A regular reader writes in to protest my assertion that America now has enough proven fossil fuel reserves to last for centuries, warning “Fracking technology isn’t sustainable.”
Does “unsustainable” merely mean “bad”?
We know where the term came from. Demonstrating the genius of central planning, when the Soviets in the 1950s and 1960s decided they had better uses (cotton production) for the river water flowing into the landlocked Sea of Aral, and proceeded to divert the rivers, the results for the Sea of Aral proved “unsustainable,” in the sense that the sea is now more of a saline puddle, while the ships that once sailed her now sit rusting on salt flats, miles from any water.
So: Does this mean if anything is held to be “unsustainable,” we should stop doing it?
Are your respiratory and digestive processes “sustainable”? It depends on your time frame. As marvelous as the human body is, it is impermanent. Some time in the next 20 to 80 years, most of us face a future in which those functions will cease. They are “non-sustainable.”
But that doesn’t mean I intend to stop either eating or breathing tomorrow, or next week, just because we’ve decided they’re “unsuatainable” in the long term.
Similarly, continuing to use petroleum in all the thousands of ways that have enriched our lives may be a perfectly rational decision.
Petroleum replaced whale oil, I’m glad it did, and something will some day replace petroleum — by being better and cheaper.
Wind and solar energy-generating technologies are those “sustainable” replacements, we’re told, since the sun will shine and the winds will blow pretty much forever. Fossil fuel technologies, on the other hand, are “unsustainable,” since someday we’re going to run out of coal, oil, and natural gas, and then where will we be?
Therefore, we should immediately shift to the “sustainable” technologies, since “sustainable” means “good.” Right?
While — within the time frame of human planning — the winds will blow and the sun will shine “forever,” a mistake was made, about three paragraphs back, when we thus concluded current wind and solar technologies are more sustainable than fossil fuel technologies.
In fact, we’ve been pumping oil out of the ground for nearly 150 years, and digging and burning coal for a lot longer, and far from running out as Paul Ehrlich and the Malthusians keep predicting, we keep finding more of the stuff, as well as less polluting ways to use it.
On the other hand, commercial solar and especially wind-turbine generators have been around for less than 40 years, and already thousands of windmills stand idle all over the place, especially in Hawaii and California.
Why? Windmills kill lots of birds and bats. They require quick-start backup natural-gas fired generators, without which they can’t be connected to any power grid. And beyond that, it seldom pays to repair their generators, which (as it turns out) last only half as long as manufacturers estimated. Once we repeal current mandates that require power companies to buy fixed amounts of overpriced power from such sources, their “sustainability” will be measured in hours.
Now, what about extracting oil with shale fracture technology?
The main concern is that aquifers between the surface and the oil layers could be polluted by fracking liquids. That’s a legitimate concern — though you’ll pardon my skepticism of sources that also oppose every other form of petroleum extraction and power generation.
Furthermore, if your fracking fluid contains benzene and you spill it in a cow pasture, you can expect to see some dead cows.
But planes and automobiles kill thousands of people (not just a few cows) every year, and they’re not banned.
There’s relatively safe nuclear power, and then there are Russian nuclear submarines. Everything has risks, and free-market technology has proved pretty good at mitigating risks. The question is who can be trusted to impose sensible regulation. I don’t know. But fracking isn’t going away. We can solve the problems, or we can let others do so, and eventually let them dictate terms for their imported oil if we don’t want to freeze in the dark.
The fact remains, an oil industry that’s about to celebrate its 150th anniversary, that still powers the world, and that shows good prospects for the next 150 years, is far more “sustainable” than current wind and solar.
And if you don’t believe it, I’ll be happy to take any shares you currently own in Exxon Mobil, Conoco, and Chevron, and pay you for them at the current value of shares in such heavily government subsidized outfits as Solyndra, Fisker Automotive, A123 Systems …
Vin Suprynowicz, an editorial writer at the Review-Journal, is author of “Send in the Waco Killers” and the novel “The Black Arrow.” See www.vinsuprynowicz.com.