We have an energy problem. At the end of the day, no energy source is free. We all want energy that is readily available, reliable, and without external costs. We want to be able to cheaply power our HDTV, our car, and our furnace. We want our supply chains to be affordable, so prices will be low. In short, we want the magic elixir that will allow us to carry on in our current configuration without having to change.
Unfortunately, we are painfully unaware of the external costs of the energy we produce. Gwyneth Cravens, on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, spoke about the cost of coal:
“But I would just like to remind people that over 10,000 people a year die in the United States alone from fine particulates from coal-fired plants, which, incidentally, spew out more – it’s a low-dose radioactive material, but burning coal concentrates uranium and radon – radium, and so on. And so in the coal ash, the waste which lies around in unlined pits, there’s enough in the coal ash of one big coal-fired plant to make about six atomic bombs, uranium 235. So the – and the stuff coming out of the stacks looks – you know, you don’t see the soot anymore so much, but you see – or you don’t – what you don’t see are these invisible gases, sulfur and nitrogen gases which turn into fine particulates when they’re combined with water vapor and get into the airways of our lungs and kill people with lung cancer and heart disease. So this is an ongoing catastrophe, along with ocean acidification. As the ocean takes up more carbon dioxide, the water becomes more acidic. This is beginning to affect shelled organisms like corals. They can’t make the calcium carbonate shells in the acidic waters. And so – and about three million people a year die from fossil fuel combustion pollution worldwide. We have to think about how to provide base-load electricity – that is 24/7, around-the-clock electricity. We are witnessing in Japan what happens when you don’t have electricity and how terrible that is for people from the health point of view alone.”
In Japan, we are seeing at Fukushima Daiichi what a 9.0 Earthquake and a massive tsunami can do to the best laid plans of mice and men. Opposition to wind turbines remains strong here in New England. In Rhode Island, where I live, there is ongoing opposition to a Liquid Natural Gas terminal in Mt. Hope Bay. More broadly, opposition is growing to hydrofracking of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and across the country. Large scale renewable energy projects are challenged by environmentalists (like the large scale solar project in California) and by parents (opposition to the construction of high-power transmission lines). In individual communities, wealthy homeowners fight the construction of wind turbines and solar panels.
Does anyone else see this? We live under the myth that there is a cheap source of energy without cost out there. Our gasoline, which we import mostly, must be defended by the Fifth Fleet (in Bahrain, where Shiites are rising up against the Sunni king) and heavily subsidized. The greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles are not without cost, as much as denialists would like to believe. Because we remain under the spell of the cheap energy myth, some of us remain willing to accept the costs of hydrofracking (water) and coal (see above quote). We compare the cost of renewable energy to the cost of natural gas and coal, and ignore the external costs, and say that renewable energy is too expensive. Unfortunately, our cheap energy is simply not sustainable.
If we were smart, we would realize that 1) there is no perfect, cheap, elixir out there. We need to take into account the external costs and start planning a smart, renewable energy future. We would also realize that 2) NIMBY is the enemy of planning a smart energy future. People want to plug in their laptop or their iron, and remain ignorant of where that power comes from and how it arrives at their outlet. People want their homes to be just the right temperature in the summer and winter, and not recognize the cost of doing so. People want to live in the suburbs, and commute long distances to work, to karate practice, to visit Disneyland. Yet, people get upset when a wind turbine goes up, or when talk of a new transmission line starts. NIMBY is simply not sustainable. If we truly understood the costs of the energy we use, we would use less of it, we would be much more efficient, we would plan for the long term instead of just one quarter ahead.
What do we need? We need a smart grid, decentralized power generation, a diverse mixture of renewable energy, state of the art nuclear power, and some fossil fuels, and above all else we need to place a price on carbon. Energy will not be cheap, but we fool ourselves if we believe it is cheap today. We need to embrace the future, instead of wishing we could return back to 1890. If we don’t of course, we will eventually fall out of the cheap energy spell, but we will start kicking ourselves for not recognizing it sooner.
Before I begin to tell you what brought me to tears this morning, I want to ask you what exactly you would be willing to sacrifice for cheap energy. Think about all the material goods that you buy with cheap energy, all of the disposable and replaceable goods. Think about all of the devices in your home that consume electricity, and all of the functions they provide for you. Now, consider what you would be willing to give up in order to ensure that the supply of cheap energy is unending. What if you learned that the water from your tap was no longer drinkable? What if you learned that you might have irreversible brain damage? What if you learned that you might lose your sense of taste and smell? Would that be worth it?
Well, this morning I watched the new documentary Gasland, which premiered on HBO last night. Immediately, my connection to the subject matter was visceral, because like the filmmaker, Josh Fox, I am a Pennsylvanian by birth. Fox owns a home on 19 acres of pristine forest that is part of the Marcellus Shale, a formation of sedimentary rock that stretches throughout the Appalachian Basin from New York, south to Virginia. Energy companies targeted the Marcellus Shale for its natural gas resources, along with other shale formations across the country. The Marcellus Shale alone was estimated in April 2009 by the Department of Energy to contain 262 Trillion Cubic Feet of Natural Gas. However, industry estimates exceed this amount. To extract natural gas from shale formations, energy companies use Halliburton-proprietary technology.
How is the natural gas extracted? A technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking is used. A well is drilled deep (typically about 8,000 feet) into the shale formation, and millions of gallons of water, sand, and proprietary chemicals are injected at high pressure into the well. The pressure fractures the shale and opens fissures, which allow the natural gas to flow freely out of the well. Sounds simple, right? Well, 596 chemicals are used in the fracking process. In 2005, the Bush/Cheney Energy Bill (known officially as the Energy Policy Act of 2005) exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act? Why was that legislation necessary? It exempted the energy companies from disclosing the chemicals used in the fracking process. For each frack, 80-300 tons of chemicals may be used. Scientists have identified volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene. Fracking produces wastewater, and the VOCs in the wastewater are evaporated into the air, where they produce ground level ozone, which can travel up to 250 miles.
The really disturbing part of this process is the contamination of drinking water. Fox travels across the country to Colorado, Wyoming, Arkansas, and Texas, where this technology has been deployed, and goes into homes where the tap water is now flammable. The scale of the development is extensive.
I urge you to watch this film, and spread the word about this ongoing environmental catastrophe. This technology raises the question of what lengths we as Americans will go to for cheap energy. Is our standard of living sustainable? What are the consequences of that cheap energy? Economists consider consequences that are not reflected in the cost of a product externalities. Right now the costs of our energy are not transparent, but purposely opaque. The 2005 Bush/Cheney exemption is a prime example of this. Clean natural gas is just as much of a misnomer as clean coal. There is no free lunch. Americans need to reconsider the sustainability of our economy, of our lifestyles. Permanent damage is occuring daily.
However, there is one thing that you can do now to help the communities affected, and help to increase the safety requirements in natural gas extraction: call your Senators and Representatives, and demand that the Frac Act be passed.
The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (H.R. 2766), (S. 1215)—was introduced to both houses of the United States Congress on June 9, 2009, and aims to repeal the exemption for hydraulic fracturing in the Safe Drinking Water Act. It would require the energy industry to disclose the chemicals it mixes with the water and sand it pumps underground in the hydraulic fracturing process, information that has largely been protected as trade secrets. The House bill was introduced by representatives Diana DeGette, D-Colo., Maurice Hinchey D-N.Y., and Jared Polis, D-Colo. The Senate version was introduced by senators Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Needless to say, the energy industry opposes this act. Gasland breaks my heart, because the Pennsylvania that I grew up in is at risk. So is the water supply of New York City and Philadelphia. Please see this important film, and take action.