Saturday, December 12, 2009

The costs of fossil energy

We’ve known for a long time that the energy we need to keep society running costs us more than just the market price. There is also the price of repairing damage wreaked upon the environment and collateral impairments to human health. Think, for example of coal, the largest single source of energy for generation of electrical power. Coal mining typically makes a sorry mess of the environment. To get at the coal the terrain is ripped up, so pristine countryside is denuded. The residues left exposed to the weather leach out chemicals that change the acidities of streams and lakes, killing fish, often poisoning wildlife and rendering the water unfit for human consumption. As though that were not damage enough, the coal that is combusted in the power plants is contaminated with trace metals such as mercury. These find their way into the gas plumes from the plants to create health problems for those who live within a large radius. The sulfur in the coal is emitted as sulfur dioxide, which adds to the acidity of the atmosphere and is a health hazard in its own right. But the coal industry is very powerful; it can afford ads that reassure you that we are a safer and more prosperous nation because we can rely on coal as our very own energy source.

We are soothed even more by ads that claim that natural gas is a huge, clean source of energy, one that will serve us well for decades to come. It certainly burns more cleanly than coal, and may add less greenhouse gas to the environment than coal per unit of derived energy. But there seems always to be a dark side to each of these energy types. A recent article in the New York Times reinforces what we have been learning from other sources: that new technologies for freeing up natural gas in shale formations, called hydraulic fracturing, cause disturbances to the underlying strata that end up compromising water supplies vital to those who live in the environs. It can get pretty bad; for example, wells that are sufficiently contaminated with methane that they explode on contact with an igniting source. Furthermore, the water is also polluted with toxic chemicals used in the fracturing process.

Well, then, how about those tar sands up in Alberta, a huge and largely untapped source of fossil fuel energy? To learn more about the costs, environmental and otherwise, of extracting useful energy from the sands, read Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2007 report in the New Yorker magazine. What is being done to the environment in that quest for yet another source of fossil energy can make one ill. I could go on with more stories of our desperate quest for fossil fuels, such as deep drilling on the ocean floor; incredible technologies employed in ever riskier attempts to obtain fossil fuels. Every success, however limited, and at whatever price in terms of human health and environmental damage, helps lull us into thinking that we needn’t make special efforts to develop alternative sources of energy – solar, wind, new battery technologies, and yes, nuclear energy - that hold the promise of releasing us from our dependence on fossil fuels.

All of this is bears on the intense discussions presently being waged over the reality and extent of climate change. As Thomas Friedman recently pointed out, the details of the climate change debate are really not material to the larger issue of making ourselves less dependent on fossil fuels for the health of our economy and the prospects for a more livable world. Humankind has somehow to negotiate a very difficult transition in the decades ahead: creating a world society that is more balanced in terms of living standards, living more efficiently in terms of resource utilization, and bringing the human population to equilibrium at a number that the planet can sustain. Shouldn’t we in the United States be leading the way?

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