The Future Depends Upon New Energy: Economy, Health & Environment

by Duane Nichols on November 18, 2015

New Capital Brings New Energy

Future economy, not to mention, health and environment, depend on new energy

Guest Editorial by S. Thomas Bond, Charleston Gazette Mail, Sunday, November 15, 2015

Now would be a great time for West Virginia and national politicians to wake up and see the sunshine. The world is on the threshold of a new day, and it does not smell like natural gas nor make the sky cloudy with smoke. Nor does it produce carbon dioxide to warm the atmosphere and acidify the ocean, killing coral reefs, the home of 25 percent of ocean life.

Coal has become a high-capital, low-labor industry. It once provided many jobs: 1.89 percent of U.S. workers (784,621) worked in coal mining alone in 1920. Today that figure is approximately 174,000 blue-collar, full-time, permanent jobs related to coal, including mining (83,000), transportation (31,000), and power plant employment (60,000), all three some 0.12 percent. No other figure shows the shift better than the decline in the coal work force.

Displaced coal miners deserve respect, although over the years they haven’t gotten it from the industry, which has done nothing for them. It is hard work, and by the nature of it, they are not well prepared to enter other occupations.

Pretty well forgotten now is the virtual slavery of working for a company that paid in scrip money. And the many broken bodies left in these hills as a result of “slate falls.” (There are at least two under the hill on my property.) Who represented the mine workers when laws were made in the heyday of big coal?

Oil and gas is capital-heavy and labor-light, too. Vast sums of capital are being sunk in the Marcellus and elsewhere. In production several men are required for a few months per well to do the drilling, hauling and machine operating, but the nature of it is remarkably similar to earlier coal.

Danger, long, sometimes ridiculous, hours are involved, along with exposure to unknown chemicals. If you can walk off the work place at the end of a shift, you are no longer the responsibility of the industry. Once the production is established, operation and maintenance require few workers and the work is not demanding. The number needed to operate is comparable to the clerical staff.

Compared to the population needing jobs, neither coal nor gas can do much. It is all about using capital. That provides what is needed to influence legislation, because deciding to run for office is quite like what Machiavelli said about war, “First you need money, money and more money.”

The Saudis have announced they would not lower oil production because they didn’t want their oil to be left in the ground to become worthless. They recognize something is moving in technology. Remaining conventional hydrocarbon fuels are abundant in many places overseas. The U.S. has technology to remove difficult stateside hydrocarbons, but at considerably greater expense.

So what is on the technological horizon? Solar of two kinds, photovoltaic, where sunlight shines on certain materials and moves electrons through the attached wires, and solar reflective, where sunlight is reflected on a boiler which contains water to make steam and run turbines.

Also wind power, familiar to us as huge propellers catching the wind and turning turbines. Wave power, where floats go up and down in the endless series of waves on the ocean. And there is a dark horse in the race, nuclear fusion (says Time magazine).

A recent book review in Science, the journal of he American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of two most respected science journals in the world, states that solar worldwide is scaling up faster than cell phones. The International Energy Agency predicts solar will fall to about 4 cents per kilowatt-hour. It consumes no water, and produces no carbon dioxide or pollutants, unlike hydrocarbons. Solar efficiency (recovery of the energy in the sunlight that hits photovoltaic cells) is now over 15 percent in panels on the market, and experimental cells give over 20 percent, and this figure is constantly rising.

So what about natural gas? In short, it has injured itself via oversupply. Most of the figures given for the price of gas are collected by the government from company statements. says, “The average at-the-wellhead pricing reported by our members for September is $1.57/Mcf [thousand cubic feet] . . . the ‘base’ price gas companies use to determine royalty payout amounts (before any deductions for cost of production), and is significantly lower than U.S. EIA pricing values. The U.S. EIA Henry Hub Natural Gas Spot Pricing for September averaged $2.66/Mbtu. The crowd source pricing submissions for September varied from a low of $1.30 to a high of $1.80, and represent pricing averages for the entire state [of Pennsylvania].”

Many companies are in serious trouble, forced to sell at low prices to have cash to keep running, with a deteriorating situation. Except for a few cases, they meet almost universal opposition in communities where fracking and pipelines are being introduced. Extreme production affects property values, makes life unpleasant, and worst of all, affects the health of residents, crops and animals because of air and water pollution. The American Medical Association is now sponsoring a for-credit short course on fracking health problems at the University of Pittsburgh.

The third edition of the “Compendium of Scientific, Medical and Media findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking” has been released by Concerned Health Professionals of New York. It is a fully referenced compilation of risks and harms of fracking, bringing together findings from scientific and medical literature, government and industry reports, and journalistic investigation.

The “List of the Harmed,” kept by the “Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Water and Air” now runs to 16,719 incidents, many of them affecting multiple individuals.

It is time for politicians and government to look to the needs of society:

First, they can restore the protections other citizens of the United States enjoy. Apply the provisions of the Clean Air Act, Safe Water Drinking Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Superfund Act, and the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. These rights were removed by the 2005 Energy Act, formulated and pushed into place by Dick Cheney, who, before becoming vice-president was a very far into the oil business.

Second, state governments and the EPA could be supplied with funding to actually enforce the laws to protect citizens and workers. Such agencies are universally underfunded. Is it unreasonable to think that the expense of regulation is not a valid expense of establishing laws to enable a business?

Third, and most far reaching, is to remove subsidies from industries that represent passing technology that is known to harm health and the environment and apply them to newly developing industry that does away with the problems of the old technology. By one account, U.S. fossil fuel subsidies amount to $37.5 billion annually, including $21 billion in production and exploration subsidies.

A large part of our problems in the rest of the world come from protecting oil supplies. Without this need, the nation should be able to make some reduction of the $90 billion spent on the military in the Middle East, too.

Without change to the new technology, heat, storm, high water, and reduced food production on land and sea are coming our way.

>>> S. Thomas Bond, of Jane Lew, is a former high school teacher and college professor now a resident farmer in Lewis County, WV

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