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NPR's Robert Krulwich circled this bright spot on a night-time satellite image of the United States. As Krulwich points out, this cluster of lights is new — it wasn't there in 2005. And it's not a city.
Instead, that bright spot is a shining reminder of the natural gas boom. What you're seeing are the lights from drilling rigs and flares burning gas.
Here are two myths you need to let go of:
The solution to high gas prices is more oil.
Climate change is something that happens to polar bears and people from Kiribati.
The truth is that fossil fuels are extremely useful and valuable. And, by their very nature, the supplies are limited. Likewise, climate change isn't just something that's going happen—it's already taking place, and you can see the effects in your own backyard.
Too often, I think, we talk about the risks of fossil fuel dependence and climate change in ways that make them seem abstract to the very people who use the most fossil fuels and create the most greenhouse gases. That's a problem. There are lots of reasons to care about energy. But I think that fossil fuel limits and climate change are the most pressing reasons. And I think it's incredibly important to discuss those very real risks in a way that actually feels very real.
This isn't about morality, or lifestyle choices, or maintaining populations of cute, fuzzy animals. (Or, rather, it's not just about those things.) Instead, we have to consider what will happen to us and how much money we will have to spend if we choose to do nothing to change the way we make and use energy.
Over at Scientific American, you can read an excerpt from my upcoming book, Before the Lights Go Out. In it, you'll read about the energy risks hanging over the Kansas City metro area—a place that, in many ways, resembles the places and lifestyles shared by a majority of Americans. You've probably never been to Merriam, Kansas. But you can look at Merriam and see what could happen in your hometown.
Merriam isn't a small town. There's nothing really recognizable as a small town central business district. Instead, Merriam's stores and offices are mostly concentrated along two major thoroughfares—Shawnee Mission Parkway and Johnson Drive. These wide, multilane roads are dotted with clusters of shopping centers and big box stores, like necklaces strung with fat pearls. The municipal building and the police station are a couple of nondescript offices that sit off the frontage of Shawnee Mission Parkway, on a ridge overlooking the Interstate. Nothing about that says, "Classic Americana."
Yet Merriam isn't a suburb, either—or an urban city. It's too dense to be the first and not dense enough to be the latter. Merriam has a mixture of house styles. Drive down one street, and you'll see a 1930s bungalow standing shoulder to shoulder with a spare little 1950s Cape Cod. Next to that, there's a 1980s split-level with windows on the front and the back but none on the sides. More than three generations of the American Dream are living here.
It's ironic that Merriam doesn't really fit any of the classic American paradigms, because, quite frankly, most of us have already left those paradigms behind. We talk about this country as if it's full of neatly defined small towns, big cities, and tidy suburbs. In reality, the places where we live are lot mushier than that. Merriam isn't the exception. Merriam is the rule.
One blazing hot afternoon in August of 2010, I stood on a mountain top in Alabama, staring at a styrofoam beer cooler upended over the top of a metal pole. Alongside me were a couple dozen sweaty engineers and geologists. That beer cooler was one of the few visible signs of the research project happening far below our feet.
Over the course of two months, scientists from the University of Alabama had injected 278 tons of carbon dioxide into the Earth. The goal was to keep it there forever, locked in geologic formations. The beer cooler was a key part of that plan. Beneath it sat the delicate electronic components of the monitoring system the scientists were using to make sure none of the captured carbon dioxide found its way out of the mountain. Beer coolers, it turns out, make great low-cost heat protection.
Carbon capture and storage—the process of removing carbon dioxide from factory and power plant emissions and trapping it where it can't reach the atmosphere—is an interesting idea. It has the potential to help us make our current energy systems cleaner as we work on building more sustainable systems for the future. With that in mind, the Department of Energy has seven regional research teams testing carbon capture and storage at sites around the United States.
So far, nobody in the United States has put this full process to the test at the scale that would be necessary in the real world. But, in the past couple of weeks, scientists at the Midwest Geological Sequestration Consortium began pumping carbon dioxide at a new site, one that is going to give us our best picture yet of what full-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) will be like.