Smoke on the Breeze
Everyone agrees we're in an energy crisis, and everyone agrees we have to wean ourselves from foreign oil. It's the patriotic thing to do. General Motors sent its fuel-sipping Chevrolet Volt on a 1,776-mile drive from Austin, Texas to New York City, where it arrived on Independence Day. "Freedom from what?" I asked a Chevy representative. "It has multiple meanings," he said.
Indeed it does. There are a lot of ways to wean ourselves from OPEC crude, but unfortunately a lot of them have unforeseen problems -- the cure could be worse than the disease. Let's examine some energy alternatives and the seemingly insurmountable problems they face:
There's a huge energy reserve located right here, in the Rocky Mountains, in the heart of the U.S.A. There are vast amounts of a petroleum-like substance known as kerogen trapped in sedimentary rock in the Green River Basin that extends into parts of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. Why aren't we drilling for this freedom fuel? Again, it's enormously environmentally destructive and energy intensive. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, we can either create huge open pit mines, extract the rock, crush it, then distill the kerogen at temperatures of 800 degrees Fahrenheit, or install underground heaters in the kerogen deposits ad heat it up in situ. In any case, NRDC says energy efficiency is a much better alternative.
Worldwatch Institute reports that the extraction process, whichever method we choose, would release sulfur dioxide, lead and nitrogen oxides. Every barrel produced, in a water-challenged region, would require 2.1 to 5.2 barrels of water, says the Bureau of Land Management. The vital Colorado River could lose 8.2 percent of its flow. And Rand Corporation says producing as little as 100,000 barrels of shale oil a day would produce 10 million tons of greenhouse gas and require the development of 1,200 megawatts of electricity. In other words, we'd probably have to build coal plants to produce oil. There's a reason this rich resource is likely to stay in the ground.
One of our biggest oil suppliers is not an Arab autocracy but our benign neighbor to the north, Canada, whose western province Alberta is amply endowed with fossil fuel riches. Oil and Gas Journal says there are close to 180 billion barrels awaiting exploitation. The problem is that tar sands development is environmentally horrendous, "clearly the worst type of oil for the atmosphere," says the Sierra Club of Canada.
Leaving aside the fact that tar sands production has turned beautiful northern forests into toxic moonscapes, it's plain that this form of energy production is unsustainable. It takes a lot of energy to make this energy -- a barrel of oil for every three barrels produced, and that means huge global warming emissions. Two tons of mined sand are needed for every barrel, too. According to Environmental Defense Canada's report "Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth," "Extracting the oil from the sand is so energy intensive, from the large machines to the natural gas used to melt the bitumen out of the sand, it is estimated that by 2012 the tar sands will use as much gas as is needed to heat all the homes in Canada...Using huge amounts of relatively clean-burning natural gas in order to produce dirty and carbon-heavy oil is what commentators have dubbed 'reverse alchemy' -- the equivalent of turning gold into lead."
Fracking Natural Gas
Natural gas is a relatively clean energy alternative, at least compared to other fossil fuels. But gas "fracking," also known as hydraulic fracturing or cracking, is an environmental nightmare. To get at vast underground reserves, engineers pump a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the deposits. That creates cracks, a pathway for the gas to come up to the surface and be captured. Unfortunately, Scientific American reports that in places like Dish, Texas, it also leads to benzene concentrations in the air 55 times higher than permitted even under the lax standards of the Lone Star State. Also exceeding legal limits in Dish (named by a cable TV provider) are xylene and carbon disulfide (neurotoxicants), naphthalene (a blood poison) and pyridines (potentially carcinogenic). Concentrations are as much as 384 times legal limits.
To get at the rich deposits of the Barnet Shale, geologists are drilling right next to subdivisions and shopping centers, the magazine reports. The Barnet lode covers 13,000 square kilometers and has already produced 14,000 wells. Another vast resource, the Marcellus Shale, stretches from Tennessee to New York. Drilling in Dimock, Pennsylvania has polluted drinking water wells -- and even exploded one.
Fracking is, like everything discussed here, a messy process that not only requires vast amounts of water but also results in a massive toxic waste disposal problem. The new film documentary Gasland reveals the hideous details of all this. Filmmaker Josh Fox found out firsthand what fracking meant when drillers tried to lease his family's land.
Jeff Goodell, a Rolling Stone contributing editor and author of Big Coal, told me recently that the carbon sequestration technology that would make "clean coal" possible is a "technological mirage" that inexplicably earns a lot of positive mention. "Everybody writes about it as if it will happen tomorrow," he said. "Journalists have done a terrible job of reporting on it."
Even if we capture all the carbon dioxide coming out of coal plant stacks, "clean coal" would be an oxymoron because the process starts with mountaintop removal mining. Seen up close, the devastation caused by this now widespread practice is game-changing. The tops of scenic, ages-old mountains are brutally severed, with the toxic fill dumped into and obliterating the mountain streams that are the only source of drinking water in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. One sees a scarred moonscape, serviced not by platoons of union miners but a few drivers piloting huge dumptrucks.
As Yale's E360 reports, Laurel Branch Hollow was once a thriving West Virginia mountain community. But then the Hobet 21 mining operation moved in and took out 25 square miles of highlands, creating a 10-mile-long gash in the hardwood hilltops and filling in the stream that flowed to the Mud River, which is now heavily contaminated with the heavy metal selenium.
Although President Obama continues to genuflect toward "clean coal," his administration has pledged to end the worst practices of mountaintop removal mining, including highly destructive valley fills. But Big Coal is powerful (particularly in West Virginia, where it's practically a religion) and the EPA's power to intervene limited. For now, it's still business as usual in the coal fields.
When coal extraction is finished, companies perform much-touted "remediation" that includes planting grass on top of the waste piles. But it's a Band Aid on a festering sore -- a University of Maryland study of reclaimed sites (mostly turned into pastureland) shows high amounts of runoff and erosion. Flash floods, once controlled by forested hillsides, are now a common hazard in mountain communities.
Think we can replace Saudi oil with made-in-U.S.A. heartland corn ethanol? Think again. If we took the entire 70 million acres we grow corn on, gave up eating and made fuel out of that crop, wed end up displacing only 12 percent of American fossil fuel consumption. All that liquid fuel, and it would still be only 2.4 percent of the U.S. energy budget. And corn ethanol is so energy intensive to produce (think of all the fertilizer, transportation, refining, harvesting) that only about 20 percent of each gallon is new energy, says the Washington Post. Thats by one calculation -- ask David Pimentel of Cornell, and hell claim that corn ethanol is a net energy loser. When you add in the food vs. fuel controversy -- ethanol production has sent corn prices soaring -- then its hard to see a kernel of hope for corn.
A quick fix for foreign oil dependence? Expecting it from any of these domestic sources would be a devil's bargain at best.