April 7, 2020

Reasons to move away from fossil fuels

By Stephen Tuttle | Jan. 14, 2017

In a few days, a new administration will be seated in Washington. Those now designated to develop our energy policy are either climate change skeptics or outright deniers who intend to facilitate more oil, gas and coal production.

Let’s assume they are right. If our climate is changing, it’s part of some natural cycle having nothing to do with human dependence on fossil fuels. So, what do more gas, oil and coal mean since it’s not impacting the climate?

First, we have to get the stuff out of the ground.    

More than 50 coal mines still operate in the United States, providing fuel for nearly 600 coal-fired power plants. They have consumed 1.4 million acres of land, much of it in open pits that strip away mountain tops. The waste, often simply dumped down a hillside, has dammed, rerouted or polluted 2,000 miles of headwater streams.

In the last decade, mining accidents have claimed 77 lives. The greater cost comes in the form of pneumoconiosis, more commonly called black lung disease. On average, it kills about a thousand miners and former miners annually, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. 

The Environmental Protection Agency calculates the total human and environmental cost of coal mining at $74.5 billion a year. 

Then there’s oil. The most recent oil discoveries, including a massive find in Texas, will all require hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking, to extract the oil trapped in shale formations. A slurry of water and chemicals, lots and lots of water and chemicals, is pumped into those wells under high pressure to break up rock formations and release the oil.

Each fracking well requires between 2 million and 6 million gallons of water. Another 60,000 gallons of chemicals are added. (Not all states require disclosure of the chemicals used, but the EPA has identified 325 different chemicals, 25 percent of which are known carcinogens.)

That solution then becomes a toxic waste product that is disposed of in deep — as in several thousand feet deep — injection wells under extremely high pressure. 

In both Oklahoma and Texas, where fracking is widespread, small earthquakes are now commonplace. Geologists believe the pressurized waste injections are creating or opening small fault lines causing the quakes. No one knows if larger seismic activity is likely.

We have to move the gas and oil. The fastest and most economical way is through pipelines. We have a lot of them.

We have 207,000 miles of liquid pipelines, 300,000 miles of gas transmission lines and 2.1 million miles of gas distribution lines. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, we average about 300 pipeline “accidents” spilling about 3 million gallons of crude annually at a cost of about $5 billion.  

Now that we’ve mined, drilled and transported our fossil fuel bounty, we have to burn it. We do so in our vehicles and power plants. We get most of our electricity, heat and cooling from 557 coal-fired and more than 7,000 gas-fired power plants. All of it generates emissions.

According to the EPA, our power plants alone produce 1.925 billion metric tons of air pollutants annually. The average passenger vehicle produces 4.75 metric tons of pollutants every year by itself. Transportation, in fact, is the leading source of air pollution.

All that air pollution isn’t so good for us. It is especially bad for people with chronic conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 5 million workdays are lost and nearly 40,000 people die annually as a direct or indirect result of airborne pollutants.

So pervasive are emissions from fossil fuels that all of us, including toddlers, have traces in our lungs, according to the CDC.

Even if our dependence on fossil fuels has no impact on our climate, it certainly impacts our environment. Extracting oil, gas and coal despoils the land, threatens and pollutes our water and endangers the men and women doing the hard work of mining and drilling.

Transporting the fuel isn’t much safer, and spills can quickly become environmental catastrophes. That happened here in 2010 in Calhoun County when an Enbridge pipeline ruptured, and 1.1 million gallons of especially nasty oil spilled into Talmadge Creek and then flowed into the Kalamazoo River. 

Clearly, we can’t simply do away with fossil fuels. But we can, and have been, doing a better job of exploiting renewable alternatives. Maine, for example, already produces two-thirds of their electricity from renewable sources, and solar is now an economically viable alternative in sunnier climes.

It’s a fact land, air, water and human beings are negatively impacted when we extract, transport and burn fossil fuels. That should be reason enough to continue moving away from them.

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