Archive for Monday, January 5, 1998


January 5, 1998


Despite concerns about the costs of reducing greenhouse gases, many are touting the benefits of the global agreement and of alternative energy sources.

The agreement on global warming signed last month by the United States and other developed nations may have motivated those countries dependent on fossil fuels to sound the alarm.

But there was a sound of joy from those nations in favor of alternative energy sources.

"I was very pleased that some sort of international accord was reached," said Robert Buddemeier, senior scientist with the Kansas Geological Survey at Kansas University. "That really reflects the fact that there is something approximating international consensus on the reality and the importance of the problem."

In essence, the pact stated that by 2012, collaborating nations would cut their emissions of greenhouse gases below the level emitted in 1990. America vowed to reduce emissions to 7 percent below the 1990 level.

What remains unclear is how that will occur, and what the effects will be. This month, President Clinton -- probably in his State of the Union address or his budget proposal -- will release more specifics on how the goals in the treaty will be achieved.

And the Clinton administration has pledged $5 billion over five years to create new incentives to reduce greenhouse gases.

"I'm optimistic about this," said Charles Benjamin, attorney and legislative coordinator for the Kansas Natural Resource Council and the Kansas chapter of Sierra Club.

It has been said that cuts in production of greenhouse gases would have heavy costs for utilities and manufacturers. Industries that rely on fossil fuels would be hit hard, and billions of dollars would be required to develop new energy systems.

As a result, gasoline prices and utility rates could soar.

However, what may be viewed as a burden initially may eventually be seen as a boon. Alternative power and technologies involving wind and solar energy, hydrogen, farm byproducts and perhaps nuclear power could gain in favor and increase opportunities nationwide.

"I think this notion that we're going to lose jobs or lose our economy because we're moving away from carbon-based fuels is really misguided," Benjamin said. "There are a lot of opportunities for jobs with this new technology."

'Climate alteration'

But why now? Why adopt an international treaty when certain individuals, groups, even nations remain wary of whether greenhouse gases will have the catastrophic effects that have been so widely publicized in recent years?

To many, the facts speak for themselves.

"We know beyond a reasonable doubt that the concentration of so-called greenhouse gases has been rising, that it's well above preindustrial norms," Buddemeier said. "And we can be relatively confident that a substantial part of the increase can be attributed to human activity."

Almost half of greenhouse gases are created by the burning of fuels and the resulting carbon-dioxide emissions, said Galen Suppes, KU assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering. The rest are methane emissions (16 percent), ozone emissions (8 percent), chlorofluorocarbon emissions and nitrous oxide.

While a dispute remains over the evidence regarding temperature increases across the planet, changes in vegetation patterns and in atmospheric conditions prompted Buddemeier to describe it as "climate alteration" rather than global warming.

"We are changing the climate system," Buddemeier said. "Even if it doesn't result in the temperature change that some of the models predict."

Given that alteration, the treaty was "an important step in public awareness," Buddemeier said. "I sort of look at it as the journey of a thousand miles. And it's better to take the first step than none at all."

Switching gears

Even that first step has been met with skepticism.

In the United States, Benjamin said, a "coalition of business and labor interests" are reluctant to move away from finding, extracting and using coal and oil.

And developing nations that have used fossil fuels as a means of gaining economic and social stability can ill afford to stymie progress.

"There's a huge built-in inertia in all of the economic systems," Buddemeier said. "Relatively speaking, it's a lot cheaper (percentage-wise) for the developed countries to switch gears, to invest in terms of other fuels."

Things were somewhat simpler in 1987, when more than 150 nations signed the Montreal Protocol Treaty. That agreement set out the guidelines for reducing, and eventually eliminating, all ozone depleting agents, including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), by the turn of the century.

"At the conference in Montreal, it was clear that there were alternatives," Benjamin said. "With carbon-based fuels, though, the alternative might be nuclear, which has problems because we haven't figured out what to do with the waste" and because of the threat of accidents.

And despite the oil crisis of the 1970s, America has lagged behind in the research of solar technology, wind power and other alternative energies.

"A lot of that was not pursued," Benjamin said. "From the perspective of environmental organizations, there's a lot of support for the U.S. to be a leader in this area."

Now, with Vice President Al Gore, author of "Earth in the Balance," positioning himself for a run at the presidency in 2000, the pact could become a true national initiative. And the nation's job forces may soon become fluent in the language of the new technology required to make such massive changes.

The trick, Benjamin said, is to decentralize the production of energy.

"You have entrenched economic interests that have been able to hook a cash register to generating energy," he said. "It changes the politics and the economics of energy if you go to solar, wind, and other forms of renewable energy."

Also, it may just be smart, given America's dependence on foreign sources of oil, to steer clear of the unstable politics of the Middle East and Mexico.

"We're one of the oldest well-producing countries in the world, and our resources are running out," Benjamin said. "So there's a real national security issue here. ... Is our whole military establishment designed to fight a war for oil?

"Right now you can go out and buy a gallon of gas for under a dollar," he added. "There's no guarantee that this will last."

Cleaner energy

For a small percentage of its power, Kansas Power & Light produces electricity at Wolf Creek, a nuclear plant in Burlington, Kan. About one-fourth of its power comes from natural gas or fuel oil.

But almost two-thirds of KPL's power comes from coal. There are several coal-fired power plants in Kansas, including the Lawrence Energy Center northwest of the city.

Many of them were built in the past 10 to 20 years, meaning they have emission smokestack scrubbers that quell pollutants. And in 1987, the Lawrence plant's Unit 5 became the first generating plant in the country retrofitted with $4 million in new technology that reduces nitrous oxide emissions.

That clean-burning capability would likely make it less problematic to meet new emission standards in the treaty. However, Western Resources, which owns KPL's Lawrence Energy Center, has indicated that a plan of action would be premature until the treaty's specifics are introduced.

Overall, Kansas is a net importer of coal, gasoline and diesel. Proponents of the treaty see that as an area ripe for change.

"If we reduce those imports and replace them with technology, I think it can benefit our economy tremendously," Suppes said. "I think the U.S. and Kansas will look back and realize that it's a real smart decision."

Coal-burning plants that operate at 40 percent efficiency could be upgraded to 50 percent efficiency through advances in technology.

Changes in industrial technology include cogenerated heat or the use of waste heat from electric-power generation and more efficient electric motors.

And if automobiles remain one of the main culprits in producing greenhouse gases, converting gasoline engines to diesel could drastically improve their efficiency.

Diesel engines, Suppes said, have lowered hydrocarbon and nitrous oxide emissions more than gasoline engines. And improvements to their emission systems are expected in the next four years.

In the near future, the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, consisting of the U.S. government and the "Big Three" automakers -- Chrysler Corp., Ford Motor Co. and General Motor Corp. -- will begin combining efficient diesel engines with advanced energy storage and conversion to achieve fuel economies up to three times those of current cars.

While a prospective hike in diesel fuel rates could adversely affect farmers and the trucking industry, taxes on gasoline could provide opportunities to market ethanol and other fuels manufactured from farm byproducts.

Kansas is a potential conduit for renewable energies such as ethanol, made from corn, and biodiesel, made from soybean oil. Those energy sources would not add to greenhouse-gas emissions because their sources would normally decompose into carbon dioxide, Suppes said.

"Most of the Midwest states have the same advantage we have in that area," Suppes said. "Unless it goes into mass production, it's not feasible to develop. Perhaps the new policy will be the incentive."

-- Matt Gowen's phone message number is 832-7222. His e-mail address is

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