Benefits of different energy sources tempered by dangers

Americans have long been in denial that their extraction and use of energy causes environmental problems.

We have managed to rationalize the acid mine drainage that has befouled 5,000 miles of Pennsylvania’s waterways, rendering the water undrinkable and destroying aquatic ecosystems. We excuse the childhood asthma, elderly respiratory disease and premature deaths caused by the polluted air. We have discounted the risks of shipping nuclear wastes across the country and long term storage of those wastes because we “need” the electricity.

We accept the mental impairment of a half-million children caused by lead mercury emitted from the burning of coal. We lament oil spills in sensitive marine environments but still ignore “best practices” when drilling in such regions. We deny that that the carbon dioxide we emit is warming the planet.

So we look for other options and alternatives that reduce those pollutants and risks. Solar, wind and natural gas seem to be common-sense alternatives that avoid some of the worst environmental problems connected with fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the initial investments for solar and wind energy have been extraordinarily expensive when compared to the often-subsidized fossil fuels.

Many are particularly concerned about the potential impacts of natural gas drilling and windmills. Yet a number of ardent environmentalists also see the gas from Marcellus Shale and the electricity generated by windmills as two answers to an uncertain energy future.

It is the classic environmental conundrum – a seemingly unsolvable dilemma, a question without a clear answer.

Clearly, we would be much better off environmentally if we used more natural gas and less coal. Yet serious uncertainties still surround fracking for natural gas. Despite these questions, the practice has been given preferential regulatory treatment, being exempted from the underground injection control program of the Safe Water Drinking Act and provisions of the Clean Water Act.

The 14 biggest fracking companies in the United States use more than a quarter-trillion liters of fracking fluid. The fluids are a well-kept secret in the industry and a source of great concern to opponents of hydraulic fracturing. More than two dozen of the chemicals that are believed to be used in the process are known or suspected human carcinogens.

The amount of water used in the process is significant, as well. Most of the Great Lakes states have additionally waived restrictions on the amount of water that can be withdrawn from both ground and surface water for fracking.

The noise, habitat destruction and aesthetic degradation connected with windmills has brought opposition to wind energy, despite its many advantages. It would seem that, like so many other industries, there are good and bad actors in the wind energy business. Poorly planned, sited and maintained wind farms can be liabilities to the communities in which they are developed.

Even the most responsible wind energy companies and natural gas drillers must be tempered by the interests and wishes of local residents. There are places where such development might be very appropriate and widely accepted by the host communities. Clearly, there are also places where water, aesthetics, forest resources and the expectations of the people should be put first.

John Frederick (jfrederick@ writes on environmental issues every other week in the Mirror. Later this month, we’ll examine a still frequently overlooked alternative – energy conservation.