Energy Independence: Fact and Fiction
H. Patricia Hynes
Energy independence is now a principal national goal. The Obama administration has taken the position that our independent energy future is a mix of “cleaner” and “safer” fossil fuels and nuclear energy, biofuels, efficiency, and renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind power. Mitt Romney’s position is a similar potpourri, with little regard for “cleaner” and “safer.”
What precisely is meant by cleaner and safer is the crux of the energy independence issue.
Fiction: Natural gas, whose blue flame is branded “the new green,” is the poster child of cleaner, because it generates fewer carbon dioxide emissions than coal and oil. Meanwhile, a blind eye is turned towards the hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” boom that is injecting pressurized sand, “trade secret” chemicals, and vast amounts of water into shale formations to release pockets of gas and oil.
Fact: The environmental risks of fracking are legion: groundwater and drinking water contamination, local air pollution, release of methane to the atmosphere, intensive local water use, no on-site hazardous waste and storage disposal facilities, and increase of earthquakes. (1)
Fact: The natural gas industry is lobbying members of Congress and the White House to block a green building rule that would require all new and renovated federal buildings to be fossil fuel-free buildings by 2030. (2)
Fact: Drilling for oil in the Arctic is another reckless foray for the sake of energy independence. The White House has fast-tracked permits for Shell Oil’s deepwater drilling in the Arctic’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, without an environmental impact statement and thorough public process and despite the fact that no infrastructure exists to respond to a spill. (3)
Fiction: Nuclear energy is clean energy that can be made safer. In its full life cycle, nuclear power generates radioactive tailings at mining and milling sites and creates long-lived, highly radioactive spent fuel with no disposal solution. Nuclear power plants routinely release small amounts of radioactive isotopes during operation and they can release extreme amounts during accidents. Every exposure to radiation carries a health risk: safer is not safe enough. (4)
Fact: Solar and wind are under attack. Twenty-nine states, including Massachusetts, have set renewable energy standards, with the goals of cleaner air, economic development and a more resilient grid. The American Legal Exchange Council, which writes and stewards “model” laws on behalf of its conservative legislators and corporate backers, is drafting legislation for state lawmakers to repeal or weaken their renewable energy standards. Among their backers and members are Koch Industries and Exxon Mobil. (5)
Fact: The hidden and externalized costs of fossil fuels, as compared with wind and solar energy, are immense; and they are not built into energy prices. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that the burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal and oil, causes 20,000 premature deaths per year, mainly from lung damage, and an estimated $120 billion in health costs. By comparison wind and solar energy have very low health and environmental impacts, which can be reduced or eliminated by proper siting. (6)
Fact: Americans overwhelmingly support renewables. The 2012 ORC International survey of Americans’ energy preferences found that there is agreement among citizens across political parties on clean energy policy questions. Two of three Americans ”agree that the term ‘clean energy standard’ should not be used to describe any energy plan that involves nuclear energy, coal-fired, and natural gas that comes from…‘fracking.’” “Nearly three-fourths think federal spending on energy should focus on energy sources of the future such as wind and solar.” (7)
Fact: We have enough resource capacity to power the United States with solar and wind. Wind energy in the Great Plains and solar energy in the Southwest could meet current electrical energy needs more than a dozen times over. This assessment does not include coastal wind energy. (8)
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As a country and a world, we face extremes of climate – semi-permanent drought in some regions, unprecedented flooding, coastal sea rise, extreme temperatures, all with grim consequences for human life, food supply, and economy, as James Hansen director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and dean of climate change wrote recently in the New York Times. (9)
It’s time to give the real cleaner and safer energy technologies market priority – which fossil fuels and nuclear have enjoyed for decades – using all the mechanisms of public policy: investment in R&D, tax credits, green job training, technical assistance to businesses, standards for new building and renovations, and public sector conversion of buildings and vehicles to renewables. The climate crisis demands it. Citizens want it. We have the capacity in energy resources and technical talent. And, we owe it – as a moral obligation – to future generations.
4. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol.94, pp.3765-3770, April 1997. “Mutagenic Effects of a single and an Exact Number of Alpha Particles in Mammalian Cells.”