Typically, Tormey’s day might start out in the field and end behind a podium lecturing for the Society of Petroleum Engineers. “It’s a good way to share knowledge,” he said, “and you learn a tremendous amount as a lecturer.”
In between are his ongoing projects advising clients on environmental impacts. “Right now, for example, I’m working with a federal agency to determine the environmental, economic and social impacts of either keeping or removing a coal-fired energy generation plant in the Navajo nation,” he said.
“I’ve always enjoyed fieldwork,” Tormey said. That’s where he spends up to a quarter of his time. “I undertake expeditions all over the world to measure environmental effects and provide advice.”
His work in the Andes, for example, often sends him into active volcanic craters to analyze how a volcanic eruption could impact the surrounding communities. Because of that expertise, Tormey was appointed to an advisory committee for Unesco World Heritage site selection, reviewing natural sites (including ones with volcanic features, like Hawaii’s Kilauea) to identify areas worthy of becoming World Heritage sites and to help contenders for that designation develop their applications. “I love doing that. It’s really important, and I’m lucky to be a part of it,” Tormey said. He also spent time on the Science Advisory Board for California’s Giant Sequoia National Monument, an appointment based on his two decades of Kern River sediment research.
“It’s nice to use years of scientific research to provide data-driven advice,” he said.
As one of the world’s largest economies, California has vast and growing needs for ample, affordable and reliable energy. We must meet those needs in the most sustainable way possible, while ensuring a strong and growing economy is fueled to support jobs and quality of life.
Most of America’s energy comes from fossil fuels, and we’re increasingly adding renewable energy to the mix. Though the impacts of traditional energy are often discussed, those of alternative energy are less known. All energy makes some kind of imprint. It’s important to know the economic, social and environmental trade-offs of energy sources so we can make informed choices going forward. This same thinking has gone into the White House’s “All-of-the-Above” energy strategy, which supports the development of every source of American-made energy including renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, and traditional energy sources such as oil, natural gas and nuclear. The federal and state governments heavily subsidize renewables while recognizing that domestic oil and natural gas production provides an essential foundation for America’s affordable, reliable energy for both transportation fuels and electricity generation. Additionally, as Governor Jerry Brown has noted, producing oil in California reduces the climate impacts of importing it by ship or rail from often unfriendly regimes with lax environmental regulations.
Understanding the challenges and costs facing alternative energy is especially important in California. Our state has the nation’s most ambitious alternative energy plan. By 2020, greenhouse gas emissions must be cut back to 1990 levels, despite California’s population growth. By 2030, half of California’s electricity must come from renewables. Renewables are an important complement to traditional energy sources and are beginning to play a bigger role in California’s portfolio. However, renewables are still unable to meet the majority of the state’s vast and growing energy demands.
If our goal is to improve air quality, we’ve been making good progress. As a nation, the United States reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 2 percent from last year. In fact, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as natural gas production increased by 35 percent from 2005 to 2013 and replaced coal as the leading source of electricity generation, air emissions decreased and air quality improved.
While renewable energy sources improve and ramp up, traditional sources such as natural gas will continue to play a major role in providing reliable energy to meet our state’s energy needs while keeping us on track to reduce emissions.
Wind energy offers a good example of the challenges for renewables. You already know the upside: reduced emissions. However, manufacturing wind turbines relies on rare earth elements mined predominantly in China. Mining one metric ton of these elements – roughly enough to produce two large-capacity turbines – generates over 9,600 cubic meters of waste gas (including sulfur dioxide and hydrofluoric acid), 75 metric tons of acidic mine wastewater and approximately one metric ton of radioactive wastewater, according to the Institute for Energy Research. There are over 13,000 wind turbines in California, so this means that nearly 500,000 tons of acidic mine drainage was generated in obtaining only one component of California’s wind turbines.
The turbines also cause bird fatalities. At the Altamont Pass wind farm in Northern California, for instance, estimates of annual bird and bat deaths range from 4,500 to 10,000. To operate in the first place, wind farms have had to get a federal exemption to avoid prosecution they would otherwise face for killing eagles. And, one other thing – when there is no wind, the turbines generate no electricity.
Other energy sources have challenges, too. The production of biofuels requires a lot of water compared to other methods of energy production. Increased use of corn-based ethanol, specifically, has sparked concerns about a worldwide increase in food costs.
The Ivanpah solar electric project in California’s Mojave Desert, opened in 2013, offers another example: It requires natural gas as a secondary fuel to keep electricity production going on cloudy days and at night. The system’s natural gas requirements have turned out to be higher than expected – so much that the plant is considered a greenhouse gas emitter and is required to buy carbon allowances in California’s cap-and-trade greenhouse gas emissions reduction program. In addition, the Ivanpah plant’s use of over 4,000 acres of public lands and the large number of migratory bird fatalities from the intense reflection of the plant’s mirrors has raised serious concerns among environmentalists.
Renewable energy still costs more than energy from existing hydroelectric, natural gas or coal-fired facilities. And because many forms of renewable energy are heavily subsidized by our tax dollars, sometimes the true costs are hidden.
When the use of more expensive energy sources is mandated, energy bills go up for everyone. This is happening currently in Los Angeles, where the Department of Water and Power recently raised rates in part to finance an increase in the use of renewables. The hardest hit by these rising bills are those with the tightest budgets: mandates that require utilities to buy high-cost renewables act as a regressive tax on the poorest among us.
According to a report by the Manhattan Institute, 1 million California households live in energy poverty, which is defined as a household where residents spend 10% or more of their income on household energy costs (even excluding transportation fuels).