Even in a state that is home to the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a state that has great opportunities for wind and solar power as well as hydroelectric and geothermal possibilities, gas and oil are still being heralded as the way to prosperity.
- I heard a news report on NPR a week ago, that cheap and abundant gas — produced through a boom of fracking and deep-water drilling — is bringing some manufacturing and petrochemical jobs back into the US. Now jobs are a good thing, especially in depressed areas along the Gulf Coast, but those factories and manufacturing jobs are completely dependant on gas, not renewable energy. There’s no bridging to a new future here — it is just more of the same reliance on cheap fossil fuels.
- It has been widely reported, too, that the sudden abundance of gas is driving down energy prices. The low cost of gas is making it difficult for renewable energy to be an economically viable and competitive option. In this way, the so-called “bridge” actually is making it much harder to get to the other side.
When I was in the last stages of researching this blog posting, I found official word that my hunch about gas and US energy policy is correct. Less than two months ago, Dory Hippauf wrote, “According to the Department of Energy and the natural gas minions — Natural Gas is no longer a bridge fuel; it is now a foundation fuel.”
She quoted oil and gas expert Greg Sovas: “Natural gas is the foundation of our energy plan for the future. It’s not a bridge fuel. This (developing the Marcellus Shale in New York) may be the biggest development opportunity of our generation for the economically depressed Southern Tier.”
So now it seems to be official. The “bridge fuel” of natural gas is not going to take us anywhere new. It is not going to take us where we want and need to go.
In the last few years, we’ve heard a lot about an “all of the above” energy policy, which seems to focus on, um, doing everything? As we’ve seen that policy in practice, “all of the above” gives a lot more attention and financial breaks to old-style dirty energy, and very little to developing renewable energy as an established infrastructure.
“All of the above” does not move us quickly and decisively away from fossil fuels. It does not take us into a world where energy is clean and sustainable. “All of the above” is not about bridges and dramatic transitions. “All of the above” has given us natural gas as a “foundation fuel” instead of a bridge.
In February — at the rally in Denver which supported the big anti-Keystone march in Washington, DC — I gave a short speech grounded in the Deuteronomy passage to “choose life” (Deut. 30:19). I ended by saying that an “all of the above” energy policy that opens up more of the tar sands (or more gas drilling) is, effectively, a choice for death, even if some solar panels and wind turbines are built, too. I was followed by a spokesperson for US Senator Mark Udall, who read a letter presuming that we all support the Senator’s and the President’s “all of the above” policy. Twice, the crowd booed his mention of “all of the above” so long and so loud that he had to stop talking.
That’s what we all need to do — be adamant in saying no to an “all of the above” policy that makes things worse. We need to be persistent and vocal in rejecting a bridge that takes us nowhere.
Write to the President, your Senators and Representative, your Governor, and everybody else who needs to hear the message. Demand that we start work right away on a real bridge, one that gets us to the clean energy future.