A regular reader writes in to protest my assertion that America now has enough proven fossil fuel reserves to last for centuries, warning “Fracking technology isn’t sustainable.”
As with other shorthand terms designed to eliminate case-by-case by analysis, when “unsustainable” comes to mean merely “bad,” the results can get silly.
We know where the term came from. Demonstrating the genius of central planning by distant bureaucrats, when the Soviets in the 1950s and 1960s decided they had better uses for the river water flowing into the landlocked Sea of Aral (namely, cotton production), and proceeded to divert the rivers into canals where more than half the water was wasted through leakage or evaporation, the results for the Sea of Aral proved “unsustainable,” in the sense that the sea is now more of a saline puddle, while the ships that once sailed her now sit rusting on salt flats, miles from any water.
(From another view, I suppose the Kazakhs or whoever now dominates this area can “sustain” their cotton irrigation indefinitely, so long as the local legal system prevents those who have suffered economic consequences through the destruction of the Aral Sea from collecting full damages. In this way, the situation is similar to the way the Owens River in southeastern California now flows through a big tunnel to thirsty Los Angeles — former Owens Valley farmers may not like it, but this setup is “sustainable” so long as Los Angeles has the political muscle to keep anyone from blowing up their pipe.)
At any rate: Does this mean if anything is held to be “unsustainable,” we should stop doing it?
Are your respiratory and digestive processes “sustainable”? It depends on your time frame. As marvelous as the human body is, it is impermanent, and some time in the next 20 to 80 years, most of us face a future in which those functions will cease. They are “non-sustainable.”
But that doesn’t mean I intend to stop either eating or breathing tomorrow, or next week. In fact, I may go to considerable trouble in an attempt to further “sustain” these finite processes for a few extra years.
Similarly, continuing to use petroleum in all the thousands of ways that have enriched our lives may be a perfectly rational decision. Petroleum replaced whale oil, and I’m glad it did, and something will some day replace petroleum — by being better and cheaper.
Wind and solar energy-generating technologies are those “sustainable” replacements, we’re told, since the sun will shine and the winds will blow pretty much forever. Fossil fuel technologies, on the other hand, are “unsustainable,” since someday we’re gong to run out of coal, oil, and natural gas, and then where will we be?
Therefore, we should immediately shift to the “sustainable” technologies, since “sustainable” means “good.” Right?
While — within the time frame of human planning — the winds will blow and the sun will shine “forever,” a mistake was made, about three paragraphs back, when we thus concluded current wind and solar TECHNOLOGIES are more sustainable than fossil fuel TECHNOLOGIES.
In fact, we’ve been pumping oil out of the ground for nearly 150 years, and digging and burning coal for a lot longer than that, and far from running out as Paul Ehrlich and the Malthusians keep predicting, we keep finding more of the stuff, as well as less polluting ways to use it.
On the other hand, commercial solar and especially wind-turbine generators have been around for less than 40 years, and already thousands of windmills stand idle — in some cases the blades still turn, though they’re not connected to anything — all over the place, especially in Hawaii and California.
Why? Windmills kill lots of birds and bats. They require quick-start backup natural-gas fired generators, without which they can’t be connected to any power grid. And beyond that, the things generate so little electricity that it seldom pays to repair their generators, which (as it turns out) last only half as long as the manufacturers estimated. Once we repeal current mandates that require power companies to buy fixed amounts of overpriced power from such sources, their “sustainability” will be measured in hours.
Now, what about extracting oil with shale fracture technology? “Sustainable?”
The main concern is that aquifers between the surface and the oil layers could be polluted by fracking liquids. That’s a legitimate concern — though you’ll pardon my skepticism of sources that also oppose every OTHER form of petroleum extraction and power generation.
Furthermore, if your fracking fluid contains benzene and you spill a large quantity in a cow pasture, you can expect to see some dead cows.
But planes and automobiles kill thousands of people (not just a few cows) every year, and they’re not banned.
There’s relatively safe nuclear power, and then there are Russian nuclear submarines. Everything has risks, and free-market technology has proved pretty good at mitigating risks.
Where fracking is concerned, the question is who can be trusted to impose sensible regulation. I don’t know. Part of the problem is a legal system where “little guys” have trouble collecting full damages caused by large corporations, especially when such damages are widely diffused.
But “fracking” isn’t going away. We can solve the problems, or we can let others do so, and eventually let them dictate terms for their imported oil if we don’t want to freeze in the dark.
The fact remains, an oil industry that’s about to celebrate its 150th anniversary, that still powers the world, and that shows good prospects for the next 150 years, is far more “sustainable” than current wind and solar.
And if you don’t believe it, I’ll be happy to take any shares you currently own in Exxon Mobil, Conoco, and Chevron, and pay you for them at the current value of shares in such heavily government subsidized outfits as Solyndra, Fisker Automotive, A123 Systems, etc.
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I see where the Obama White House has named Yvanna Cancela, political director of the Culinary Union’s Local 226 here in Las Vegas, as the only labor leader to be honored as one of this year’s Cesar Chavez Champions of Change, an award named for the late co-founder of the United Farm Workers.
Why? Because Ms. Cancela is leading a statewide effort to push for amnesty for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the united States — a step which will of course open the floodgates for more illegal immigrants, just as it did the last time this was tried, in 1986.
How ironic. Although even Mr. Chavez was duped (with others) into believing the 1986 amnesty would end the illegal immigration problem, Wikipedia’s biography of Mr. Chavez reports “The UFW during Chavez’s tenure was committed to restricting immigration. Chavez and Dolores Huerta, cofounder and president of the UFW, fought the Bracero Program that existed from 1942 to 1964. Their opposition stemmed from their belief that the program undermined U.S. workers. …
“Their efforts contributed to Congress ending the Bracero Program in 1964. … In its early years, the UFW and Chavez went so far as to report undocumented immigrants who served as strikebreaking replacement workers (as well as those who refused to unionize) to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“In 1973, the United Farm Workers set up a ‘wet line’ along the United States-Mexico border to prevent Mexican immigrants from entering the United States illegally and potentially undermining the UFW’s unionization efforts.”
Rounding up and deporting illegal immigrants would limit the labor pool and drive up wages in low-skilled jobs, including for Culinary members. Amnesty will tell the next 40 million trespassers “Come on in!” — driving down wages for decades to come.
Law-abiding Culinary members might want to ask Aztlan activists to “Stop doing us so many favors … please.”