February 21, 2012
By Matt Palmer
I recently wrote a blog about how the adversarial campaigns being waged by the environmental lobby, energy industry, and government over the Keystone XL, Northern Gateway pipeline and oil sands extraction are keeping us from addressing the larger issue of how we produce, distribute and consume energy. Subsequently, the last two days have seen a spate of articles about the recent study by Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria, and his student Neil Swart, on the development of the Alberta Oil Sands http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate1421.html. The study found that the development of the oil sands will likely add minimally to climate change. Weaver and Swart stated clearly that they did not want this to be seen as a free pass to continue oil sands development unabated.
Weaver goes on to state “I have always said that the tar sands are a symptom of a very big problem. The problem is dependence on fossil fuels. ” I would suggest, and what I aim to explore in the documentary “Unintended Consequences” is something different, that harnessing any form of energy for human consumption produces impacts. Having used fossil fuels for 150 plus years has resulted in significant positive impacts – like that we are able to communicate and debate this issue via computers and the internet, and negative consequences like environmental damage, but it took a long time to understand what those negative impacts are. The problem is not purely that we are dependent on fossil fuels, but that we are dependent on energy, and that the production, distribution, and consumption of any energy source on a global scale requires a tremendous amount of natural resources, which in turn creates positive and negative consequences.
Part of my inquiry lies in working to understand what the impacts will be from globalized industrialization of alternative energy systems. We know we must change the system, but replacing coal-fired electrical plants, for example, might require building millions and millions of wind turbines and solar panels, and once the technology is available, massive battery storage systems. It stands to reason, if we accept that the world exists in a state of yin and yang, that there will be impacts and consequences from that choice, along with benefits. What are the impacts from slowing the wind, or reflecting huge amounts of heat into the atmosphere, or using massive amounts of toxic rare earth minerals, or risks to humans and environment from nanotechnology used in alternative energy systems? This is not an argument against any of these technologies or systems, rather is a quest to understand before we leap.
In his blog on Mother Nature Network http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/energy/blogs/the-trouble-with-carbon-bombs, author Chris Turner writes “the only sustainable long-term solution is one in which fossil fuels are wholly supplanted by renewable energy. And so the question becomes not Should we use Alberta’s oil? but How do we build a green energy economy in the fastest way possible? ” He then argues that renewable energy is ready to take over from coal now. I have seen this argument a lot, but I would like to know how this happens. As I wrote last week, Germany has seen that switching to solar has not reduced their dependence on coal, nor has Denmark’s massive move to wind reduced their dependence on coal. Until reliable large-scale battery storage becomes readily available, alternative energy sources like wind and solar need back up capacity.
The two main energy systems that seem ready for prime time in replacing coal for electrical generation are hydro and nuclear. Both have faced issues in terms getting new projects built, and then managing potential impacts. The Three Gorges Dam in China has had a few serious environmental drawbacks, and of course everyone is aware of the challenges the nuclear industry faces post-Fukushima.
Mr Turner correctly points out that “renewable energy in most of its market readiest forms is not a replacement for transport fuel; it’s an alternative form of electricity generation. It does not supplant oil; it supplants coal.” Absolutely correct. But there is an even bigger point, we don’t know what will supplant petrochemicals, and we use them for everything we do, including the material used to produce signs to protest against their production. I’m not anti-protest, far from it, protest is important to democracy, and to pushing society forward.
I am interested in understanding why smart people who understand that oil sands and pipelines are not the major threat are focusing so much attention and negative energy on the issue using misleading and sometimes false information? A good argument does not need to be embellished because it is politically expedient to do so.
Again, we need to ensure that we build and maintain all energy infrastructure to the highest possible standard, pushing companies to operate beyond compliance. Speaking against oil sands and pipeline projects in regulatory hearings is a valuable way of expanding the debate and raising important concerns. If projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline and Keystone XL do not pass the test on environmental, economic, political and social issues, then we should not be building them. Argue against the projects with valid, reasonable arguments, not misleading information and rhetoric, and conversely, governments and industry should allow the projects to be appraised based on their merits.
“Climate policy is, to my mind, best understood as a proxy for energy policy.” writes Chris Turner. There is another way to look at the issue of climate policy. Climate change is an outcome. It is an outcome of how we use energy. We can argue about potential outcomes or stop and shift to discussing how we use energy, and then figure out pragmatic solutions that adhere to the reality of the global situation and the readiness of the technologies to supply needed energy.
Energy policy is the thing. Talking about energy policy may not be as sexy as locking yourself to a 450 oil sands hauler and unfurling a sign that says “Tar Sands is Climate Crime”, but it might be healthier for all of us in the long run.