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Evaluating arguments in the fossil-fuel debate

19 September 2014


From Dr John Littler
Sir, - The Revd Michael Roberts's letter ( 8 August) included a welcome plea for careful assessment of the validity of quoted sources of information. I venture, therefore, to question some of his statements.

He is amazed at the recommendation that fossil fuels should stay in the ground. The most obvious justification for this recommendation is that carbon-balance studies show that the earth (i.e. the ocean) is absorbing and storing, each year, only approximately a quarter of what we push into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. The amount absorbed by the sea is already dangerously acidifying the water, and that which remains in the atmosphere causes global warming (as explained by Arrhenius in 1896).

He is stunned to find the statement that "Oil is the principal source of nitrogen for fertilisers." This is, of course, indeed erroneous; but the slightly more elaborate statement that "Oil is the principal source of energy used to convert atmospheric nitrogen to fertilisers" expresses accurately the problem that without large use of fossil energy current agricultural production cannot be maintained.

He is also misleading on the question of fracking. Methane, wherever it comes from, burns to provide energy while producing approximately half the carbon dioxide that would be produced if coal were used. So far, so good; but, unfortunately, any methane that escapes to the atmosphere is 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide in producing global warming, in spite of its eventual destruction in the atmosphere.

Taking these figures together, a methane-drilling and distribution system that loses only five per cent of the gas by leaks is no better than a coal system. So the ques- tion whether methane is a cleaner source of energy depends, critically, on how carefully it is handled.

Reliable information, in a comprehensible form, can be found at Professor David McKay's site www.withouthotair.com.

The geopolitical issues of the rest of this century will not be the ownership of oil or gas fields, but the control of desert territories where large amounts of solar energy can be captured.

18 Hillside Road
Portishead BS20 8EW

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