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Conversation on Shabbat Hanukah

By Mark Brownstein, Environmental Defense Fund

It’s hard to imagine Hanukah without latkes.  The scent of cooking oil hangs heavy in our house and lingers for at least eight days, but I don’t mind.  Like Proust’s madeleine, the smell of hot oil brings me fully into the holiday. It is every bit as important to me as the light of the candles flickering in the Hanukiah. The light of the candles may nourish the soul, but the hot oil leads to the latkes that nourish the body, and, as every Jew knows, you can’t have one without the other.

We are blessed to be able to take for granted the energy necessary to heat our oil.  Most of us simply flick a knob that sparks a small jet of natural gas, and – poof –  you have a source of intense heat with which to cook.  In generations past, cooking would’ve entailed hours of shoveling coal, chopping wood, or gathering animal dung.  Additionally, that natural gas burns cleaner than dung, wood, or coal is no small matter when you consider that indoor air pollution from smoky cooking fires is a leading cause of lung disease and premature death in the developing world today.

Ready access to natural gas is a wonderful thing, but it’s not without cost. Roughly 40 percent of the natural gas produced and used in the United States comes from hydraulic fracturing, which presents some significant risks to water quality, public health, and landscapes in the communities where the gas is produced.  And even the natural gas that is produced by ‘conventional’ means is not without environmental risk. There is much that can be done to minimize these risks through better technology and work practices.  Strong regulation and enforcement are essential, but often inadequate.  We should demand that our state and federal government require gas producers to adopt and adhere to best practices.

The other thing to know about natural gas is that it is primarily comprised of methane, which is over 84 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas pollutant over twenty years. Fully 25 percent of the warming our planet is experiencing right now is due to methane, and the largest industrial source of methane emissions is the oil and gas industry. Through leaking wells and pipelines, flaring and venting, and other problems in the production and distribution process, we are not only damaging the climate, but also wasting an important energy resource.

The good news is that research done by the Environmental Defense Fund and others shows that we can cut the amount of methane pollution associated with oil and gas use by more than 40 percent for less than one penny per thousand cubic feet of gas produced, a trivial cost. A 45 percent cut in oil and gas methane emissions could have the same climate benefit over the next twenty years as closing one third of the world’s coal plants. Addressing oil and gas methane pollution, along with aggressive steps to promote efficiency and deploy renewable energy, is a critical and low cost way to turn the corner on global warming.

Last January, the Obama Administration announced a national commitment to achieve a 40 to 45 percent reduction in oil and gas methane emissions by 2025.  Toward achieving this goal, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed regulations to control methane pollution from new oil and gas operations. But regulations for existing sources, which comprise more than 90 percent of the problem, have yet to be proposed. The White House and the EPA need to hear from us – loud and clear – that we want oil and gas methane pollution from both new and existing sources regulated and reduced, and we want those rules proposed and adopted now.

The Torah tells us that the earth’s resources are here for our use, but it is clear that we cannot be careless or wasteful in their extraction and use. I’m glad to have natural gas available to fry my latkes, but unhappy that some of the methane may be escaping and heating our planet in the process. Such waste is unnecessary and can be fixed through proper regulation.  This Hanukah, may the smell of the hot oil remind us to take action to end this waste.

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