Editorial, The River Reporter, Narrowsburg, NY
A bridge to nowhere
As we approach peak oil—the point at which petroleum production enters into decline—the major focus of the energy sector has been on finding ways to suck up every last drop of increasingly inaccessible fossil fuels. The result has been the development of increasingly invasive and complex technologies, and the extension of production to more and more vulnerable and ecologically vital areas, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Upper Delaware watershed.
It has been argued that this pursuit is justified because we need such reserves as a bridge to a future in which humankind relies solely on renewable energy sources. There is some merit to this argument; certainly, we cannot stop producing oil and gas overnight. But the thing to remember about bridges is that their principal purpose is to get to another place, and that there is no point in building a bridge if you find out, when you get to the other side, that by building the bridge you have destroyed your destination.
To avoid destroying our destination in this particular case means that the human race should establish a goal of leaving as much fossil fuel in the ground as possible. Climate change is proceeding at such a pace that, according to a joint study released in May by Purdue University and Australia’s University of New South Wales, there is a 50/50 chance that half of the globe’s surface will have become uninhabitable by 2300. Even if we find ways to extract the most inaccessible fossil fuels left in the crust, it would be suicidal to burn it all.
But we have to find, extract and burn up some of it. And since it is getting riskier to extract the remaining reserves and production is extending into ever more sensitive and vulnerable areas, it is more important than ever to take care about what we are doing. The lesson of the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is that we cannot let our greed and desperation to scrape the bottom of the fossil fuel barrel blind us to the potentially disastrous consequences of the methods we use to do so.
To this extent, those who insist that Marcellus Shale drilling should be undertaken full speed ahead, without any further environmental study and with a minimum of regulation, cannot claim that natural gas drilling is justified as a bridge. By ignoring the consequences, they make it clear that they don’t care where that supposed “bridge” eventually leads.
At the June 2 announcement by American Rivers that the Upper Delaware has been chosen as its most endangered river of 2010, there was a telling exchange between Rep. Maurice Hinchey and a heckler in the crowd that bears on this issue. Hinchey was speaking about the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf as an illustration of why it is important to be scrupulously careful as to how drilling is regulated. At this point, someone in the crowd shouted out, “That’s why we need to drill on land, in the Marcellus Shale!”
What is interesting about the heckler’s comment is that it was not made in response to an assertion that we should altogether ban drilling in the Marcellus shale—a position we have never heard Hinchey espouse—but only to the idea that the Gulf disaster teaches us how important comprehensive and well-enforced regulation of drilling is. There is no way in which the inadvisability of drilling in the deep ocean, or anything else about the horrific events in the Gulf, can be taken to mean that we must drill in the Marcellus without careful study and stringent oversight. On the contrary, such precautions must be part of the architecture of any bridge that can get us safely to a sustainable energy future.
But there is one more step that must be taken if natural gas and other remaining fossil sources are truly to serve as bridges: we need to focus the majority of our time, money, personnel and imagination on developing the alternative energy sources and sustainable lifestyles that lie on the other side. The longer we focus on exploiting the next piece of the disappearing fossil fuel stockpile, the further off that other side will get.
This is an area in which the American people, industry and government have all fallen down badly. But events like the American Rivers “endangered river” designation provide at least a symbolic start. They remind us that there are things more vital than the stop-gap pursuit of a vanishing energy source. If we proceed full bore ahead to suck the Marcellus Shale dry, only to find when we are done that we have lost our river, streams, forests, wildlife and personal health, it will turn out that natural gas was, after all, nothing but a bridge to nowhere.
Republished with permission; source River Reporter.com