A curious question on a geology final

Published on 2024-02-28

Last semester I took a course on geology. Would have been a big mistake had it not been a requirement for my environmental science program. I get why, but geology is a short road to extractivism.

In this spirit, I want to talk about a really, really interesting question on my geology final. I don't know if I got it right. I'll never know. I sat there for a good ten minutes during the final thinking about it, and it's been on my mind ever since.

It went something like this:

In the short term, natural gas will be necessary to a successful energy transition because:

  • The question is wrong. We could stop using natural gas if we wanted
  • It is critical to the production of industrial quantities of hydrogen for use in hydrogen energy

It was a multiple choice question. There were two other options that didn't make sense, so it really came down to this.

My professor, for context, is a big fan of hydrogen energy. I don't know exactly how I feel about hydrogen. It's not non-renewable. There's clean ways of doing hydrogen, and there's dirty ways of doing hydrogen. Green hydrogen is becoming more viable, but importantly, my professor is a lot less interested in green hydrogen than he is in retrofitting existing extraction technologies to dig it out of the ground.

So as I was sitting there I was dealing with a bit of a prisoner's dilemma-type scenario. I know we could stop using natural gas whenever we want. It'd hurt, surely, but I personally don't believe there is an energy transition that doesn't hurt. We are living violently outside our means. Not to mention, natural gas isn't the only source of energy we rely on. It's substantial, but doing away with natural gas alone would be fairly restrained as far as degrowth goes.

The thing is, I'm a degrowther. I believe these things because I'm a degrowther. Degrowth is a conceivable and desirable option to me. My professor is not. His entire academic career is based around finding ways to perpetuate growth in a world where growth is becoming less and less of an option. Degrowth is not a conceivable option.

In the end, I went with "we can stop using natural gas if we wanted" both as a motivated, "political" choice and because it is literally true. Hydrogen is obviously not the only path forward in the energy transition. It's not even the most energy-maximalistic one. I certainly think my professor believes hydrogen is the best way forward. He might even think it's the only realistic way forward. And he's got a PhD in this stuff; I'm not going to pretend I know more than him about geology. But ultimately it is just a matter of opinion. He asked a opinionated multiple choice question and I gave a opinionated answer.

If we're to assume the answer was indeed that we need natural gas for hydrogen, I think that's pretty interesting. The question pre-supposes that hydrogen is strictly necessary in the short term for a successful energy transition, which is a strange supposition to make.

I don't know. I guess there isn't really a big point to this piece or anything. Except, maybe, that it's interesting how we take some of the things we believe for granted. I know I certainly do. Those kinds of implicit assumptions can have all kinds of effects on the ways we communicate. That probably deserves its own article. In time.

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