Let us count the ways energy production causes damages
Commentary by S. Tom Bond, Retired Chemistry Professor & Resident Farmer, Lewis County, WV
I remember a Soil Conservation pamphlet I saw as a child called “6,000 years of civilization.” The thesis was that most of the civilizations before the Romans, and the Romans, too, had destroyed the soils in their areas of the Middle East by ignoring soil depletion. Each generation looked out for itself, extracted the yield without thought of the future. Eventually there was not enough food production (transportation was crude and slow) and eventually there was not enough that the armies could hold the empires together. The principal exception was Egypt, which had the renewing soil deposits from the annual Nile flood. It held on for 3,000 years, when the average empire lasted about 250 years.
I thought of this when I read the editorial in the 13 February Science, the Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science which is the world’s largest scientific organization, and the most prestigious place to publish science. It was titled “Give soils their due.” Being keen on that sort of thing, since I am a life-long farmer, I realize that at any time the earth has a “carrying capacity.” Just like my pasture can only carry so many cows without being degraded, the earth can only support so many people.
I also remember reading about what caused the 1977 revolution in modern Egypt – high price of food got the hungry people out on the street. There was a riot because of food prices in Argentina in 1989 and in one in Italy not many years ago. Nothing gets people stirred up like having hungry kids. I also remember a graph in Science of the population of China on the vertical scale and time on the horizontal scale. Each bump up was labeled with a new food stuff which caused the increase. Millet, very early, dry land rice, wet land rice and toward the present, corn and then potatoes.
The authors of “Give soils their due” also talk about how properly managed soils hold water and purify it, remove carbon from the air and incorporate it in soil organic matter. It reintroduces nutrients from dead plants and unused plant parts, and prevents wind loss in dust storms. All this is linked to human and animal health, as well as food supply.
These authors recognize paving land over for cities, expansion of farming to marginal soils in deserts and far North regions, and cut down the tropical forests. Unfortunately, nothing is said about modern methods of extracting hydrocarbons for energy.
Now let us count the ways present day energy causes damage to the earth and its inhabitants. Drilling in deep ocean water, like the BP disaster, risks spilling very large quantities of oil into the ocean. The biggest fear of that event was that the leak was around the outside of the drill pipe, and the entire oil reservoir would drain out with no way to stop it, a disaster tens or hundreds of times more serious. Seafood and wildlife were damaged as was the productive capacity of the Gulf. The dispersants, used to break up the oil mass were offenders, too. BP pleaded guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter, two misdemeanors, and a felony count of lying to Congress. BP also agreed to four years of government monitoring of its safety practices and ethics, and the Environmental Protection Agency announced that BP would be temporarily banned from new contracts with the US government. As of February 2013, criminal and civil settlements and payments to a trust fund had cost the company $42.2 billion. Drilling in the Arctic, being pushed by the oil companies, would be even worse, since the platforms would be subject to the surging ice, and spill cleanup would, too.
Fracking destroys the surface by pushing aside top soil and covering the spot with crushed stone for the drilling pad and roads, and preventing forest growth along the numerous pipelines. Also by emitting hazardous chemicals into the air from drilling pads and compressor stations, by contaminating aquifers and streams with waterborne chemicals, all of which degrades farming or forestry, and living in the area where fracking is done. Disposal of fracking water causes earthquakes. Storm water is diverted from the natural channels, and it carries contaminates. The huge area that can be subject to fracking is easily recognizable by looking at a map of the shale beds believed to have gas potential. It even affects the area outside of that due to sand mining in the Upper Midwest and waste water disposal in other places.
Shale oil and tar sands have very low Energy Return on Energy Invested. Tar sands need to be diluted with a light oil supplied from somewhere else, other drilling.
Coal is dirty. In addition to the carbon, it contains a wide variety of elements that contaminate the air: sulfur (as much as 5 percent) and heavy metals, which are bad because the body has no mechanism to eliminate them once inhaled or ingested. I remember reading decades ago that coal contains enough uranium and thorium to generate as much power as the coal itself does. It poisons water with selenium, and if it is strip mined, destroys top soil and drainage.
And then there is the product of burning carbon in air. Few articles remind us that one ton of carbon takes two and two-third tons of oxygen out of the air to make three and two-thirds third tons of carbon dioxide. The kicker, though, is that 400 parts by volume in the atmosphere means carbon dioxide is diluted by 2500 more volumes of pure air to reach the concentration of carbon dioxide the atmosphere. Said in another way, one volume of carbon dioxide will pollute 2500 parts of air. The volume of the atmosphere is huge, but our present way of getting energy, now well over 150 years old is now obsolete.
All the different ways to obtain energy above hurt the earth and its people, the poorest first. There is no moral charity in advocating, or for anyone of any faith to advocate, anything other than reducing burning carbon for energy as quickly as rationally possible.
>> Tom Bond is active with the Guardians of the West Fork and other West Virginia citizens concerned about the impacts of proposed large diameter natural gas pipelines.