Climate Corner: It doesn’t make cents

Dec 24, 2022

Eric Engle

The continued use of fossil fuels coal, oil and “natural” (methane) gas for energy and product production increasingly does not make sense or cents. There’s really no other way to look at it.

Let’s start with how this reliance doesn’t make sense. The habitability of Earth, our only home in the cosmos, is threatened by a runaway greenhouse effect caused by anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gas emissions. These excess emissions originate from, in large part, the recovery, use and disposal of wastes from fossil fuels, as well as unsustainable agricultural, consumption and development practices (with many fossil fuels inputs).

Global climate change and biodiversity loss are existential crises for humankind, but they’re also accompanied by massive pollution and contamination crises that threaten our access to clean air and water, the safety and viability of our food supplies and the healthy functioning of our bodies. These, too, are crises attributable in part to fossil fuels. Plastics, for example, are derivatives of the oil and gas industry.

Now let’s look at how this reliance doesn’t make “cents.” It is cheaper to build, operate and maintain new solar and wind plus energy storage facilities than it is to keep old coal-fired power plants burning. On a levelized cost per kilowatt-hour produced basis, it is already cheaper in many places globally to produce renewable energy than it is to produce energy from combined-cycle natural gas facilities. Ratepayers are getting stuck with higher energy costs, especially in West Virginia, by utility regulators like the West Virginia Public Service Commission all because of an irrational cultural obsession with coal. West Virginia ratepayers and taxpayers alike are being stuck with retrofitting and cleanup costs of using coal for no other reason than to appease bought-and-paid-for politicians in our state legislature and the administration of our coal baron governor.

The oil and gas industry has recovered a glut of natural gas during the fracking boom of the last 10-15 years, but they’ve hemorrhaged cash doing it with boom and bust cycles that have not delivered the economic growth, jobs or sustained investment and tax revenues promised for communities across the country, and especially in Appalachia. Even gas for heating is being undercut in affordability by heat pumps. According to a piece in The Charleston Gazette-Mail, “A recent report by the sustainable living research group Carbon Switch citing data from the federal government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that, if every home in the United States replaced its heating and cooling systems with heat pumps, the average homeowner would save $557 per year on their utility bill. In West Virginia, the average homeowner would save $887 per year and 52,000 jobs would be created, the report projected.” Up front costs for heat pumps are coming down thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act.

Desperate to shore up prospects for long-term profitability, the oil and gas industry turned to new (virgin) plastics in recent years, with promises of a huge plastics and petrochemicals buildout in the Ohio River Valley. That hasn’t materialized. According to a recent report for the Ohio River Valley Institute by Kathy Hipple and Anne Keller, “Today, it’s clear that the petrochemical ‘renaissance’ once envisioned for Appalachia has largely failed. Plans for a sprawling regional buildout, complete with a network of world-class and small-scale ethane crackers, hydrogenation plants, an Appalachian Storage Hub and 500 miles of new pipelines, were supposed to create more than 100,000 new jobs in the region. Shell’s Beaver County [Pennsylvania] plant is the only remnant of this grand vision. Eroding plastics demand and a shaky global plastics market indicate it may be the region’s last petrochemical facility.”

The industry is now hedging its bets on blue hydrogen production with carbon capture, utilization and storage technology. This, too, is a nonsensical waste of money, not to mention dangerous. Hydrogen can be produced using a renewably powered electrolysis process to separate hydrogen atoms from water molecules (aka green hydrogen). As renewables affordably expand, why would any entity want to invest in massively expensive carbon capture technology and continue to spend money recovering feedstock using fracking when hydrogen could be derived much more cheaply? And hydrogen itself may displace metallurgical coal in the steelmaking process. It offers potential for decarbonization in hard-to-decarbonize sectors like steel and cement, international shipping and aviation.

The future is in renewable energy plus storage, grid management, maximized energy efficiency, decarbonization and sustainable agriculture and development. For our health, environment and financial well-being, we need to make that future a reality with all due haste.


Eric Engle is chairman of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action.