Renewable Energy, National Security and Social JusticePosted: September 24, 2007
Section: Global Warming
Kenneth Barbalace, September 24, 2007, environmentalchemistry.com -- Too often the discussion of renewable energy development focuses on climate change (aka global warming) to the exclusion of other equally important environmental, national security and social justice concerns. While yes, climate change is a serious concern (in spite of what the skeptics try to portray), we need to invest in and not unduly burden the development of renewable energies like wind and solar energies for many other reasons.
Predictably, coverage in the local press of last weeks hearings for a proposed wind farm on Black Nubble Mountain near Sugarloaf Maine in front of Maine's Land Use Regulation Commission, focused on the issue of climate change because of comments by the National Park Service Superintendent for the Appalachian Trail, Pam Underhill. While later acknowledging that global warming was a real concern, she stated that global warming was "irrelevant" in considering whether or not the proposed wind farm should be allowed, which she opposes (see my editorial National Park Service Superintendent states 'Global Warming Irrelevant' in opposing wind farm). While her comments have made for good fodder and headlines for blogs like ours, they also obscured very serious issues.
Other environmental concerns
Beyond contributing to global warming, the burning of fossil fuels to meet our energy needs has a much more direct and observable impact on our environment. Let us for a moment follow the environmental impact of coal from its "cradle to grave". According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, surface mining of coal accounts for 60% of the coal burned in coal fired power plants each year. The most destructive of the surface mining techniques is called mountaintop removal where hundreds of feet of overburden is blasted away and dumped in convenient valleys to access veins of coal which may only be a few feet thick. In West Virginia alone, over 300,000 acres of hardwood forests and 1,000 miles of streams have been destroyed by mountaintop removal. In an open letter to West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin in December of 2006 on the Ohio Valley Environmental Conservation Website, Mark Schmerling wrote:
A mountaintop removal site on Cazy Mountain, in Boone County, was "reclaimed" 22 years ago. It sprouts nothing but non-native grass, and a few thin, nasty-looking, non-native shrubs. Where is the earth-cooling hardwood forest? Where is the native ginseng that mountaineers have always been able to dig to sell and use? Where are the deer, the turkeys, the many species of songbirds, small mammals and other animals? Where are the clean, swift-flowing streams and their native trout? Where is life-giving soil? Where is life?
Once the coal has been mined, it must be transported to the power plants that need it via trains, which burn diesel fuel for power releasing nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and soot into the atmosphere. In addition, as coal is transported in open rail cars, coal dust is blown into the air contributing to the particulate matter released into the atmosphere.
To ensure a steady supply of coal in the event of transportation disruptions, most power plants maintain a sizeable stockpile of coal stored on site in giant open air piles. These piles of coal can leach chemical hazards into water supplies and wind can stir up coal dust into the atmosphere.
Upon burning coal, power plants release toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the atmosphere, including mercury along with tremendous amounts of carbon soot and fossil CO2. The mercury eventually rains out of the atmosphere hundreds if not thousands of miles down wind polluting lakes and streams. Eventually fish in those waters accumulate the mercury in their bodies and become hazardous to eat (as has happened here in Maine). The carbon soot also stays suspended in the atmosphere and can travel for thousands of miles before settling out. Recently it was reported that industrial soot "raining" out of the atmosphere in the arctic region may be largely responsible for the artic ice cap melting much faster than was predicted by climate models (see "Soot Could Hasten Melting of Arctic Ice" at Live Science).
Other fossil fuels like crude oil also have their fair share of cradle to grave environmental impacts including tragic oil spills and emissions from combustion.
In his open letter referenced above, Mark Schmerling summed the environmental issue very succinctly when he wrote:
The damage that has been done and is being done will last for thousands of years, and through hundreds of generations. All of those generations will look back on what has been done in the past thirty years and say, "Who could have let this happen?"
Will you be one of those who let it happen or will you stand among those who tried to change things, including your own energy use habits, to help stop the environmental destruction?
Social costs of fossil fuels
While it is not often thought about, using fossil fuels for energy historically has come with very high social costs. Whether it be wars fought over oil, workers being killed in industrial accidents or entire towns poisoned by the hazardous byproducts that are release into the atmosphere or water supplies by mining/drilling operations.
In the case of coal mining, tailings ponds held back by earthen dams and sludge pumped into abandoned mines can slowly leach their hazardous contents into ground water and drinking water supplies as has happened to four communities in Mingo County West Virginia (see "State Supreme Court upholds verdict against coal company" - West Virginia Gazette). The coal dust from mining operations can blanket nearby communities causing residents respiratory diseases and distress (See "West Virginia Town Fights Blanket of Coal Dust" - New Standard News).
Occasionally tailings dams fail, destroying villages downstream, as happened in 1972 on Buffalo Creek in West Virginia when a dam failure sent 500,000 cubic meters of tailings down a narrow valley leaving 124 people dead, 7 people missing and 4,000 homes destroyed (see "Disaster on Buffalo Creek" - West Virginia Gazette). In October of 2000 near the town of Inez Kentucky, the bottom of a tailings pond collapsed into an abandon mine that ran beneath it, resulting in 250 million gallons of slurry surging into the mineshafts and out two mine exits flooding nearby creeks. Twenty miles downstream had to be declared aquatic dead zones and communities in ten counties had to shut down their water systems (see "When Mountains Move" - National Geographic).
Coal mining is one of the most dangerous jobs one could have and as of this writing 18 people had already been killed in coal mining accidents in the United States in 2007 alone. In 2006 there were 47 people killed in such accidents.
To keep us supplied with cheap fossil fuel energy people are dying, and lives, communities and ecosystems are being destroyed. In short, there is blood on the hands of everyone who depends upon fossil fuel as their source of energy. We can not lower the social costs of fossil fuels unless we develop alternative energy sources and reduce the amount of energy we consume.
The real inconvenient truth, national security
Like all nations, the United States is utterly dependent upon fossil fuels, and much of this energy (especially crude oil) must be imported from politically unstable corners of the world run by unsavory regimes. As the world industrialized in the late 1800s, reliable sources of cheap energy became critical to nations' national security and wars were driven in a large part by the need to secure energy supplies. Throughout the 1900s and even today, wars and allegiances between countries have frequently been in a large part about securing reliable supplies of energy. No where is this more clearly obvious than in the Middle East as far back as the end of World War One. Even in his new book "The Age of Turbulence" Former Federal Reserve Chairman Allen Greenspan wrote:
"I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil."
He is right, why should we deny this? We need to face reality; we would not have cared to give the Middle East more than lip service for the past sixty years if it were not for the oil that flows from their sands. After all, we do not go after depots in Africa. The reality is that without the steady supply of oil from the Middle East and other parts of the world our nation would grind to a halt. The threat from Iran is not nuclear weapons; it is that they might stabilize the Middle East under their view of the way things should be. This could seriously threaten the steady supply of oil to the United States. The same was true when Saddam invaded the United Arab Emirates. Sure liberating a beleaguered nation sounds comforting, but underlying this was our undeniable need to keep the oil flowing.
As a matter of national security, the United States must become energy independent. We must get to a point as a nation where we do not depend upon energy from nations that are run by tyrants. We can not depend upon our own fossil fuel reserves to achieve energy independence. As a society we must invest in renewable energies on a personal, local, regional and national basis and we all must learn to use our energy more wisely, which includes improving the energy efficiency of everything in our lives.
Are wind turbines truly an eye sore or are they a sign of hope?
Wind farms may not be particularly beautiful things to look at on a distant natural vista, but they are signs of a brighter, cleaner and safer future. They do not maim or kill thousands of workers. They do not have to be continually fed at the expense of destroying forests, streams or communities. They do not endlessly pump toxic chemicals into the atmosphere or water supplies. They do not produce carbon soot that accelerates the melting of icecaps and glaciers, nor do they contribute to climate change. Most importantly, when better technology comes along, all traces of their existence can be removed from the land and it returned back to what it was before, with the mountains still intact and the scrap materials recycled into something new.
Wind energy is not an end all be all solution to our energy needs, rather it must be part of a bigger mix of energy sources. Wind turbines, however, have the distinct advantage of being able to be built closer to where the power will be consumed. This will result in less energy being lost during transmission and they can help decentralize an electric grid making it more robust and less susceptible to the loss of a single source of power generation. Finally, every megawatt of energy produced by a wind turbine is one less megawatt of energy came at tremendous cost to the environment, a community or health of people.
Superintendent Underhill's opposition to the wind farm project on Black Nubble Mountain near Sugarloaf Maine is dead wrong; concerns about scenic views from the Appalachian Trail must not override other concerns. Yes protecting the AT is a legitimate concern, but there are bigger issues at play. Unfortunately, if Underhill gets her way and the wind farm does not get built it will be her home state of West Virginia that will continue to pay the tragically high price of her opposition and our nation's failed energy policy in terms of blood spilled, lives ruined and their environment destroyed.