Editorial by Noel T. Braymer
First there was the explosion on April 5th in Montcoal, West Virginia at the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine which killed 29 miners. The cause of the deadly explosion was a build up of coal dust and methane gas which is very explosive if there is an ignition source. It was latter reported that the mine owned by the Massey Coal Company had a long history of ventilation problems and other safety issues.Not only this mine but several mines owned by Massey had been repeatedly fined by Federal safety inspectors which the company ignored and refused to pay.
Then on April 20th the Deepwater Horizon exploratory oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico when a large bubble of methane came out of the oil well and was ignited. Of the 126 workers on the oil rig, 11 are missing and presumed dead. It wasn’t until April 29th that BP, owner of the oil well admitted that the resulting oil leak was much greater than originally announced. There is no agreement on how much oil was leaking, but one independent estimate put it as equaling the Exxon Valdez spill every 4 days! This latest accident came after years of claims by the oil industry that off-shore oil drilling was safe and fail-safe systems would prevent major oil leaks. In the case of the Deepwater Horizon all three cut-off valves that were suppose to seal off the oil well in an emergency failed.
We will not run out of fossil fuels anytime soon. But the cost of our dependence on fossil fuel will increase both in out of pocket costs, human lives and damage to our environment. The best oil fields have been found and are rapidly depleting. To continue using vast amounts of oil will require more deep sea drilling, drilling in remote areas of the artic, use of thicker heavy oils and oil from sources such as tar sands and coal. Use of all of these sources will increase the cost of oil production and have major environmental hazards. Coal is cheap as long as it is dirty. It can be made cleaner but most users don’t want to pay extra to burn cleaner coal. Coal leaves behind toxic ash and pollution in coal flume gas includes things like mercury which is a neurotoxin. There is methane or Natural Gas which is fairly clean. The United States has a great deal of methane, but much of it is locked up in rocks underground. To get to it requires a great deal of water to break up the rocks to get to the methane. Where this has been done owners of local wells have found the ground water greatly polluted and the water became flammable because it was contaminated with methane. There is a great deal of methane locked up in ice deep in the oceans called methane hydrates. It is possible that the explosion that blew up the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig came from methane hydrate disturbed by the oil well. Release of large amount of unburned methane is a serious form of pollution which could happen if there is large scale exploitation of methane hydrates.
The cost of fossil fuels can only continue to go up. The cost of renewable energy will continue to go down. Already wind energy is competitive and solar is very close in price and will soon be competitive with most fossil fuels for electricity. New energy sources however will never be as cheap as fossil fuels were in the 20th Century. As important as renewable energy will be, greater energy efficiency and conservation is important for future economic growth. Can conservation work? It already is in California. California is the most populous State at 37 million residents. Yet we use less energy than the second most populous State Texas, with 25 million residents. When looked at a per capita basis only New York and Rhode Island use slightly less energy than California of the States. Since 1975 the per capita use for electricity in California has changed little while it has grown 50% in the rest of the country. The largest use of energy in California is for transportation and that generally means oil.
The United States has a major impact on the price and demand of oil since we consume 25% of the world’s production. Along with more efficient lightings, white reflective roofs, better insulation and new sources of energy we in California and the Nation will need to go further on less energy. All the improvements needed for greater energy efficiency require long term investment. This will require spending money to save energy and money in the future. This will be quite a change from the high risk, high profit in a short term thinking driven mostly by Wall Street. Building an expanded, rationally connected rail passenger system tied with future land development is critical to an economical, energy efficient California. Europe has a standard of living as high and in some cases higher than in the United States. Yet Europe uses one seventh per capita the amount of oil as the United States. With improved technology and more energy choices we can match or do better than Europe and have a higher standard of living than we do now.