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Global warming debate heats up as Highland Lakes businessman and LCRA take steps to consider environment

MARBLE FALLS — The Aquarium Store owner Ron Vargo’s concerns about the environment play a big part in the success of his business.

“We need clean air. You have to have good oxygenation at the surface to provide good oxygen for the things living in the water,” he said. “It’s all connected. It’s a big cycle.”


PHOTO: Ron Vargo, owner of The Aquarium Store at 1820 U.S. 281 in Marble Falls, believes everyone should do their part to battle pollution and support  cleaner water and air. Meanwhile, the debate rages on about the existence of global warming, which could have local ramifications. Staff photo by Connie Swinney


But when asked about global warming, he becomes a bit more contemplative.

“Global warming, there’s some that say yes, and some that say no. They don’t have any real scientific proof that it’s happening,” he said. “I think we need to just take care of the Earth that God gave us, and that means not polluting the air, not polluting the waters.”

Vargo’s sentiments are just one side of a recurring debate at all levels of society — including President Barack Obama’s post-election victory speech last week — about whether global warming actually exists and, if it does, whether it’s man-made or naturally occurring.

In the wake of catastrophic weather events such as Hurricane Sandy, many are left wondering what to believe.

Closer to home, steps to curb the so-called “carbon footprint” are evident in some business ventures and individual behavior.

FEELING THE HEAT

In Central Texas, it doesn’t take long to find divergent positions about global warming. Not even the scientists who study climate are in full agreement.

As director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Raymond Orbach has amassed a wealth of environmental research, reaching the conclusion that a gradual warming of the planet could lead to devastating effects for humans.

“There’s a lot of evidence that global warming will change the nature of our Earth. It will give rise to sea levels,” he said. “It will lead to large areas of drought, causing famine on a massive scale.”

The global warming theory proposes there has been a rise in the average temperature of he Earth’s atmosphere since the late 1800s, when man’s technological progress changed the balance of nature.

“When the Industrial Revolution took off it was about 1880. If you look at the primary sources of energy, coal began to surpass combustible bio products (wood, hay, brush), which had been the main source of energy,” he said. “You can track the (carbon dioxide) construction start to the increase quite rapidly … leading to global warming.”

IT’S ONLY NATURAL

On the flip side of the argument, geologist Dr. Peter R. Rose disputed the global-warming theory at a recent meeting of the Highland Lakes Energy Group in Marble Falls. The group includes primarily retired oil and gas company representatives.

Rose told the audience of about two dozen people at River City Grille that evidence exists the last 30 years of global warming is occurring naturally.

“Economically, they’re back in the Stone Age,” said Rose of global-warming theorists outside of the meeting. “One of the things that’s really important for societies to do is to understand how their science relates to the lives of other people.”

His presentation focused on disputing the view that man-made carbon dioxide gases — the carbon footprint derided by environmentalists — are one of the culprits in global warming.

“There’s strong evidence now that the bulk of the warming we have seen for the last 30 years has been natural,” he said.  “If it’s natural, which I think it mostly is, cyclical, it means we should not be dedicating substantial public money to fight something we cannot control anyway.”

CLEANER ENERGY

Despite Rose’s sentiment, some agencies and governments in Central Texas have decided to take steps to control their own possible effects on the environment by reducing emissions, lowering the carbon footprint and using energy-efficient systems or sustainable resources.

With its sights on a more environmentally responsible facility, the Lower Colorado River Authority has laid the foundation for a new power plant.

LCRA is replacing the Thomas C. Ferguson Power Plant, built in 1974 and located on Lake LBJ in Horseshoe Bay, with a new, $530 million natural gas-fired power plant.

“The new plant will burn about 34 percent less gas to produce the equivalent amount of electrical energy as the existing plant,” LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said. “The plant also will have more advanced air emission controls than the existing plant and will produce significantly fewer air emissions.”

Proposed emissions limits for the new plant are even more restrictive than the permit limits for the existing plant, officials say.

More steps with cleaner production in mind involve removing the on-site fuel oil tanks which served as a backup fuel supply when natural gas became scarce or expensive.

The new power plant will not burn fuel oil and removing the tanks will eliminate risks associated with storing fuel oil onsite.

This project is expected to be online by 2014.

ECOLOGY VS. ECONOMY

While people can take steps to control facility designs and output, Orbach believes society is already feeling the effects of ongoing pollution and emissions.

“You see the average temperature increase. There is evidence the sea level is rising,” he said. “The two combine to make storm surges very serious. It’s the ebb and flow of the storm surges that create huge damage to houses and structures.”

Scientists who support the global-warming theory believe steps including more fuel-efficient vehicle restrictions and more stringent and tighter emissions regulations will help slow the effects of climate change.

In the midst of such regulations and suggestions, Rose believes economic considerations trump ecological theory.

“What’s more important is that we have energy security,” he said of requests for more off-shore drilling and tapping into more resources at home. “Global warming is not a major threat that we should be concerned with. At the present time, the biggest problem we have is economic well-being.”

STRIKING A BALANCE

Businessmen such as Vargo believe the health of the economy and the condition of the planet are determined by human behavior.

He grew up in Denver, Colo., where signs of pollution made him conscious of water and air issues.

“There was a lot of smog there. You had to have your car emission tested every year. They make a real effort at keeping ecological-minded,” he said. “Ecology is a big part of the world in which we live today.”

Vargo said even though the upper Highland Lakes is primarily farming and ranching, residents should look to nearby cities for research and considerations about the environment.

“We’re farm country, ranch country,” he said. “Look at Austin. You have a college town. You have a lot of people who are in tune with education.”

No matter what theory anyone chooses to embrace, the best policy may be to pay heed to air and water quality, Vargo said.

“Strike a good balance and do your little part and it may not seem like much, but it does have a part to play,” he said. “Some people call her Mother Nature. She has a way of keeping it in balance, and she may have to deal with us.”

connie@thepicayune.com