OPEN QUESTIONS AND OVERLOOKED REALITIES
WHICH SOURCE OF ENERGY CAUSES THE MOST DAMAGE TO THE ENVIRONMENT?
Its understandable that Americans believe coal and oil to be the most
environmentally damaging energy sources. Burning fuels in power plants, factories,
and vehicles leads to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Wind and solar
power, by contrast, seem more natural and therefore more environmentally
friendly. Hydropower appears to be the only renewable energy technology with
significant environmental drawbacks.
our unsafe sources of energy are getting safer. Legislation now
requires industries to limit pollutants, and research is under way to produce
a variety of clean coal technologies, which
are gaining in prevalence.
Clean coal is worth a closer look. A power plant burning coal or natural gas
may seem less environmentally friendly than the solar panels installed on a
buildings roof. But the power plant will provide power for an entire community,
not just one building. In fact, coal may be a key to saving the environment.
In his book An Inconvenient Truth, former vice president Al Gore states
that 30 percent of global carbon dioxide emissionsthe main greenhouse
gas associated with global warmingare a result of wood fires used for
cooking in parts of the world without access to electricity. Though Gore failed
to follow up on this point, Iain Murray of the Competitive Enterprise Institute
notes: If we introduced affordable, coal-fired power generation into South
Asia and Africa we could reduce this considerably and save over 1.6 million
lives a year. We might say the same for nuclear power. It produces no
gases suspected of causing global warming and no gases that could cause ground-level
ozone formation, smog, or acid rain.
DOES ENERGY EXPLORATION ENDANGER ALASKAN WILDLIFE?
Concerns about Alaskan wildlife have stalled proposals to exploit oil reserves
in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Memories of the 1989 Exxon Valdez
oil spill provide many conservationists with cause for worry.
Yet the experience of oil exploration at nearby Prudhoe Bay suggests that drilling
need not endanger wildlife. When oil exploration began in the 1970s, an estimated
3,000 caribou roamed in the central Arctic herd in Prudhoe Bay. At the time,
conservationists raised concerns, similar to those voiced today, about the dangers
that drilling might pose to the caribou and other wildlife. In the three decades
since, however, the caribou herds multiplied more than tenfold, to an estimated
32,000. Similarly, studies of local polar bears have found no adverse effect
on their population from energy exploration and production.
argument against opening a portion of the ANWR in Alaska to energy exploration
is that there is not enough oil in ANWR to make a difference, as
Congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) stated. How much is enough to make
a difference? The United States Geological Survey estimates that ANWR
holds 5.7 to 16 billion barrels of recoverable reserves, with a mean estimate
of 10.4 billion barrels. Those estimates, from over five years ago, assume the
use of older drilling technology. According to the House of Representatives
Committee on Resources, that mean estimate of 10.4 billion barrels is more
than twice the proven oil reserves in all of Texas
[and] almost half
of the total U.S. proven reserves of 21 billion barrels.
Former energy secretary Spencer Abraham notes that this figure could offset
seven years of oil imports from all of OPEC and nineteen years of oil imports
from Saudi Arabia.
Conservative estimates indicate that ANWR could produce one to 1.4 million
barrels of oil every day for thirty years. The United States consumes about
20 million barrels of oil each day, importing 12 million or so. ANWRs
expected minimum of a million barrels per day would seem to make enough of a
difference to be worth the effort. With existing domestic oil sources beginning
to wane, preventing exploration in ANWR and other areas is a potentially irresponsible