The Rising Cost of Fossil Fuels
When looking at the modern clean energy versus fossil fuel debate in the United States, the argument for fossil fuel has always rested on its cost-effectiveness and multiple uses. Most of us are familiar with the statistics. Roughly 98 percent of automobile-driving Americans own cars that utilize gasoline. For the few who own electric cars, they most likely charge their vehicles with electricity that comes from a coal power plant. In the year 2010, it is difficult to live a life that is disconnected from harmful pollution.
The best arguments for clean energy are that it creates new jobs in a growing industry and that fossil fuels generate massive amounts of pollution with all sorts of short- and long-term consequences. But right now, there is simply no true replacement for fossil fuel. Cleaner energies can act as supplements to the larger energy picture, but current technology allows nothing more at this time.
Additionally, fossil fuels are becoming more rare and more expensive to extract, refine and transport. In my favorite movie, There Will Be Blood, a character portrait set at the turn of the 20th century in the infancy of oil exploration, the main character, finds a successful oil strike in 1911. He marvels at the "whole ocean of oil" beneath his feet, hires a few dozen hardworking men, flashes some sharp business acumen and by the end of the movie, leads a financially successful, if also violently misanthropic, life. Those days are long gone. Oil exploration expeditions are now billion-dollar operations, employing hundreds of geologists, engineers and chemists. They use increasingly sophisticated technology to drill deeper and accurately predict where oil can be found.
However, there is less oil in the Earth now than there was in 1911. It takes eons to form oil, but only a century or two of humanity to deplete the world of it. Major companies like Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell are investing more into exploration because there is less petroleum to go around. In search of more oil, drilling operations are increasingly encroaching into environmentally sensitive areas. Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama opened more areas to offshore drilling along selected parts of the East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, pleasing oil companies but infuriating environmentalists. Fossil fuel companies are also drilling and mining in more dangerous areas, posing more risks to their generally blue-collar employees. These challenges are all converging as energy demand continues to rise.
These fossil fuel issues were thrust into the international spotlight last week in two separate incidents. On April 3, a Chinese coal freighter strayed seven miles off course and slammed into the Great Barrier Reef, one of the most pristine natural environments on Earth. In addition to its cargo, the freighter had 1,075 tons of bunker fuel on board. The impact of this incident could be devastating. If the freighter's fuel leaks out (which is a likely possibility), a sizable part of the reef would be contaminated. If the ship completely disintegrates (unlikely but not impossible), the reef and seafloor would be littered with 72,000 tons of coal. China is the world's largest consumer of coal, which it needs to fuel its continued economic growth and development.
On April 5, a mine explosion in West Virginia took the lives of 12 miners. Mining accidents are frequently fatal because they take place in low-oxygen environments that are also miles underground. Coal mining is not as dangerous as it used to be. In 1907, there were 3,242 mining deaths in the United States. In 2009, there were 35 deaths. Nonetheless, coal mining is still one of the most hazardous jobs in the world. Unfortunately, demand is not going down anytime soon, and firms will continue to take more risks in order to extract coal. Miners are not the only people who pay the price. Extraction techniques like mountaintop removal--which is exactly what it sounds like, involving explosives--pollute local water supplies and disperse carcinogenic dust into the air.
People in the United States and other nations are used to a certain quality of life that is powered by energy. The price of this life might be measured by the gallon, but it is paid in numerous and often tragic ways.