Repeat of Energy 106 & 107: A Dirty Little Secret

Ever hear of Liberty Utilities’ Granite Bridge pipeline project? It’s remarkably similar to all the other pipelines that have been proposed that web across the United States. It is promoted as a job creating, economic investment that will save money in the long run, and create a secure and dependable supply of fuel. The project would “bridge” two existing pipelines. By using existing infrastructure, it would lower environmental and private property impacts, and open the flow of lots of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). The pipeline would wind through New Hampshire to Epping, where it would be stored during low demand times for high demand times. Proponents state that natural gas is cheaper and cleaner than other fossil fuel options. It provides jobs, jobs, jobs, and lowers energy bills for some of us, for a little while, anyway. And it frees us from the shackles of our dependence on foreign oil. This is about energy security, not individuals. It will bolster our current energy infrastructure.

As with so much else in life, there are opposers of Granite Bridge. They are fire and brimstone against this project, and any other that has to do with LNG, fracking and its byproducts. They raise safety concerns: the myriad reports of leaks, explosions and earthquakes, the long term health of water, soil and humans and the toxicity of wastewater byproducts of this “cleanest of fossil fuels”. They point to the fact that, back in 2014, Rex Tillerson, CEO of pro-fracking Exxon, and then-House Majority Leader Dick Amey sued to stop fracking near their neighborhoods. And yet both men publicly and vehemently support/ed fracking, claiming it is a boost to the economy, and not dangerous to the health of people, water tables, and the environment. So why do they not want it near their homes?⁠1

Gas leaks: not if, but when? Not to mention earthquakes that have been on an uptick in parallel with fracking…

Interesting, too, that Liberty Utility has agreed to pay fines for not doing their required “due diligence” safety inspections on, at least, three occasions.⁠2 Truth be told, every company that’s applied for a pipeline has a history of leaks, of noncompliance to rules and laws, of paying violations so as not to attract attention.

And Liberty won’t guarantee that the towns affected by the building of the pipelines will have access to the gas.⁠3 More likely, it will be shipped abroad. Which counters their argument that the pipes are being built because we need the gas.

In an effort to be fair and balanced, bear in mind this fact: a tanker with LNG anchored outside of Boston this winter (2019) provided the Northeast with an extra boost of energy during high demand times, thus New Hampshire weathered the storms and cold without losing power.⁠4 Yet another example of the wonders and convenience of fossil fuels. Why bother to change? Why not stick with the old infrastructure? It’s so much easier and convenient.

The answer depends on if you want to include the climate crisis debate. If yes, then you need to factor this into the mix: if we use the oil and gas that’s already been dug up, we will push ourselves well over the edge of livable carbon levels. (Arguably we already have.) If that’s the case, we must leave what’s still in the ground, in the ground, and figure out a way to re-sequester all that carbon that’s getting released.

If, on the other hand, we don’t include the climate crisis debate? Fossil fuels are finite. On July 14, 2014, the British Petroleum company (BP) came out and admitted it: oil reserves will be used up in 50 years. BP said that five years ago. So if we are going to be out of oil reserves in 45 years, would it not behoove us to stop building fossil fuel driven infrastructure, and instead use what fossil fuels we have left to build and transition to a new infrastructure? Sort of like having American employees train-in their Chinese replacements prior to being fired. But in a good way.

One could point out that “oil reserves” are not “oil in the ground”. Just dig up more, right?

That brings us to our dirty little secret.

Roy Hopkins writes in his book Transition Handbook, that digging out the tar sands—from whence comes much of our fracked gas—is “akin to arriving at the pub to find that all the beer is off, but so desperate are you for a drink that you begin to fantasize that in the thirty years this pub has been open for business, the equivalent of 5,000 pints have been spilt on this carpet, so you design a process whereby you boil up the carpet in order to extract the beer again. It is the desperate, futile attempt of an alcoholic unable to imagine life without the object of his addiction⁠1 . . ..”

No doubt: Fracking is a cleaner fuel than coal and, perhaps, oil. It has facilitated an economic boom of sorts. But it is a temporary and environmentally devastating economic boom. It helps us deny the fact we have a full-on addiction to fossil fuels that is going to kill us if we don’t stop sucking on that old carpet.

Which brings us to this most foul and egregious fact: fracked gas isn’t cost effective. Nor is coal. Nor oil. Without subsidies, and if we include externalities, this is a very, very expensive addiction. In 2008, we spent over $1 trillion on fossil fuels, more than was spent on education or the military.⁠2

Polaroid and Kodak, in their day, were publicly traded and bigger than Mobil/Exxon is today. Polaroid and Kodak were as rock solid then as fossil fuel companies are now. Sales were going up. And stocks were going down.

Investors are herd animals. Three years before those rock solid camera companies blew up into nothing, investors were bailing out. Those companies had a volatile life. And then life changed. No more cameras. No more VHS. Enter iPhones. In 2005, Kodak was the largest digital camera retail in the US. In 2012 Kodak files for chapter 11 bankruptcy.⁠3

Energy is 20% of the global economy, and investors are beginning to shift their sights away from fossil fuels toward renewables. They are doing it, not for the sake of the environment, but for their profit margin. It is happening, despite the weather and the climate because it is uneconomic to carry on as we have been.

And so. On one hand, we have a wobbly grid and a growing demand for power to run our day to day lives. On the other hand, we have a lot of money going to what is looking more and more like a dying business model. Now what?

Years ago, in his book Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher wrote that humans are using nature as if it is income. “Fossil fuels are merely a part of the ‘natural capital’ which we steadfastly insist on treating as expendable, as if it were income, and by no means the most important part. If we squander our fossil fuels, we threaten civilization; but if we squander the capital represented by living nature around us, we threaten life itself.”⁠4

That book was first published in 1973, during the first Environmental movement that birthed the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), Earth Day (1970), the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972). Since then, the conservative rule of “Don’t sell your capital. Only use the income” has withered away. We have treated the earth as capital, not income. And now we have to figure out the answer to this question: What now?

Let’s consider nuclear energy.

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1 The Transition Handbook, by Roy Hopkins, p 24.

2 https://environmentamerica.org/news/ame/dependence-big-oil-dirty-coal-could-cost-us-30-trillion-2030

3 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/analysis-and-features/the-moment-it-all-went-wrong-for-kodak-6292212.html

4 Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher page 17

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1 http://www.newsinferno.com/pro-fracking-exxon-ceo-sues-to-stop-fracking-near-his-5m-ranch/

2 https://www.seacoastonline.com/news/20180808/bia-endorses-granite-bridge-pipeline-project

3 https://www.nhpr.org/post/proposed-granite-bridge-pipeline-draws-supporters-and-skeptics-manchester#stream/0

4 https://www.clf.org/blog/frigid-temperatures-not-a-problem-in-new-england/