Drilling has consequences

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

The release of oil from the failure of a new well in the Gulf of Mexico is reminiscent of the oil release that drenched the shores off Santa Barbara, Calif. Even though experts warned President Lyndon Johnson that drilling in the fractured oil-bearing rocks was risky, he pushed ahead with the project as he needed the money to pay for the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty.

The shocking view of oil-soaked beaches stimulated citizen pressure for the passage of the environmental laws of the Richard Nixon administration. With the recent Gulf oil release, some political leaders have questioned the wisdom of President Barack Obama’s plans to open more of our offshore areas for oil development.

It is too soon to know the full environmental effects and political outcomes of the latest oil disaster. The calls for “Drill, baby, drill” ignore the kind of adverse environmental impacts we are beginning to witness in the Gulf. As energy supplies dwindle and more costly attempts to secure oil from more difficult sites intensifies, the greater the adverse environmental consequences of such actions are likely to be.

Our national mindset remains fixated on finding more oil to feed the energy-guzzling culture known as the American way of life. Ignored is the reality that our lives will be worse off by continuing to supply the energy for an unsustainable way of life as the reality of peak oil sets in.

We should be reorganizing our economy along less energy-intensive patterns with what little oil we have left.

The recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill also brings into sharp focus the interconnection between our energy use and environmental quality. The two are inextricably intertwined. More than 5,000 barrels per day are estimated to be leaking into the waters. A slick more than 100 miles wide has reached the shore. Residents and fishermen are bracing themselves for an enormous disaster. Environmentally-delicate wetlands rich in shellfish and wildlife are threatened. It could take 90 days for efforts to have any effect on stopping the leak.

Natural gas, considered a “bridge fuel” between oil and renewable energy, is also causing concern. Methane—a climate-changing gas—is being forcibly extracted from vast underground supplies that underlie large expanses of the U.S. Water mixed with chemicals is pumped into the ground to fracture gas-containing shale. The gas then bubbles to the surface, where it can be collected. As a result of the fractures, groundwater supplies are becoming contaminated. The Monongahela River is so salty from the chemicals that fish kills have occurred. Power plant operators have noticed corrosion on their equipment from the waters used to cool the plants. Formerly pristine areas have been desecrated with pits of waste water scattered about them.

With peak oil on the horizon, wouldn’t we be much better off as a society redesigning our urban areas to dramatically cut energy consumption? Rather than trying to get out the last drop of oil, we should be building a more sustainable society with more mass transit, far fewer, more efficient cars, and a commitment to rebuilding the local economy in a more efficient way.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. The Vogls and the IREA are members of the Environmental Hall of Fame. Dr. Robert Vogl is vice president of Freedom Field, and Dr. Sonia Vogl is a member of Freedom Field’s Executive Committee. The Vogls consult on energy efficiency, renewable energy and green building. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are active in preserving natural areas and are retired professors from Northern Illinois University. E-mail sonia@-essex1.com.

From the May 5-11, 2010 issue

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