by Gerald B. Ansell

Note: Italicized words refer to sustainability policy nomenclature described by Professor John Ehrenfeld in “Sustainability by Design.”

So many realists and environmental activists who truly care about where our precious and uniquely supportive planet appears to be heading feel enormous disappointment at what was achieved in Copenhagen in December 2009, especially since this was a seemingly logical follow-up to the early 1990’s Kyoto agreements. Within an estimated plus or minus 5-10 years, it is reliably and geologically estimated that Peak Oil Production may have already passed the world by. Disturbingly, the Copenhagen Conference followed less than 18 months after 2008′s meteoric rise and subsequent subsidence of crude oil prices. Even more disturbing is the number of supposedly scientifically-based sustainable energy policy-related editorials that continue to flood the world’s newspapers, magazines and professional scientific journals. Frequently, authors with few scientific credentials utilize only a carefully selected portion of energy-related databases to present self-serving, unsustainable and non-flourishing energy policies. They masquerade under headings such as: “We’ve Got Plenty of Oil,” “Americans are Really Weaning Themselves off Oil,” “Without Nuclear Alternative Energy is Tilting at Windmills,” “The Facts About Clean Burning Natural Gas” and the highly touted Boone Pickens Windmill/Natural Gas Plan. They usually only support short-term financial concerns, political leanings or hopes of gaining funding from agenda-based sources such as the oil industry, the mining/drilling interests, the nuclear power lobby, etc. They present temporary fixes and rarely address mankind’s energy wants as opposed to the global ecology’s true energy needs. Because of New Mexico’s unique agricultural, mining, ranching, sunny climate, limited water supply, spectacular but fragile scenic beauties, etc., state policy is usually directly or indirectly affected by the vast majority of such fabrications.

Among these short-term energy-supply fixes are proposals dealing with:

Oil Shale/Tar Sands/Natural Gas – Huge deposits of all three are found in Colorado, Utah and NM, as well as short-term commercially viable quantities here in NM. Interestingly, even Exxon lost interest in Colorado’s oil shale deposits during the early 1980’s after spending untold millions on exploration and feasibility research. Several well-qualified university professors who profess to teach accredited courses in sustainable energy policy are scientifically correct in stating that the North American (Alberta, Colorado, Utah), Alaskan, Gulf Coast and Western Interior deposits of tar sand/oil shale and natural gas hold between 800 billion and 1 trillion barrels of oil, more than is present in the entire Middle East. It’s even scientifically correct that the oil is recoverable. However, few ever discuss the horrific and irreversible environmental toll when extracting/producing oil from these sources. Luckily, one so far rejected proposal was to melt oil out of the rocks with the heat generated by underground nuclear explosions. Another proposal requires burning a portion of the excavated shale to melt out the oil from the remainder. Yet another necessitates extraction from the crushed/mined ore with water/solvents. The Fort McMurray/Athabasca River, Alberta (the size of Florida) shale/tar sand region is currently being fully exploited to produce oil by non-nuclear processes. After only a few years there are hideous scars on the land, poisoned rivers and blowing sand caused by the excavations. Smokestacks from the crackers belch forth steam, sulfur dioxide and petroleum fumes. Serious illnesses such as lung, colon, bladder, bile duct and prostate cancers have been increasingly recorded at the nearby Ford Chips Health Clinic. Each barrel of oil produced generates two barrels of toxic waste, and the refining process releases up to 80% more CO2 into the atmosphere than conventional refining. These environmental negatives and long-term environmental disasters only scratch the surface of problems accompanying these energy resources. Already one of Alberta’s unique transcontinental bird migratory regions has been virtually destroyed. Do we really want such long-term environmental devastation in the Southwest?

Coal (so-called clean burning or otherwise) and CO2 Sequestration - Utah and Colorado are heavily into coal mining and burning. The negative environmental effects resulting from their coal-related business policies directly affect us, their neighbors. Numerous examples of unscientifically based and harmful proposals may be found supporting this widely available and currently utilized energy source. The proposals for “clean burning coal” and “CO2 sequestration” are scientifically incorrect and thermodynamically unsound.

Probably the most preposterous sequestration plan comes from an Ivy League professor who proposes to develop energy-utilizing, manufactured chemical-rich CO2 absorbing towers that are touted as substitutes for trees. An article entitled “Clean Coal Most Viable Option” calls for the sequestration of billions of tons of gaseous carbon dioxide in underground caverns or partially empty underground oilfields. Open-cast/pit mining for coal permanently damages the Earth’s surface and ecology. It’s transported by train to distant power stations, which requires vast amounts of energy even before its combustion for energy release. Chemistry 101 tells us that during the burning process, 12 million tons of coal (essentially carbon) require 32 million tons of atmospheric oxygen to generate 44 million tons of gaseous carbon dioxide. Most coal burning power plants are hundreds of miles away from half-empty oil-well/underground caverns for sequestering the generated CO2. Result: more transportation of close to four times the weight of gaseous CO2 to the burial sites. To add to the misery, gaseous carbon dioxide has the irritating habit of being able to diffuse out of underground caverns and oil wells back into the Earth’s already heavily polluted atmosphere.

Rarely mentioned, but sadly, even the cleanest coal contains poisonous contaminants such as mercury, antimony, sulfur, and selenium, which either have to be removed after combustion or released into the Earth’s already polluted atmosphere. Millions of tons of highly undesirable particulate fly ash from coal burning plants also have to find a new home. On the positive side, however, a small percentage does get utilized to make cement building blocks.

In short, so-called “clean coal” is not even remotely a viable or sustainable energy option. Remember the 2008 Olympics? In China, particulate emissions from coal-fired plants block the sun and pollute the air they (and ultimately we all) breathe. A chilling message about the effects of human-generated particulates in the atmosphere is found in PBS’s “Dimming the Sun.” It scientifically explains how the particulates are already reducing the amount of the Sun’s energy bathing the Earth daily. Its conclusions spell out the hideous consequences should mankind rely upon the above two energy sources for our ever-increasing energy demands.

Nuclear Power Generation - New Mexico was and still is a major font of knowledge, science and research related to both nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Many authors, in addition to some of our 2008 Presidential and 2010 Congressional candidates, advocate building up to 240 1,500-megawatt nuclear powered electricity plants. Engineering-wise and scientifically their suggestions could probably be achieved even safely as far as construction and operation is concerned. However, rarely mentioned is that still the FACT that most of the spent nuclear fuel-rods from our current nuclear power stations continue to be stored on site because there is nowhere else to store or process them. The state of Nevada has very bluntly said, “not in my Yucca Mountain backyard.” Consequently, that site’s opening seems now to be postponed for the foreseeable future. Uranium ores are also finite. Mining them has a disastrous environmental history. Ask NM’s Navajo Indians, who still suffer from the 1950s mining operations. Further research and engineering might eventually solve the ongoing mining, spent-fuel-rod storage and recycling problems. For the safety of the planet, it seems prudent to actually solve them before the US and the world constructs hundreds more nuclear generators.

Non-thermodynamically-based energy conservation data – Many of the above-mentioned energy source advocates claim that Americans are really weaning themselves off oil. Their argument: Current data indicates that the US consumes about 21 million barrels of oil a day compared to about the same amount during the mid-1970s. During this time-period the population has increased by 75 million, indicating that on average, each person is using less oil. In reality this indicates that America (the country of), is not weaning itself off oil. Most of the claimed personal consumption improvements have in fact only been induced by mandated regulations such as mileage efficiencies for vehicles, more home insulation etc., etc., and during the summer and fall of 2008 by huge fuel price increases. As a growing, consuming and “want-want-want” nation, we haven’t scratched the surface of reducing unsustainable oil/coal/natural-gas/materials consumption by efficient energy usage.

In their infancy are energy needs solutions such as:

More public transport systems within and between cities

The use of sustainable electricity sources from wind and sun

Manufacturing biofuels from cellulose sources

Providing the necessary energy and fertilizers for biofuel production from sustainable sources

Zero-energy housing, fuel-efficient speed limits, more recycling

Changes in the workweek to 4 days

Reducing late night opening of shops & malls to 3-4 days a week instead of 7, etc.

Europe is way ahead of us in all of these socially responsible energy/materials/ conservation areas. Could this be because they accept that they need to pay higher and economically realistic prices for their energy? We here in NM could easily contribute to all of above solutions with minimal personal discomfort.

Energy Supply – A scientific reality check – If the geologists, materials and nuclear scientists who wrote these articles were truly objective, they would present the scientifically based downsides briefly outlined above. In mankind’s increasingly precipitous descent into global crises, scientists and their representative organizations have social obligations. These require objectively informing the public and sustainable energy research funding agencies of the long-term consequences and true financial cost of a) extracting oil/natural gas/coal/nuclear fuel from apparently lucrative sources and b) the long-term chemical and physical effects these energy producers pose to the Earth’s eco-component’s (plants, animals, humans, fresh water/food supply, unpolluted air, etc) ability to flourish. In this analytical mode, the increasingly rare objective members of the world’s scientific communities are not liberal, conservative, “neocon,” tree hugger, Democrat, Republican, Christian, Moslem, Jew or other epithet that gets constantly thrown at them. They are only considering the relevant thermodynamically based Scientific Facts and Laws. These are few and astonishingly simple to comprehend. Some are:

1. The Most Important: When used for energy supply, 12 tons of coal (essentially carbon, atomic weight 12) require 32 tons of oxygen (molecular weight 32) and release 44 tons of gaseous CO2 (molecular weight, 44) into the atmosphere. Using similar molecular/atomic weight considerations, one ton of oil and so-called “clean burning” natural gas releases about two or more tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

2. There is increasing and irrefutable evidence, both here in the Southwest and globally, that mankind’s ever-increasing use of these non-sustainable energy and mineral sources is rapidly changing the Earth’s atmosphere and water supply. This decreases the ability of our ever-increasing population to flourish.

3. The Earth’s diminishing reserves of energy releasing coal, oil, gas and consumable minerals were created at least 350 million years ago. The stored energy within them was derived from the Sun (solar energy), and originally trapped/deposited over millions of years utilizing mainly plant-based photosynthetic-processes. Their physical states and locations were determined by Sun powered global climatic changes, volcanic activity, oceanic changes, Earth tectonic plate movements, etc. They currently reside either below or on Earth’s land and oceanic surfaces – many of them right here in the Southwest. When they remain there, the Earth’s essential eco-components appear able co-exist or flourish into the foreseeable future.

4. It would take an equal number of millions of years and solar energy supply to replenish these rapidly depleting energy bearing and mineral deposits by the same processes.

5. All the non-sustainable energy sources and minerals mined, extracted and utilized for human consumption are FINITE. Ultimately, mankind will exhaust ALL of them unless we develop truly sustainable energy sources and recycle materials to support our chosen lifestyles.

6. The population of the planet is increasing. If unchecked it will require more and more energy and materials. Like the facts above, this reality requires scientific and even deeper moral questioning. Only China has ever really tried to face-up to them. At the moment, even their fix does not appear to be providing a flourishing solution. Ultimately, over-population is probably the world’s greatest social, physical and moral dilemma. It’s far, far more complex and difficult than the supply of energy, food, materials and goods.

7. Energy policymakers and suppliers need to comprehend that these LAWS OF NATURE do not give one hoot about the wants or needs of mankind. These laws are “The Uncomfortable Reality” governing how we WILL get our energy in a sustainable fashion and are NOT unfortunately the slightest bit SUBJECTED to mankind’s current energy needs, economics, supplies of energetic materials, political views etc.

Adaptive governmental and personal policies appear to provide the most viable and immediate energy supply/usage options for mankind to flourish alongside our eco-partners. The most obvious require MASSIVE INSTITUTIONAL and PERSONAL CONSERVATION measures (no new technology needed). We can all start TODAY. A hard, moralistic evaluation of the energy demands by a burgeoning world population cannot be put off either.

On the positive side, everyday our very good friend the Sun bathes the Earth with enough radiant energy to generate more electricity and heat than all of us greedy, energy consuming little humans could ever imagine utilizing. Currently, and especially here in sunny NM and the Southwest, we have moderately efficient, further developable technologies such as photovoltaic cells, passive solar heaters, windmills, biofuel capabilities, tidal devices, etc. to trap, collect, distribute and utilize this free energy. In the long run they are more economical and eco-friendly than the processes currently used to generate the unsustainable energy sources we needlessly consume. Our local and world leaders, researchers, energy producers and consumers must eventually understand these issues and initiate a global effort to harness this free energy source, and concurrently, curtail the use of unsustainable energy sources. Let the world’s developed nations (and especially us in the Southwest) demonstrate how to harness our daily free energy gift while cleaning up the atmosphere, reducing global warming and removing the need for distant foreign energy suppliers. This could allow every nation to eliminate their damaging import/export deficits, thereby creating more ways of flourishing within closer vicinity of existing population centers. The time is NOW. In a few years it may well be too late for mankind to flourish on this suffering planet.

Gerald B. Ansell, Ph.D., was an Analytical Chemistry Group Leader/Practicing Chemist/Program Manager at Los Alamos National Laboratory (1996-2005). Before joining LANL, he was Assistant to the Director of the Center for Bio-catalysis and Bioprocessing at the University of Iowa, Technical Director of the Center for Materials Research at Stanford University, a Research Scientist with the U.S. Navy, a Research Associate/Group Leader with Exxon Research and Engineering, and a science and mathematics lecturer at London University, Oxford. Ansell is currently a sustainable energy technology and policy consultant residing in Los Alamos, NM. Contact 505.412.9334 or email gbansell@hotmail.com.