A sanitised fuel

I debated myself for ten minutes as to whether I should criticise an article that appeared on the DD News website on this blog. The article is flawed in the way many science articles on the internet are, but at the same time it appeared on DD News – a news outlet that has a longstanding reputation for playing it safe, so to speak, despite being a state-run entity. But what ultimately changed my mind was that the Department of Science and Technology (DST) quote-tweeted the article on Twitter, writing that the findings were the product of a study the department had funded. The article goes:

As the world runs out of fossil fuels and looks out for alternate sources of clean energy, there is good news from the Krishna-Godavari (KG) basin. The methane hydrate deposit in this basin is a rich source that will ensure adequate supplies of methane, a natural gas. Methane is a clean and economical fuel. It is estimated that one cubic meter of methane hydrate contains 160-180 cubic meters of methane. Even the lowest estimate of methane present in the methane hydrates in KG Basin is twice that of all fossil fuel reserves available worldwide.

Methane is known as a clean fuel – but the label is a bit of a misnomer. When it is combusted, it produces carbon dioxide and water, as opposed to a host of other compounds as well. So as a fuel, it is cleaner than fossil fuels like crude oil and coal. However, it still releases carbon dioxide, and even if this is in quantities appreciably lower than the combustion of coal or crude oil emits, we don’t need more of that in the atmosphere. One report has found the planet’s surface could breach the 1.5º C warming mark, if only temporarily, as soon as 2024. We don’t need more methane in the atmosphere, such as through fugitive emissions, more so: a kilogram of methane has the same greenhouse potential as a little over 80 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Ultimately, what we need is to lower consumption.

This said, the cleanliness of a fuel is to my mind context-specific. The advantages methane offers relative to other fuels in common use today would almost entirely be offset in India by the government’s persistent weakening of environmental protections, pollution-control regulations and indigenous peoples’ rights. (The Krishna-Godavari basin has already been reeling under the impact of the ONGC’s hydrocarbon extraction activities since the 1970s.) Even if we possessed technologies that allowed us to obtain and use methane with 100% efficiency, the Centre will still only resort to the non-democratic methods it has adopted in the last half-decade or so, bulldozing ecosystems and rural livelihoods alike to get what it wants – which is ultimately the same thing: economic growth. This is at least the path it has been carving out for itself. Methane extracted from a large river-basin is not worth this.

The DST’s involvement is important for these two reasons, considering the questionable claims they advance, as well as a third.

At the broadest level, no energy source is completely clean. Even solar and wind power generation and consumption require access to land and to infrastructure whose design and production is by no stretch of the imagination ‘green’. Similarly, and setting aside methane’s substantial greenhouse potential for a moment, extracting methane from the Krishna-Godavari river basin is bound to exact a steep price – directly as well as indirectly in the form of a damaged river basin that will no longer be able to provide the ecosystem services it currently does. In addition, storing and transporting methane is painful because it is a low-density gas, so engineers prefer converting it into liquefied natural gas or methanol first, and doing so is at present an energy-intensive process.

The DST’s endorsement of the prospect of using this methane as fuel is worrying because it suggests the department is content to believe a study it funded led to a supposedly positive finding – and is not concerned with its wider, deadlier implications. At any other time, this anarchy of aspirations, whereby one department doesn’t have to be concerned with the goals of another, would be siloisation of the worst sort – as if mining for hydrocarbons in a river-basin is cleanly separable from water pollution, shortage and the cascade of ecological imbalances brought on by the local endangerment of various plant, animal and bird species.

However, it would be delusional to accuse the current Government of India of being anarchic. This government has displayed a breathtaking fetish for centralising authority and power. Instead, the DST’s seemingly harmless tweet and DD News’s insular article are symptoms of a problem that rests at the other extreme: where all departments are pressed to the common cause of plundering India’s natural resources and destroying its ecological security, even at risk of undermining their own respective mandates.

The singularity of purpose here may or may not have rendered methane an absolutely ‘clean’ fuel – but it may be a glimpse of a DST simply reflecting what the government would like to reduce the country’s scientific enterprise to: a deeply clinical affair, in which scientists should submit to the national interest and not be concerned about other things.