Expressing serious fears about our energy

Sherry Cable, author of Sustainable Failures  explains why we need to make some serious plans about our energy future.

I can hardly wait until this presidential election is over and done with. Yes, I’m tired of campaign advertisements. Yes, I’m tired of reciprocal mud-slinging. And yes, I’m tired of wondering about the real news I’m missing while the newshawks re-hash their campaign rehashes from the day before. But, mostly? I’m tired of not hearing anything realistic, thoughtful, long-range, or detailed about energy policy and our energy future.

Because I’m really worried. Not to sound like Chicken Little, but coal is killing us – some of us more quickly than others – and oil is running out. Natural gas is pitched as the answer to our national prayers – but is it? We need to make some serious plans about our energy future.

Energy is the first priority for economic expansion, which is related to higher standards of living, which is or can be related to greater equity. We meet the bulk of our energy needs with nonrenewable fossil fuels: the United States consumes over 19 million barrels of oil and tons of coal and natural gas every day.

Coal is burned to generate electricity and heat; it is liquefied to produce diesel fuel. Coal extraction is associated with loss of biodiversity, land subsidence, acid rain, soil erosion, occasional but catastrophic toxic flooding from failed slurry dams, water pollution from acid mine drainage, high-level releases of methane that contribute to stratospheric ozone destruction, and air and water contamination from lead, mercury, and arsenic. Black lung is not uncommon among coal miners.

Coal is the most toxic fossil fuel to burn. Coal combustion produces more than 80 percent of the nation’s atmospheric sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. It’s also associated with air and water contamination from trace elements of radium and uranium, releasing thousands of times more radioactive particles into the atmosphere per unit of energy produced than a normally operating nuclear power plant. Air is polluted from dust emissions, carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. Mercury particles contaminate land and water. The greenhouse gases emitted in coal combustions are a major contributor to global warming. And air pollution from coal combustion kills thousands of people each year, contributes to at least 50,000 cases of respiratory disease, and results in several billion dollars in property damage. 

As regulations increasingly restrict stack emissions to reduce air pollution, coal combustion pollutants accumulate in the solid waste disposal stream – more than 130 million tons of solid wastes each year. If coal’s health and environmental costs were internalized in the market cost, and if government subsidies from mining were removed, coal would be so expensive that it would be replaced (Harper 2008). Concerns about the environmental and health impacts of coal extraction and combustion have led to policies that are (slowly) moving the nation away from coal-fired electric generating plants.

But what really makes our economic world go ‘round is oil, the nation’s primary source for energy and fuels. It is also the source of petrochemicals, used to manufacture three pillars of society: pesticides, plastics, and pharmaceuticals.

One oil drilling platform normally drills about 85 wells and discharges into the ocean more than 90,000 metric tons of drilling fluid, carcinogens such as benzene, and metal cuttings of lead, chromium, and mercury. Flaring, the burning off of oil, produces black carbon which contributes to global warming.

And then there are the oil spills. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill oozed out over 900 square miles, killing marine mammals and sea birds, closing fisheries, and prodding Congress to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 to provide funds for cleanup. The act said nothing about spilling the oil in the first place. The largest oil spill in U.S. history began in April 2010 with an explosion and fire that killed 11 workers. By the time the well was capped three months later, approximately five million barrels of crude oil had seeped into the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil combustion releases suspected carcinogens cadmium, arsenic, nickel, chromium, beryllium, lead, selenium, and tellurium. Emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides produce acid rain. Exhaust from vehicle emissions and gas vapors combine with sunlight to form smog. And carbon dioxide emissions cause global warming.

Oil’s future? Pretty bleak. Oil supplies are diminishing and, eventually, it will be gone. We can argue about how soon oil will run out, but it’s inevitable that it will. But severe problems will arise even before oil runs out, when the global production of oil peaks. Peak oil production refers to the point at which half of existing oil reserves are gone and the remainder increasingly difficult to extract profitably or at the same pace. Peak oil is estimated to occur between 2016 and 2030. Ouch.

Now we plan to frack our way out of the mess. Natural gas burns cleaner than coal and oil and emits fewer greenhouse gases, it’s cheap to develop, and it’s plentiful here in the US of A which could make us less energy dependent on other nations.

But fracking – horizontal hydraulic fracturing – poses two problems. First, although fracking is a dirty process, regulation of it is haphazard. Huge amounts of water mixed with sand and chemicals including diesel fuel are injected under high pressure into shale rock to break up rock formations and hold open the shale layers to release natural gas. Leakage of uncombusted natural gas from wellheads and pipelines releases methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Residents in the vicinity of fracking wells complain of water contamination caused by the disposal method typically used for wastewater from fracking: injecting it into the ground. A few fracking well neighbors claim that their tap water flames when lit because of the presence of methane. Some scientists have even associated fracking operations with small earthquakes. Yet no federal regulatory standards exist, leaving it to individual states.

The second problem posed by fracking is that the future of reliance on natural gas is unclear. Natural gas could be just the ticket – it could serve as a cheap and effective transition to the development and use of a variety of renewable energy sources. Or, natural gas could serve as yet another excuse to retain energy short-sightedness.

Hence, my frustration with the presidential candidates and my worries about our energy future. Candidate Mitt Romney advocates more oil exploration, faster permitting, and state control of exploration on federal lands. And now even President (candidate) Obama is willing to drill, baby, drill.

Shouldn’t we be conserving our nonrenewable energy resources and developing renewable resources? The policies we have aren’t about conserving non-renewable energy resources – they’re about continuing to exploit those resources. There is no meaningful energy policy – only economic policy, with only short-term planning.


Oh, well. Let’s ditch the news and watch a re-run of a re-run of 30 Rock.


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