[Series] While we need to find less harmful substitutes for fossil fuel, there is no energy source that lacks environmental consequences.
This is the final piece in a three-part series focusing on fossil-fuel dependence and the intersection of energy and the environment. Part 1 and Part 2 discussed our dependence on fossil fuels and what the finite nature of oil and gas means for the future of our energy economy. This final piece explores the environmental concerns associated with various energy sources, and our need to find less-damaging substitutes to meet our energy needs.
Like any large and complex industry, the development and distribution of petroleum requires an industrial infrastructure. Conventional oil wells and pipelines are mostly trouble-free. Hundreds of thousands of wells have been drilled in North America, and, as technology has improved, blowouts and spills have decreased in number and seriousness. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico exposed serious deficiencies in the management and oversight of the drilling operation, but not in the technology, which has permitted the establishment of over 3,800 production platforms in the Gulf alone, with few major incidents.
The exploitation of Canada’s oil sands and proposals to pipe the crude to the United States (via the Keystone XL pipeline ) or the West Coast (via the Northern Gateway pipeline) have been met with loud and prolonged protests about “Canada’s dirty oil” and environmental pollution. The citizens of Nebraska, in particular, are concerned about the Keystone pipeline, which they fear could pollute drinking water from the Ogallala aquifer.
There are dozens of major pipelines crisscrossing North America, and most have worked invisibly and without problems for decades. There are well-developed maintenance routines, which include running a device called a “pig” inside the pipe for cleaning and inspection purposes. Corrosion due to water pooling in unused stretches of pipe is one possible problem. That said, pipeline failures are rare. The pollution they cause can be serious and long lasting, but it is local and containable, and can be gradually cleaned up. “Dilbit” (diluted bitumen), which the Keystone project proposes to pipe to refineries at Cushing, Okla., is no more of a hazardous material than other petroleum liquids, and will be carried in a pipe specifically designed for it. The risk to the Ogallala aquifer is therefore low.
Nevertheless, the mining of the oil sands has certainly caused pollution in the air and water of northern Alberta. There are health problems in aboriginal communities, and discernible effects on fish populations, that may be related to this pollution. As described in an earlier article, both the federal and Alberta governments have recognized this as a problem, and, on Feb. 3, they made a joint announcement of a program to properly monitor and manage it. The newly announced Oil Sands Innovation Alliance will also focus on environmental management of industrial development.
There are very different concerns about the environmental effects of exploiting shale gas. The “fracking” process used to access the gas thousands of metres underground involves the explosive injection of water and various chemicals into the shale to open up fractures that release the gas. The water requirements are enormous. Permits issued for northeastern British Columbia would allow industry to extract as much water from surface-water systems as is being used by the city of Victoria. The water, polluted with fracking chemicals, returns to the surface with the gas, and needs to be disposed of. There is some evidence that the gas produced in this manner may be leaking into local domestic groundwater wells, but little evidence, so far, of pollution as a result of the fracking chemicals. The problem is likely poor cementation of pipes to the host rocks, allowing leakage outside the pipe. This is a problem that can be managed by proper inspection and oversight. Furthermore, encouraging a greater use of deep saline groundwater can reduce demands on surface fresh water.
Many are also concerned because shale-gas operations require access to pristine farmland for the drilling of multiple wells, which increases traffic on rural roads and introduces unsightly infrastructure. Such concerns, however, could be managed with suitable compensation.
There is no energy source that lacks environmental or other consequences. Hydro requires huge artificial lakes that dramatically alter the local ecology and inhibit the migration of fresh-water fish. Wind turbines are often regarded as unsightly, and are a hazard to birds and bats. Any improvements in electricity supply require the construction of intrusive transmission lines. Biofuels divert feedstock from food production. Nuclear power generates large quantities of radioactive waste. Proposals for the transportation and deep burial of this waste in the geologically stable Canadian Shield have aroused vociferous protests. Ironically, the “temporary” storage of this waste on site at the power stations (of Pickering, Bruce, etc.) does not seem to bother anyone.
Discussions about the management of these environmental issues must be part of the holistic debate that we need to have in order to make progress on our energy future, and must be based on good science. As citizens, we must not lose sight of the need for energy, our dependence on fossil fuels, and the limited time we have available to find less environmentally damaging substitutes.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.