In the controversy over the extraction of petroleum resources from shale, people who oppose this energy industry expansion have been called hypocrites. Claims have been made that practically every dollar diverted from petroleum development defaults to coal, and those who try to promote renewable energy resources wind up assisting that default. I am writing, not to dispute these allegations, but to lament them.
We are hopelessly addicted to cheap energy. Any action that might drive up the cost of driving to work, heating the house, growing food or manufacturing wares is out of the question. We’ve never really regulated the energy industry, and we aren’t going to start now, all empty promises aside. If we make coal, oil and gas companies bear the costs to clean up their messes and make full restitution to people they’ve harmed, then coal, oil and gas will become a lot more expensive.
We’ve seen it before. When we made tobacco companies take more responsibility for the lives their products helped to ruin, the days of cheap cigarettes went up in smoke. When we got serious about removing lead from household surfaces, the cost of renovations went through the roof. We got hosed by alcoholic beverages when we clamped down on drinking and driving.
But to do that with energy is unthinkable. We may not all believe in God, but we believe in sacrificial lambs. To make someone else suffer the consequences of our decisions: that’s the kind of people we are.
I lived for eight years in the coal patch of West Virginia, and I hiked along many streams flowing red-brown and yellow from acid mine drainage. I gaped at the stupendous damages wreaked by mountaintop removal, choked on the smell of tailings lagoons, and rolled my eyes at the lies which rolled from the lips of politicians and coal company representatives about “responsible development.” I could see what they were responsible for. Everyone I knew had a “black lunger” or two in the family. But we didn’t talk too much about it in that society; we had to suck it up to keep the trucks running.
Today, the streams of my boyhood home in Ohio flow with more toxic chemicals than they used to, thanks to Youngstown becoming a popular destination for oil and gas development wastes. When the underground injection of “frack fluid” was shut down after being linked to earthquakes there, a local waste hauler just dumped his loads into a storm drain. (He didn’t have an abandoned coal mine handy, like his counterparts in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky.) This incident points out a sobering fact: the shale patches in this country are much larger and more numerous than the coal patches.
And we will exploit them until all recoverable petroleum reserves have been brought up and sold off. That objective is nearly complete for New York’s conventional oil and gas reserves. Thankfully (for us), most of that was done in the westernmost counties.
Now we live in a gas patch, and the sacrificial lambs for new development will be our own children and grandchildren. This isn’t about national energy security; the methane isn’t that precious, or they’d capture the gas which comes up with the oil in Alaska and North Dakota instead of flaring it off. No, it’s homage to the petroleum gods, praying that if we let them do whatever they want, our prices won’t go up.
So, if we can’t kick our addiction to fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy, can we at least deal with our hypocrisy? Our grandchildren – asking “Why did you hate us enough to sell off all the easy energy under our feet and leave this horrific mess in its place?” – deserve an honest answer.
We didn’t hate you, dear ones; we loved you. But we loved cheap energy more.
RON BISHOP, PH.D., is a lecturer at the State University College at Oneonta.