Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rochester’s environment, hydrofracking, and the elephant


A critical mass of local interest foreshadows some great debates in the Rochester, NY region on hydrofracking. Check the Rochester Calendar for up and coming hydrofracking events. Rochester is not strictly speaking in the Marcellus Gas Shale. But Hemlock Lake is--where we get a lot of our drinking water. And, the Genesee River runs through it.

Whatever your position, hydrofracking is a hot topic and getting hotter. In the upcoming months, you’re going to see many events cropping up about hydrofracking, including private showings and discussions of the film “Gasland.”

"The largest domestic natural gas drilling boom in history has swept across the United States. The Halliburton-developed drilling technology of "fracking" or hydraulic fracturing has unlocked a "Saudia Arabia of natural gas" just beneath us. But is fracking safe?” Gasland: A film by Josh Fox

Rochester area environmental groups and individuals are concerned about the possible health effects of ‘secret’ hydrofracking fluids. This presents a conundrum because we don’t know what chemicals are being used to blast through near-by shale deposits or in what amounts to determine local health. What would seem to be a reasonable request by a region’s community to find out what these potentially harmful chemicals are is in truth being treated as a suspicious attempt to crack industry’s special formulas and rob them of their livelihood.

So, discovering the information we need to know before determining the possible health effects of hydrofracking in our area is not going to happen. The fracking business is mum. Those seeking such corporate secrets are going to have to stop worrying their pretty little heads. We must trust that this industry will always follow environmental laws, never allow our drinking water to catch on fire, and are cetain that all their spent fracking fluid will do no harm to our rivers or waste water treatment plants.

But wait, there’s more: There are also concerns about increased truck traffic on our exhausted roads and bridges that this deluge of natural gas drilling will bring. Then there’s the fact that many Rochester-area residents have homes and cottages in the affected regions. I’ve only scratched the surface of how deeply controversial this issue is becoming within our region, but you can get a sense of the other issues here: Natural Gas Hydro-Fracking in Shale - Citizens Campaign for the Environment

Yet, despite all the clamor over hydrofracking, there is little concern about the elephant in the room: how drilling for more fossil fuel will increase the effects of Climate Change. No kidding, the most important environmental issue of our times, our planet’s atmosphere warming up because of human activity (like drilling for natural gas), has been side-stepped because of a variety of neat excuses. Those who argue that natural gas burns cleaner and isn’t as bad as coal and oil as an energy source are probably correct—as far as they go. And, those who argue that natural gas is a transitional energy must show that renewable energy and conservation are part of the deal. But meanwhile, Climate Change is ramping up and it’s doing so every day:

Ice sheets melting faster than earlier estimates The vast ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica are melting faster than previously estimated and that melting is accelerating, according to a new report that verifies 18 years of melting via two independent techniques. Left unchecked, the extra water dumped into the oceans could push average global sea level six inches higher by 2050, the report finds. That would mark the ice sheets - defined as expanses of deep, long-term ice larger than 20,000 square miles - as the largest contributors to sea level rise, outstripping melting from Earth's other frozen reservoirs, namely mountain glaciers. (March 9, 2011) Washington Post

Somehow, we’ve put aside the fact that natural gas is a greenhouse gas. I guess, besides the Climate-Change-denier syndrome tearing across our country, Climate Change is perceived as irrelevant to this discussion.

Talking about and including Climate Change in every discussion about energy production should be the way we adults address environmental issues. In the 1700’s, we couldn’t say that slaves had as much intelligence and potential as the white man, even though it was the truth. It took a lot of fighting and unimaginable sacrifice and heroism just to expose the obvious: people of all colors are the same and have the same rights. Please. People are people.

Why do we have to continually thrash out our energy problems without addressing the most important issue? Climate Change isn’t something you can get over. We may want more energy, but we cannot survive in a Venus-like atmosphere.

Hence, it doesn’t matter if natural gas is cleaner and isn’t as potent a greenhouse gas emitter as coal or oil. We are already past what climate scientists figure is a safe concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere; we need to back up. Levels of carbon dioxide are over 390ppm and soaring. We need to go back to an atmosphere of at most 350ppm of carbon dioxide. Fixating on natural gas won’t get us there. It’s the wrong conversation.

The right conversation should be about renewable energy like solar and wind, not whether hydrofracking will affect our drinking water. At long last, we shouldn’t even be considering drilling for gas—even if the drilling process is cleaner than a surgeon’s scalpel.

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