Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Fools rush in

Skyrocketing fuel prices? Dig up the oil sands in Canada! Skyrocketing food prices? Tear out the Amazon rainforest for agricultural use!

Seemingly easy solutions like these are awful tempting when we're faced with ever increasingly daunting challenges in the world. A global food crisis is at hand (or already in progress, depending on how you look at it), and we're all feeling the pinch at the gas pumps. But is more really the answer? And more important, is easy really better?

An argument can be made for the former question--increased efficiency, better technology and new sources may help us increase food and fuel production without overwhelmingly negative consequences--but as for the latter, it's not likely.

Dan Gunderson, in an editorial for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, argues that we need to up production in places like Alberta, Canada where vast oil sand reserves live:
While "renewability" is an important factor in our future energy choices, reliability is also essential. Contrary to popular perception, world oil and gas reserves remain abundant. But the lack of access to these reserves is a primary limiting factor in our domestic energy supply.

More than 20 years of ill-considered public policy that restricted access to government lands or prohibited exploration activities has led to higher prices and a significant tightening in current global energy supplies.


Not everyone understands that the oil sands and other petroleum resources found in places like Canada increase U.S. energy reliability and security. Some people even suggest that we can simply eliminate petroleum from the American way of life and the economy will continue to grow and create jobs and the promise of a better quality of life for future generations. These folks, it seems, would simply turn 300 million automobiles into so many lawn ornaments, eliminate millions of jobs, do without valuable products, and use the bicycles that the Chinese and Indian people are so eager to abandon.
While I agree that we can't afford to simply and immediately eliminate all petroleum from our lives, to reach the important long-term goal of at least mostly phasing out its use we must think long-term.

Oil sands production and refining is extremely energy intensive, requiring a great deal of natural gas and water. Natural gas production in Alberta has apparently already peaked, and any increase in oil sands production is likely to accompany a reduction in natural gas imports to the United States. Not a great outcome. Plus, oil sands extraction is "generally held to be more environmentally damaging than conventional crude oil - carbon dioxide emissions, for example, are roughly three to five times greater with tar sands extraction." Plus, digging up huge swaths of land, in this case Boreal Forest, is very likely to cause irreversible damage to the ecosystem.

What's important is that we increase the efficiency and safety standards for current production sites while also working hard to create and improve more sustainable, renewable sources of energy. These new sources, like any new market, will help to create a great number of new jobs, many of which aren't likely to require a great deal of retraining for workers already skilled at jobs in existing energy fields. The trick in all of this, of course, is doing our best to make the transition as smooth as possible. Kinks will be inevitable, but certainly human ingenuity can help to minimize their impact and maximize the positive results.

Plowing ahead with the same old methods without thinking through their long-term effects and consequences is what got us into our current mess. Why repeat the same old mistakes?

Under the guise of growing a more en vogue crop, that's exactly what Blairo Maggi, the governor of Brazil's chief soy-producing state, would have us do. Now, I'm a huge fan of soy--as a vegetarian, it's probably my largest food group. But we don't need to plow under the Amazon rainforest to grow it. Maggi, however, seems to think otherwise:
"With the worsening of the global food crisis, the time is coming when it will be inevitable to discuss whether we preserve the environment or produce more food. There is no way to produce more food without occupying more land and taking down more trees," Maggi told Folha de Sao Paulo. "In this moment of crisis, the world needs to understand that the country has space to raise its production."

He's right on the last count, but the country has space outside of the rainforest to raise its production. This according to their own government officials:
Still, Brazilian government officials maintain that agricultural expansion need not come at the expense of the Amazon rainforest. In January Brazilian Agriculture Minister Reinhold Stephanes told Reuters that outside the Amazon, Brazil has 100 million hectares of land available for cultivation, including 50 million hectares of degraded pasture land and 50 million hectares of cerrado, a grassland ecosystem bordering the Amazon rainforest.

So why on Earth would you choose to destroy one of the world's most valuable and fragile resources instead? The soil in the rainforest is extremely bad for agricultural uses. "The soil in the rainforest is very fertile but only the top few inches and only while the rainforest itself is left in place. If you take away the rainforest, the soil itself is not very good at all. The soil's fertility derives from the intense biological activity in the rainforest. This activity is so rapid that biomass from dead plants is recycled and the nutrients made again available in a matter of weeks." Once you clear all of the flora that sustains this cycle, the land begins to erode and degrade at a rapid pace.

Plus, undisturbed rainforests (of which there are few, if any, left) help maintain a worldwide balance between oxygen output and carbon dioxide intake. Greater rates of tree felling and organic decomposition lead to far greater amounts of carbon dioxide being released into the air, as does burning large swaths of the forest. And the repercussions wouldn't end there.

Fact is, we need to apply our vast cerebral and monetary resources to developing and improving more sustainable, more long-term productive methods of fuel and food production. This is possible. It already exists. All that seems to be lacking is education and willpower.

(photo credits here and here, h/t John A. for the subject)

1 comment:

Pilot said...

The Rocky Mountain Institute has some pretty good stuff to say about efficient design being more cost effective in the long run. They recently published a report called Winning the Oil Endgame that's worth taking a look at.

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