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A Clean Energy Future

by Cameron Clark

Cameron Clark is a local freelance website designer interested in clean energy issues and environmental sustainability. He is also a member of the Santa Barbara County Water Guardians.  

America is a country that rises to a challenge, albeit sometimes reluctantly. Winston Churchill observed: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.” Nowhere is that more true than energy.

Since enterprising men drilled the first oil wells in Pennsylvania in 1859, petroleum has fueled our country’s rapid growth and our global economic dominance. For over a century, the U.S. led the world in oil production. And while all the “easy” oil is now gone, recent drilling innovations are fueling a new boom. In Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Texas and elsewhere, advancements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) are unlocking vast amounts of natural gas and oil. So much that, according to some reports, the United States has already overtaken Saudi Arabia to once again become the world’s biggest oil producer.

Santa Barbara County, which overlies the Monterey Shale formation and a potentially large reserve of shale oil, could soon be swept up in this unconventional oil boom.

But is this progress?

We’ve known since the oil shocks of the seventies that we needed alternatives to fossil fuels, and America was an early leader in wind and solar. Four decades later, we’ve made slow progress on renewable energy, conservation and energy efficiency. Our continued dependence on oil & gas is a national embarrassment. As the industry devises more clever ways to extract the last drops of fossil fuel from beneath our feet, America is falling behind as other countries innovate their way to clean energy.

Several European countries already obtain 40-100% of their electricity from renewables. That includes hydro power, which countries like Norway and Iceland have in abundance, explaining how those countries obtain 97% and 100% of their electricity from renewables, respectively. But drier places like Spain and Portugal have reached 30% and 44% renewable power with a mix of solar, wind and biomass. Our neighbor Canada clocks in at 64%. New Zealand, 73%. Brazil, 89%. Costa Rica, 93%.

How do we rank? As of 2012, the U.S. was getting only 12% of its electricity from renewables. Just ahead of Kazakhstan and behind Senegal. In total output of renewable energy, both China and Europe are leaving us in the dust. This is not something to be proud of.

Politicians and pundits will argue that energy independence is a more urgent priority, and that new unconventional drilling techniques are getting us there. But we already know that this new boom won’t last. Both the International Energy Agency and our own Energy Information Administration have warned that America’s oil production will peak again before 2020 and decline thereafter.

To become less dependent upon foreign oil, we need to use less oil, rather than desperately trying to find more.

As we continue to drill wells and construct pipelines for petroleum that can be burned only once, we procrastinate the installation of solar panels and windmills that will deliver decades of reliable service. We delay and discourage investments in renewable infrastructure that will deliver true energy independence.

Meanwhile, these new high-intensity drilling techniques pose grave threats to our environment, our water, our climate, and our health. All use massive amounts of water. Fracking a single well may require from tens of thousands to several million gallons of water. Fracking and acidizing also use frightening amounts of toxic chemicals. Wells are typically acidized with hydrochloric or hydrofluoric acid , the latter so powerful that it can eat through steel and concrete. Over 600 different chemicals have been identified in fracking operations, many highly toxic and carcinogenic. Up to 400,000 gallons may be used in a single well; 30-70% of this noxious cocktail typically stays in the ground.

The rest—the polluted wastewater recovered from wells—must be disposed of somewhere. Our wastewater treatment plants are not designed to deal with it, so it is usually pumped into “wastewater injection wells” and left there…forever. Meanwhile, spills regularly release this toxic cocktail into our surface water, groundwater and soil. In North Dakota and Pennsylvania, thousands of spills and intentional releases have been reported in the past few years.

Meanwhile, leaky and abandoned wells allow methane and drilling chemicals to migrate from lower strata up into our groundwater supplies. The petroleum industry claims that their wells don’t leak, but that’s nonsense. Their own experts estimate that more than 50% of well casings will fail over 30 years, poisoning our water decades after all the oil is gone. Already, thousands of cases of groundwater contamination have been reported near fracking locations across the country. People and animals are getting sick from drinking this water. Where fracking has occurred near farms, livestock have become sick and died, crops have become contaminated, and land values have decreased. And there’s even considerable evidence now that fracking and injection wells are causing earthquakes.

Meanwhile, these operations will only exacerbate climate change, using far more energy and producing greater emissions than traditional drilling to extract dirtier oil. New wells proposed for Santa Maria by one company alone could emit greenhouse gases equivalent to 1 million cars, double the current total countywide emissions.

Skeptics will claim that our energy infrastructure can’t be changed overnight. It will be a huge undertaking, to be sure; but since when are we afraid of a challenge? Seventy years ago, Churchill witnessed such a transformation in America. As we entered WWII, we retooled our factories and refocused our industrial might on creating the weaponry, vehicles and supplies needed to win that war—in a matter of months. It was a breathtaking achievement.

It’s this sort of mobilization we need now to build the clean, sustainable, modern and resilient energy grid necessary for the 21st century. Experts have produced multiple plans for a transition to 100% renewables—including a detailed blueprint for achieving freedom from fossil fuels in this county by our own Community Environmental Council, and a detailed 50-state plan from Stanford professor Mark Jacobson. We have the technology; all we need is the will to make it happen.

Here in Santa Barbara County, we need to ask ourselves: are we willing to risk our water, our agriculture, and our health, just for a little more oil? Or will we ban these destructive techniques in our county and commit to producing the clean, renewable energy that so many other countries already enjoy?

This post was originally published on May 17, 2014 in the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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