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By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

Political Non-Science: Part I

By Jeff Danner Posted October 22, 2012 at 3:40 am

In order to help secure a peaceful and prosperous future, national policies on energy, the environment, and public health need to be based on good science.  Sadly, during the current presidential election there has been little meaningful, science-based discussion of any of these vital areas.  While both candidates have disappointed, you’ll find that the majority of my criticism is directed at Governor Romney who, along with his party, seems to have abandoned data-based decision making altogether. Over the next two weeks I will review 5 critical issues which need to be addressed with equations rather than ideology.
 

  1. Energy Independence

 
Governor Romney has been touting a goal of “North American energy independence.”  Sounds great, right?  But let’s delve into this statement a bit further.  Anytime you hear a politician use the term “energy” without further qualification, you can assume he/she doesn’t know what he/she is talking about.  The issues relating to electricity generation and transportation fuels are complex and independent.  Lumping them together under the generic penumbra of “energy” is, quite frankly, nonsense.
 
Governor Romney’s goal of North American rather than U.S. energy independence is a clear reference to the exploitation of Canadian Oil sands.  Therefore, we can assume the Governor is primarily addressing petroleum supply in this statement about “energy.” In 2007 the U.S. consumed about 19 million barrels of oil a day, of which we produced 7 million barrels and imported the other 12.  Today we still consume about 19 million barrels of oil a day, but due to the exploitation of U.S. shale oil reserves, we are producing about 10 million barrels per day and importing 9 million.  Governor Romney seems to be suggesting that with his leadership and the help of our neighbors to the north, we can completely replace the 9 million barrels of imported oil per day.  I could give you a long exposition on the likelihood of this occurring, but to be briefer, let me quote Vice President Biden, “Not mathematically possible.”
 
Even if it were possible for us to crank up our drilling operations to 19 million barrels per day, would this be a good idea?  Global petroleum reserves are declining.  If we embarked down the path Governor Romney is laying out, we’d burn through our reserves even faster than other oil-producing countries, leaving us in a few years time almost wholly depending on imports. Not exactly a great plan if you ask me.
 

  1. “Clean Coal”

 
In attempting to secure votes from coal-producing, states both candidates extol the virtues of “clean coal” which is a term without a definition.  Coal in unclean in three fundamental ways:
 

  • Mining operations generate huge piles of rubble called tailings.  When rain falls on the tailings, a wide variety of toxic materials are leached out, and as is currently occurring in western North Carolina, seep into local water supplies.
  • Impurities in coal, such as sulfur and mercury, generate toxic emissions when burned, some of which escape into the atmosphere and cause respiratory ailments.
  • Coal-fired power plants comprise one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions in the world, making them a key driver of global warming.

 
Neither candidate, when referring to “clean coal” ever addresses which of these issues they are targeting.  The reality is that coal will never be “clean,” and whitewashing the issues with slogans only defers needed conversations on actual long-term energy solutions.  Such as . . .
 

  1. Solar Power

 
Every day the Sun pours a staggering amount of energy on to the Earth.  While solar power is primarily known as a source of electricity, due to the tremendous supply available it can also be harnessed to power transportation.  Solar-generated electricity can run trains directly and can indirectly fuel cars by splitting water atoms to generate hydrogen to be used in cars with hydrogen fuel cells.  (Note: I am a plug-in electric car skeptic due to limitations in the availability of the rare earth metals required to make the batteries.)
 
Unfortunately, both candidates, when discussing their energy plans, simply toss the word solar out along with a grab bag of other pleasant-sounding, energy-related terms.  What we need are massive investments in solar electric generation on a national scale, in a manner akin to the construction of the interstate highway system under President Eisenhower.  Unfortunately, over the last several decades we’ve lost the appetite for ambitious national projects in favor of “market-based solutions”.  While a market-based approach is great for driving competition in consumer products, it cannot adequately address strategic long-term energy supply issues since scientific precepts are not considered.
 
Next week I’ll address climate change and public health issues and share my thoughts on how we can move toward having more scientific input in our national policy decisions.  Early voting is open in North Carolina, so when you go cast your vote, consider which candidate is more likely to consider the science when setting policy going forward.
 
Have a comment or question?  Want to disagree?  Use the comment interface below or send me an e-mail to commonscience@chapelboro.com.

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