Waking Up from Wishful Thinking
I recently took a train eastward from Portland, Oregon to the Midwest. Traveling through the boom town of Williston, North Dakota, I saw the prairie aflame with natural-gas burn off flares from the hundreds of oil wells being drilled and fracked in the Bakken shale deposits there. The view was disgusting and dispiriting: Drill rigs, tank farms, trailer cities, flaring gas vents, poorly made roads and piles of fracking pipe as far as the eye could see. I also saw tons of carbon literally going up in smoke in those flares. What was most disheartening was the knowledge that all of this waste and degradation is extremely shortsighted. The shale oil deposits annually produce less than 1% of the world’s oil demand, and once it’s gone, it’s gone — just like the billions of cubic feet of natural gas that is being burned off these same deposits because it’s unsafe to drill with the gas sitting on top of the oil, and the drill sites aren’t equipped to capture or transport it. The environmental after-effects of fracking liquids will remain in the prairie soil and its aquifer for a long time. The people who live in this North Dakota town may see the shale oil as an economic miracle, but it’s a boom that will go bust — just like the material they are mining, the drillers’ jobs will go up in smoke when the resource is all gone. And the oil isn’t even going to be kept as a national reserve for future generations to carry out important infrastructure projects on a limited basis — it’s going right into pipelines, refineries and gas stations. All this so we can drive our cars for maybe an extra month or two.
It’s time we truly realized that peak oil production has happened, and sooner than we think, oil is going to be more scarce and expensive. The era of cheap fossil fuels is over — we just don’t want to accept it. When Texas was spouting gushers 80 years ago, Williston, ND wasn’t on the map, for good reason — its oil is trapped in flakes of rock, and it’s deep underground. Fracking is suddenly economically feasible because 1) all the easily accessible oil is gone, 2) the price we’re willing to pay to get oil out of the ground has gone up accordingly, and 3) our society doesn’t put a dollar value on the natural systems we need to live, like clean water. Apart from the economic folly of pretending that the earth will forever supply as many resources as we can demand (and it won’t), we can’t burn all the currently existing coal, or gas or oil reserves willy-nilly without further warming our atmosphere and skewing the climate.
I’d like to suggest a couple of homework assignments: Read Bill McKibben’s essay “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” recently published in Rolling Stone, and the book Too Much Magic by James Howard Kunstler. These two articulate authors point out the missing pieces of how humanity can live within its means on our finite planet. The completed puzzle may not be pretty in a storybook sense, but reality never is.
We in Vermont can actually show the world a different way. We’re at a scale where it’s feasible to re-localize our food system, encourage the majority of our population to move to towns and cities, get serious about efficiency and conservation, electrify our energy system, and power our grid with renewable energy from wind, water and the sun. We face many challenges along the way, but our main problem is denial that we have a problem. Unfortunately, the biggest blinders are worn by “environmentalists,” — both individuals and institutions, the Vermont Natural Resources Council among them — who don’t really understand the fundamentals of energy and the dire straits that we are collectively in. Many people in this camp can’t see the forest for the trees, and are now becoming allies to the opponents of wind farms, based on incorrect or incomplete information and emotional framing of the “big wind story.” This is both sad and frustrating, because these opponents are some of the biggest storytellers of detrimental fictions I have seen. At a time like this, when our world is at a significant crossroads and must make a decision about how best to value, use and allocate our energy resources to meet our needs and transition to a new economy, we just don’t have time for anything less than the truth.
David Blittersdorf is the President/CEO of AllEarth Renewables in Williston, VT — a company that specializes in the design, manufacture and installation of the grid-connected AllSun Tracker solar energy system. He is also the founder of NRG Systems in Hinesburg, VT.
From the August, 2012, Green Energy Times