September 17, 2012

The Economy, Energy Consumption, and Upcycling: The Hydrocarbon Stranglehold on our Economy

Last month, we made connections.  We talked about the ways that hydrocarbon dominates our economy, but we just barely scratched the surface.  This month we are going to really examine how dependent our current system is on fossil fuels, and all of the damage this dependence is doing to our precious Earth.

The Fossil Fuel Dilemma

Last month's article focused on oil, but that isn't the only fossil fuel we are dependent on.  Coal and natural gas are also large parts of our economy, and sources of energy, and this is the dilema.  So let's take a look at those, and see how they are important.

Coal and natural gas are both important in the production of electricity.  According to the US Energy Information Administration (the EIA going forward), coal led the way in the production of electricity, with natural gas a close second, and nuclear in third place.

Graph taken from the EIA's website provided in the link above.

Coal is also important in the production of steel and iron.  Coking coal is used to heat steel and remove impurities.  The World Coal Association says that 70% of all steel is produced using coke.  The other 30% is produced using an electric oven to melt the steel, but that takes a lot of juice, and there is about a 40% chance that the juice is being supplied by a coal-fired power station.

You can see that very little oil is used to produce electricity.  Most oil is used for transportation, in the form of fuel.  The US Energy Information Administration says 4.6% of all petroleum was used to produce many everyday products.

Only 12.7% of all electricity produced came from renewables.  While those are better numbers than we have traditionally seen, that leaves a lot of room for improvement.  However, most of this renewable energy is from hydro.  Unfortunately, we really don't have room for another Hover Dam, and even attempting something similar to it would have devastating effects on the local ecology.  So with so little of our energy coming from renewables, how much damage is this doing to the environment?

Environmental Impacts

The environmental impacts of all fossil fuels are devastating.  It is common knowledge that they are all responsible for air and land pollution, water pollution, and destruction of ecosystems.  This is the nature of fossil fuels.  

Mining has always been a dirty business, but let's look at the methods used to extract coal, oil, and natural gas.  While they all pollute the land, air, water, and destroy ecosystems, they also all have their own unique atrocities associated with them.

Coal is mined using two methods.  One is the traditional method of boring into the mountain, and then removing the coal from the seams.  The other is mountain top removal mining.  This is exactly what it sounds like.  They blast up to 800 ft. off of the top of the mountain.  They then remove the pieces, called "overburden", and harvest the freshly exposed coal.  In places like Appalachia, where there were no glaciers, that top soil they are removing is over 10,000 years old.  The coal companies will put top soil back on the mountain, and attempt to regrow vegetation after they are done harvesting the coal, but it is never the same, and you can't replace 10,000 year old top soil, and it doesn't replace the 800 ft. taken off of the mountain that took millions of years to form.

Not only is there deforestation, and damage to the top soil, but they dump the overburden into valleys, which pollutes the water supply and destroys entire ecosystems.  This type of mining only accounts for 5% of coal in the US, but in Appalachia, it is closer to 30%.  The coal companies are tearing through these mountains at an alarming rate, and only for the sake of their profit margin.  It absolutely needs to be banned.  They do not need to use this method to harvest coal.  There is plenty of coal to be had without mining in such a disastrous way.  They do it because it is cheap.  And the result?  Well, it looks like this...

Another particularly damaging aspect of coal is the soot produced when burned.  It is by far the dirtiest form of electricity production.  It causes smog, air pollution and acid rain.  There were 594 operating coal plants in the US in 2009, according to the EIA.

We have all seen the images of oil spills.  Exxon, the BP spill in the gulf, the list goes on and on.  The damage to the wildlife is obvious, and it goes beyond just the initial contact, because there is no getting that oil out of the water.  Yes, they release Corexit, a chemical that makes the oil sink to the bottom of the ocean, but that isn't a good solution either, because it will take the oil longer to degrade on the bottom than it would on the surface.  It is too cold, and oil degrades faster in heat.  The Exxon Valdez tanker crashed about 23 years ago, and they are still finding oil on the shores of Prince William Sound, Alaska.  Proving that the damage done by a spill lasts for decades.  It doesn't stay in the ocean either.  That oil washes up on the shores and destroys plant life, and an entire food chain for the region's wildlife.

Natural gas is the new green, as far as energy goes.  It burns cleaner, and is supposed to be better for the environment, but is it really?  You hear a lot of noise about how it poisons aquifers and things like that.  I think that is because they use hot water, sand, and toxic chemicals to open the shale, but if it is done correctly, that will be sealed in, and unable to reach the aquifer.  The real danger here is the fluids that come back up during the hydrofracturing process.  In many states that lack a long history of oil production, an operator can dump that waste wherever they want, because there are no regulations on how they must dispose of it.  That is the biggest environmental danger to hydro fracking.

There is some evidence that hydro fraction will cause small earthquakes.  Although unsettling, these earthquakes have not been large enough to cause any serious damage.

Now before you go jumping on the natural gas bandwagon too, remember that this is not a solution.  Like any other fossil fuel, the supply is finite.  Think of this as more of a ten year band aid, because at best, that is what it would be.

Economic Factors

The bottom line is everything in our economy is dependent on one fossil fuel or another.  Production requires electricity of some sort, even if it is just to keep the lights on.  The raw materials used derive from a fossil fuel are found in thousands of household items, or in the case of steel and iron, vital to its production.  And the transportation of goods always requires oil.

Fossil fuels control the means of production, and as such, have a complete stranglehold on our economy.  If any one of the fossil fuels supply is threatened, you will see a change in production.  Production is not controlled by an agency, like we have been led to believe, but by the amount of resources available to us.  Until we realize that the world is finite, and as such, infinite growth in a finite world is a ridiculous idea, we are dancing with danger.  We need a new approach, and we need to be prepared for the damage we have already done.  Melting ice caps and steadily increasing temperatures are not things to be ignored.

But, in order to address these issues, we need to change our approach to money and the economy that is driven by it.  We need to move away from this consumeristic economy, where we just take and take and take, trying to keep up with the Joneses.  We are all trying to get the largest part of the pie.  We feel entitled to it, when really we are only entitled to what we need, because that is what everyone else needs too.  Only by living with only what we need, sacrificing unnecessary luxuries, like Escalades and Swiss bank accounts, and expanding the very simple luxuries, like indoor plumbing, water that likely won't infect you with a virus, and a food supply, will we really understand how to live in harmony with the Earth.

Next month, we will talk about what this means for future generations, and the problems they will face if we don't turn our thinking toward cleaner and sustainable energy sources.  We will also discuss how viable each are, and what fossil fuel it could help to replace.

Peace and Love,



  1. Very insightful article. We do need to change our approach. We take so many things for granted...including our wildlife that we share this plant with. Think about how ecosystems are killed by just removing the mountains top soil. Ugh! They could never grow it back or replace it. Some days I am sad to be a greedy human. We have destroyed the balance on this beautiful Earth. Looking forward to next months post.

  2. Thank you Bee. It is true. I am going to borrow a quote, but it is one of my favorites. I think it speaks a lot of truth:

    So bleak is the picture... that the bulldozer and not the atomic bomb may turn out to be the most destructive invention of the 20th century. ~Philip Shabecoff, New York Times Magazine, 4 June 1978