SHARM EL-SHEIKH – Members of a Republican Congressional delegation took the stage at this year's U.N. climate talks Friday to tout the benefits of fossil fuels — a bold move at a meeting that's all about curbing carbon emissions for the good of humanity.
Scientists overwhelmingly agree that heat-trapping gases such as those released from the combustion of coal, oil and gas are pushing up global temperatures, thereby causing sea-level rise, extreme weather and species extinctions.
Yet Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, said it would be wrong to demonize fossil fuels.
“I think we need to decide as a world: Do we hate greenhouse gas emissions or do we hate fossil fuels," said Curtis, who is known for founding the Conservative Climate Caucus. "It’s not the same thing.”
Like Curtis, Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., suggested fossil fuels can be a form of clean energy, if only the carbon released by extracting and burning them could be captured and stored safely.
“One of the things we ought to be doing is not attacking oil and gas, it’s to be attacking the emissions associated with it, to where it can be indistinguishable from other renewable energy technologies,” he told an audience in the U.S. pavilion at the climate talks in Sharm el-Sheikh.
This, Graves argued, would make fossil fuels “an arrow in the quiver as we try to address our objectives of energy affordability, reliability, cleanliness, exportability and security of supply chain.”
House Republicans’ views are likely to become more important given the expected turnover of the House to Republican control. The comments echo industry efforts in recent years to separate carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels in public perception.
Andrea Dutton, a professor of geoscience and MacArthur Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that's not possible.
“Burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases that are causing temperatures to rise rapidly, and this is the major contributor to the global warming we are experiencing,” she said in an email. “This is not a matter of belief but rather a matter of scientific evidence.”
While the fossil fuel industry has made some advances in reducing emissions per unit of fuel burned — largely due to government regulation and pressure from those concerned about climate change — neither coal, oil nor gas are anywhere near being a clean source of energy.
One solution promoted by industry is the idea of carbon capture, to prevent emissions from reaching the atmosphere, usually storing the exhaust gases underground. There is also “direct air capture,” in a nascent stage, that would be able to remove emissions once they are in the air.
Nobody has demonstrated a cost-effective way of doing either at scale, said Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University.
“Renewables are presently the cheapest energy — even without carbon capture on fossil fuels — so adding carbon capture is never going to be the economically superior solution,” he said.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, said that replacing one fossil fuel — coal — with a slightly cleaner one — natural gas — would already result in big emissions cuts.
In the United States natural gas has already displaced coal in many cases and is responsible for substantial reductions of one main greehouse gas, carbon dioxide, in recent years.
“Let them build the pipelines they need, let them build the export terminals they need,” Crenshaw told the audience in Egypt, adding that the effect would be "the equivalent of giving every American solar panels, giving every American a Tesla, and doubling our wind capacity.”
Several experts contacted by The Associated Press said that was not an ideal solution. Natural gas is made up mostly of methane. Satelites show the powerful greenhouse gas leaking from equipment at every stage of production.
“To solve the climate crisis we have to stop emitting carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere," said Jonathan T. Overpeck, dean of the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. “The production and use of natural gas does both, so we have to stop using natural gas as soon as we can.”
Overpeck warned that all fossil fuel infrastructure now being built, including for natural gas, risks becoming a stranded asset if governments want to make good on their pledges to curb climate change.
“This is why we must leapfrog the gas-based solutions to renewable energy-based solutions, plus battery storage, plus hydrogen,” he said in an email to The AP.
Crenshaw, the lawmaker from Texas, accused “radical environmentalists” of exaggerating the threat posed by climate change and misstating the science.
“Let’s not lie to our children and scare them to death, then tell them they’re going to burn alive because of this," he said.
Donald Wuebbles, a University of Illinois professor of atmospheric sciences, past assistant director of the Office of Science, Technology and Policy at the White House and former lead author on the U.N.'s independent climate science panel, said the allegation was misplaced.
“Nobody’s out there saying children are going to burn to death," Wuebbles wrote. "What we are saying is this is an extremely serious problem, perhaps the most serious problem humanity has ever faced and we need to deal with it.”
The Republican delegation spoke shortly before U.S. President Joe Biden delivered a speech in a packed hall at the same venue, where he announced additional measures to crack down on methane emissions and promoted his administration's recent climate bill that's designed to boost rooftop solar and electric car uptake.