Thursday, March 25, 2010


Renewable energy sources are a long time in developing, and some of them already have their critics. Windmills are unsightly, some say. Solar just isn’t powerful enough. Geothermal isn’t right for everyone’s needs. Meanwhile, we’ve got great quantities of mile-deep natural gas (“Cleaner than coal!” “Cleaner than oil!”) to keep our nation’s busy engines churning.  Why not just grab what there is and face up to our energy problems when it runs out?

Well, lots of reasons, most of which have been thoughtfully enumerated. Aside from fossil fuel emissions that contribute to global warming, Americans need to reconsider the profligacy with which we have come to consume energy, which is out of whack with our awareness that we have only a diminishing supply of fossil fuel  to use to perpetuate the consumption.

 Natural gas is being seen, especially by that wheeler-dealer, Mr Pickens, as the replacement for oil, not just for preparing the way for renewables but for heating and so that trucks can continue criss-crossing the country to deliver food and other products from remote centers to places where they could just as easily have been produced.  As long as we keep thinking this way, we will continue turning up the thermostat to keep our leaky houses warm. The availability of gas, in other words, allows us to ignore both reality and common sense. It’s time to think both smaller and smarter.

Harvesting gas is not clean, as many commentators have noted.  Nor is it economical, broadly speaking.  It clearly pays off for the industry itself, or players would not be darkening the sky above shale formations like crows over a cornfield.  They, of course, need not live with the dirty consequences of their work;  when their feast is over, they can fly home.  Newly rich land lessors, also, can take their money and run.  I think many of the rest of us have wised up to the seductive promises of prosperity and have come to realize that the economic costs of coping and cleanup can equal or exceed the income to be realized.  Last month, Calvin Tillman, mayor of Dish, Texas, told  listeners in Callicoon, New York that his initial hopes of economic benefit for his little town were quickly dashed, that the tax base had dropped, and that he couldn’t blame anyone for not wanting to live in a place where breathing is a health hazard.  The economic calculation does not begin to address the health and environmental consequences that simply can’t be cleaned up.

One of these days, clean and  green technology will take hold.  But if Mr. Pickens has his way, it will be too late for it to restore quality of life to the shale regions that will have given their all to the energy market. The money and the jobs will have moved away, leaving a sad landscape which a photographer from Syracuse, Laura Brazak,  has envisioned as the dystopian  future of the Marcellus:

         “All the money is gone.  We're living in an industrial wasteland that used to be our pristine environment.   We're waiting for the first of many water treatment facilities to come online and in the meantime we're drinking bottled water.  Somewhere down the road, we're trying to fix the roads which got ruined from the truck traffic.  There are clusters of cancers and respiratory issues and skins rashes.  The air smells funny.  And there is no money to even begin cleaning up the mess.  Mortgage companies cancel your mortgage insurance because your well water has become contaminated. People start to move away.  Agriculture suffers and the vineyards and wineries close.  Tourism tanks.  Rich people stop sending their kids to Syracuse University and our other fine colleges until the "water situation" is rectified.  The organic farmers have left and what was beginning to be a slow food movement dies on the vine. The plan to revitalize downtown gets put on hold again and all the money goes to clean up the sites of old drill pads and to try to find companies capable of dealing with environmental disasters of this magnitude--but they are all busy in Pennsylvania....”

What a shame not to have slowed down and concentrated on renewables in the first place.  These may ultimately include different technologies we haven’t heard so much about, such as....algae farms.  I  read 
 that the chemical composition of at least some algae is identical to that of gasoline.  Apparently algae as potential fuel is quite efficient, besides being eminently cultivable.  Who could find this objectionable? There is something deeply satisfying about the notion of being able to apply what has been regarded as a pestilence to the solution of a major worldwide problem.  And the best part?  The wastes can be fed to cows!

Stay tuned.

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