Thursday, September 12, 2013

This boom is a bust

The following is this month's "Desert Sage" column for the Deming Headlight.  The slightly edited version that ran in the paper is here.  Below is the version I submitted. 


Some call this the “age of unconventionals.”

Imagine a very heavy truck is tearing down a road at high speed, and upon learning that the truck is moving towards the edge of a cliff at high speed, the driver shrugs and presses down harder on the accelerator. Point out to that driver that pretty soon it will be too late to stop the truck before going over the cliff, and the driver demands proof, and then more proof, but never slows while you plead for safety and sanity.

Our ecological predicament is something like that. The driver of the vehicle is an industry that is compelled to put profit over human needs, safety, and sustainability. An economic system based on endless expansion and growth at all costs cannot exist in a finite environment. Eventually, the cancer kills its host.

When confronted with the problem of “peak oil” and “peak coal,” the end of cheap and easily accessible oil and the cleanest types of coal, the energy industry had a face-saving opportunity to invest heavily in non-fossil fuels and reduction of carbon emissions that are leading to global warming. Maybe, after all, there was a way to capitalize on humanity’s need for renewable energy.

Instead, it has led to a new energy boom in non-conventional fossil fuels. Dirtier fuels, extracted by dirtier and more dangerous methods. We drill miles below the ocean floor; we explode bombs or use astonishing amounts of highly pressurized water to fracture rock and extract shreds of energy; we use natural gas to cook rock until sludgy oil drips out; we burn tar sands and dirtier, less productive coal. Some promote new nuclear energy facilitates that also consume vast amounts of water. The amount of energy required to produce energy ticks upward, and the energy produced is less efficient and more polluting. Despite the ‘energy boom’ that employs some Americans and makes profits for a few, the era of fossil fuel is still waning, and at the end of this candle there is toxic smoke.

Because fracking has been good for business, state governments tend to celebrate these new technologies for bringing new jobs to their regions. Usually, that line works – workers are vulnerable when unemployment is high, and people are willing to put up with extraordinary evils when politicians shout “jobs jobs jobs” enough. However, much to the chagrin of several states and their corporate patrons, local communities have started to push back.

Leading the way, right here in New Mexico, was Mora County. Mora was the first county in the United States to ban ‘fracking,’ the practice of using water pressure and chemicals to break rock and extract energy. In the case of shale gas, this leads to high methane emissions, some of the worst with respect to trapping heat in our atmosphere and accelerating global warming.

Out of concerns for its water supply, the people of Mora County did the unprecedented and said “no” to the practice, which effectively closed Mora County for business. Since then, 100 municipalities have followed suit, confronting states over who gets to regulate energy exploitation where they and their children live.

This will be a long fight, but local communities are organizing to engage the gas and oil industry, its spokespeople (Marita Noon and Paul Gessing are busy writing, no doubt), and its politicians in a fight over the policies that affect them where they live. The fight will happen in state courts to be sure, and in the political arena as well.

The passengers are revolting. Let’s hope we get control of the van in time.

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