Protecting the environment: U professors say world is at acrossroads, should sign on to Kyoto Protocol, and resist U.S. oil drilling

Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-part series on energy.

Fossil fuels sometimes have had negative effects on the environment. While there are several alternatives, some are equally or more harmful to the ozone and nature as a whole.

Bush said at a March 9 Ohio speech that his administration is working to protect the environment while increasing energy availabilities.

“As we improve our energy supply…we’ll also improve the environment,” he said. “Too many people in Washington and around our country seem to think we have to pick between energy production and environmental protection, between environmental protection and growing our economy. I think that’s a false choice.”

Backing up W’s words

In light of these words, the United States was one of only two industrialized nations in the world, along with Australia, that did not sign on to the recent international Kyoto Protocol. The treaty seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dramatically reduce the world’s pollution.

The U.S. is accountable for about one-third of the world’s carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas Kyoto cracks down upon. Carbon dioxide creates a layer in the atmosphere that the sun’s heat easily penetrates. However, the heat can’t escape from the earth’s surface, causing global warming.

“Kyoto isn’t the end all, be all, but it sets standards,” said U professor Kevin Perry, who teaches a course on atmospheric chemistry and air pollution where he examines energy-use policies.

Richard Peterson, a U professor teaching a course on alternative energy, said the government is ignoring a major issue by shunning environment-friendly programs like Kyoto.

“Everyone outside of the current administration is very aware the climate is changing and it is changing because of greenhouse gases,” Peterson said. “If you want to make it worse, burn the fossil fuels until they’re even more depleted, but since we have to switch to sustainables anyway, why not get on it?”

Although the United States did not sign the Kyoto Protocol, Bush has encouraged Congress to pass his “Clear Skies Initiative,” which he hoped would place a cap on mercury emissions from power plants and reduce pollution from the plants by 70 percent.

Exploring America’s options

Bush said drilling has to occur within the nation to help the U.S. become more self-sufficient.

“We need to open up new areas to environmentally responsible exploration for oil and natural gas, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” Bush said, adding that some estimates report the United States could get more than 10 billion barrels of oil from the region.

“That’s the same amount of new oil we could get from 41 states combined,” Bush said. “It would eventually reduce our dependence on foreign oil by up to a million barrels of oil a day.”

Perry said if the administration pursues drilling in the Arctic reserves, 6 billion barrels would be the maximum extractable product, which he said would last for about six months, as it is only a fraction of what the nation consumes in a given year.

Gabriel Lozada, professor of environmental economics at the U, said drilling in the United States is not the solution.

“That policy can be called a policy of drain America first. In the long run, that actually decreases America’s energy protection,” Lozada said. “The idea of ameliorating the problem by increasing U.S. output just means less will be available in the future.”

Lozada said the United States should be looking toward conservation or developing alternative energies instead of pursuing more drilling.

“Besides things like solar and wind power, it might also include sources like coal, which the United States has quite a bit of,” he said. “I think if a multiyear research and development funding plan were instituted, there’s a pretty good chance in 15 years those sorts of resources could provide more energy than they do now.”

Developing alternatives at home

At the U, several research programs are underway with the focus being the development of alternative energies.

U professor of chemical and fuels engineering Keith Roper received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency for a hydrogen sustainability course, for example.

The technical objective of the class was to build a water electrolyzer powered by solar energy. The device traps radiation from the sun and stores it in a hydrogen fuel cell for evening or for any use-even if the sun is not out.

“Our educational objective was to do this in the context of a class of both high school and college students, and it’s to be an interdisciplinary class with students from different majors,” Roper said.

Peterson and Perry both said conservation and sustainable energy methods like those that Roper’s class is researching could have positive effects on the environment.

In addition to the U’s efforts, The Leonardo-which will open in 2006 in Utah’s former main library building at Library Square downtown-will be gaining a new partner in the Utah Science Center. The science center will join The Leonardo’s emphases of arts and culture.

The new science center will have energy as a major focus and theme.

“Energy is so important that it needs a very major emphasis and educational discussion throughout all of society,” said U professor Joe Andrade.

Warming the Earth

The burning of fossil fuels such as gasoline, coal, oil and natural gas in combustion reactions results in the production of carbon dioxide, which is not harmful to people until it reaches the atmosphere and adds to the Greenhouse Effect.

Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for 100 years.

Perry calculated that he personally puts 7,500 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air each year. When multiplied by about 100 million cars on the road, the statistics become more discouraging-and that’s ignoring the pollution emitted by electricity.

“Global warming becomes a serious issue,” Perry said. “It’s been sensationalized by environmentalist groups, which has made it difficult to express the danger, but there’s no doubt we’re heading down that road.”

“In 250 to 300 years, the Greenland ice cap will be gone and oceans will rise 24 feet,” Perry said.

He pointed out that the average elevation of Florida is 10 feet, meaning the state would disappear.

“When the Antarctic goes, that’s a 240-foot raise,” Perry said. “You can imagine what would happen from there. This is a real possibility.”

Peterson agreed that the future looks dim under the current energy policies.

“There is so much damage being done environmentally that we may very well be getting to the crossroads of being able to fix it, which is really rather scary as these things go,” Peterson said. “A lot of people have this fantasy that you can’t possibly hurt the world-well, you can. Not only that, but it is possible to treat ecosystems so badly that they cannot be restored. That is the big item of concern is that we may be there. We may be in the position in many areas of the environment where we may not be able to fix them anymore. That is distinctly not a good state of affairs.”

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