SUMMARY
INTRODUCTION

ENERGY MYTHS

ENVIRONMENTAL MYTHS

OPEN QUESTIONS AND OVERLOOKED REALITIES

POLICY IMPLICATIONS
APPENDIX


 

 

 

 

OPEN QUESTIONS AND OVERLOOKED REALITIES

WHICH SOURCE OF ENERGY CAUSES THE MOST DAMAGE TO THE ENVIRONMENT?

It’s 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.

But 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,”[27] 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 building’s 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 emissions—the main greenhouse gas associated with global warming—are 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.[28]

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.

Another 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.”[29] 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.”[30]

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. ANWR’s 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 policy move.


 

 

ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT: MYTHS AND FACTS

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Clarice Smith
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Copyright The Manhattan Institute 2007