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Saving The Planet To Death
“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” - (attributed to) Albert Einstein
Extracting, processing, and using fossil fuels for electricity, transportation and industrial processes takes a toll on land and water. An entire industry of environmental engineers, scientists, consultants, contractors and supporting professionals have spent the last 50 years investigating and cleaning up many of the worst of these excesses.
The developed world recognized the consequences of oil production and consumption and passed legislation to clean up the worst impacts in the second half of the twentieth century. In America, while we were soiling the environment with our insatiable fossil fuel thirst, something else was happening concurrently. We conserved over 850 million acres of federal and state lands (National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, National Forests, State Forests and Wildlife Management Areas, etc.). Another 200 million acres were preserved through privately funded conservations efforts. In total, over a billion acres have been conserved.
Consider these American conservation success stories:
Most of the world is focused on the affordability, availability and reliability of electricity and transportation fuels in the forced transition to “renewable energy”. But the impacts on the actual environment, wildlife and ecosystems are significant, and growing. Often the worst of these are far away from the urban centers in the world’s advanced nations, where the policies that birthed them are most popular yet the consequences least understood.
Peter Huber’s outstanding book Hard Green: Saving The Environment From The Environmentalists A Conservative Manifesto made the case that modern environmentalism does not save the environment. Written in 2000, before the descent into utter climate change madness, Huber argues the “soft green” environmentalist establishment (at its writing, the emerging shoots of today’s climate-industrial complex) destroys more of the environment than it helps. He cogently argues for a return to old-school conservationism: setting aside massive amounts of land in the Theodore Roosevelt tradition as the best way to protect the environment, wildlife, and ecosystems.
Regardless of your views on reducing CO2 emissions and the potential threat of climate change, conserving large open spaces benefits not only wildlife but critical ecosystem services that support human life.
Aside from providing habitat, conservation lands protect surface water, provide aquifer filtration, recharge, and storage of groundwater, sequester carbon and build nutrients in soil, reduce soil erosion and resulting sedimentation of surface waters, and a host of other vital services. It may come as a shock to urban,
regressive “progressive” environmentalists, but losing these habitats and their ecosystem services to energy production is the same whether caused by biofuels (ethanol), wind, solar, coal, oil, natural gas, hydropower, or nuclear.
Physics does not yield to green ideology. Its laws regarding energy density dictate massive amounts of land use changes will be required for wind, solar, “biomass” and any expansion of hydroelectric projects to attempt to eliminate fossil fuels. The graph below is one visualization of how much more land area is required to generate a given amount of electricity due to differences between diffuse and dense energy sources.
Even with nuclear energy playing a leading role in electricity generation (not likely any time soon, thanks in part to “environmentalists”), few people appreciate the sheer scale of the land required by the drive to “net zero” using the presently available technologies. Electricity generation will be an enormously heavy lift. Transportation fuels will be much harder.
A 2021 Bloomberg New Energy Finance article provides helpful visualizations and relevant estimates. According to Bloomberg NEF’s calculations, the U.S. uses around 81 million acres to provide for its energy needs (and present living standards). Biofuels consume >50 million acres or >60% of that area.
Most people mistakenly presume fracking has an enormous land footprint. But the Bloomberg NEF analysis shows that all U.S. oil and gas drilling, fracking, and sand mining operations impact only 3 million of the 81 million acres (<4%).
Adding the acreage containing coal mining, transport and waste storage operations plus fossil-fuel power plants brings the total for fossil fuels to around 3.75 million acres. By comparison, wind and solar facilities cover over 7 million U.S. acres.
According to US Energy Information Administration (EIA) data, oil, coal, and natural gas provide ~78% of US primary energy consumption from those 3.75 million acres. Wind and solar provide ~5% of U.S. primary energy using about twice the total land area. Put differently, in the U.S., oil, coal and natural gas provide over 15 times the useful energy on about half the footprint compared to wind and solar.
Other excellent comparisons in the Bloomberg NEF piece drive home the differences in energy density and the resulting land use implications.
A 200-megawatt wind farm, for instance, might require spreading turbines over 13 square miles (36 square kilometers). A natural-gas power plant with that same generating capacity could fit on to a single city block. A conventional 1-gigawatt nuclear reactor operating on 1,000 acres produces the same amount of energy as a wind farm spanning 100,000 acres.
Two-thirds of America’s total energy footprint is devoted to transportation fuels produced from agricultural crops, primarily corn grown for ethanol. It requires more land than all other power sources combined but provides just 5% of the nation’s energy, making it the most land-intensive major fuel source.
“Princeton University’s Net-Zero America Project maps various pathways to reaching a carbon-free U.S. by 2050, and how much land it would take. The most land-intensive (renewables) plan eliminates all fossil fuels and nuclear plants. Wind and solar provide 98% of electric power by 2050. The U.S. energy footprint quadruples in size. Wind farms (alone) occupy land areas equivalent to Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.
With no change to current acreage committed to biofuels (read: corn ethanol) wind and solar require an additional 267 million acres of land. Offshore wind impacts an additional 15 million acres of marine resources.”
A map included in the article provides a stark realization of the sheer scale of what has been portrayed to voters as simple and straightforward, with minimal impact. (Note the areas shaded in green covering Missouri and southern Iowa and the multi-colored area abutting it to the north represent the 81 million existing acres producing U.S. energy):
In the U.S., the best example of the absurdity of using enormous swaths of land to meet the energy needs of advanced economies is Gas Booze™ (corn ethanol). In a March post titled Crying Fowl we highlighted the myriad negative effects of converting grasslands in the U.S. prairies to corn monoculture for ethanol, with an emphasis on wildlife populations and habitat loss. We also noted how much water is required to produce one gallon of ethanol, and that large amounts of groundwater are being pumped from the Ogallala (aka High Plains) aquifer to irrigate corn for fuel (not food).
Five years after the explosive growth of ethanol production following passage of the 2007 Energy Bill, a 2012 MIT report on groundwater depletion noted: (emphasis added):
“The Ogallala Aquifer is being recharged at a rate of approximately 22 - 25 mm/year and experiencing net overdraft of 54.864 mm/year. This will lead to ultimate depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer.
Water drawn from the Ogallala supplies agricultural, domestic, industrial, mining, and livestock needs. Ninety-four percent of the total groundwater usage from the Ogallala is for irrigation. This sums to about 15,745 million of gallons per day of water usage for irrigation from the Ogallala alone, and 30% of all groundwater used for irrigation in the United States.”
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Hitching any part of your nation’s energy supply to weather has serious risks – economic, national security, and others. Wind and solar are only the most obvious examples.
Presently, the heart of U.S. corn production is experiencing a substantial drought. Below is the most recent U.S. Drought Map from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Remember that 35%-40% of the US corn crop – around 30 million acres of corn – is grown to produce ethanol, not feed humans or animals, much of it in the areas suffering the worst impacts of the current drought.
Pumping groundwater from a depleting aquifer to grow food for fuel while wrecking wildlife habitat and damaging ecosystem services in the midst of a growing global food crisis is a special kind of stupid. Doing so in the midst of a drought while pretending to be saving the environment is Green Kabuki Theater™ of the highest order.
We remind readers that both parties supported the Energy Bill of 2007 which created the Renewable Fuel Standard that birthed the ethanol madness. It is a truly bipartisan environmental failure.
A forced transition that purports to achieve carbon-free energy in the next 30 years without causing serious environmental consequences is, at best an illogical ideal and, at worst a dangerous, Eco-Statist utopian lie. And it clearly isn’t a “win” for the planet’s flora and fauna.
It would be a mistake to attempt the energy transition as currently envisioned, at the speed being pursued. But even if we continue to try, it will not be as easy as its proponents have portrayed or believe. Burning piles of printed money won’t fix everything.
Robert Bryce has been tracking local and state objections to wind and solar projects across the U.S. since 2015. His yeoman’s work has detailed over 500 actions urged by local citizens groups and taken by local Boards of Supervisors, County Commissions, Zoning Boards, State Legislatures, Water Districts, Native American tribes, and other entities to restrict or reject wind and solar projects.
We used Bryce’s database to create a map showing states in which citizens have taken one or more of these actions. Only twelve states in the continental U.S. have not seen citizen efforts against wind and solar projects and their monied interests.
Bryce’s database records more than 120 such actions in Ohio alone, with citizen actions in New York numbering over 60.
But big wind and solar and the forces behind them are not going to give up without a fight. Trillions of dollars over decades feeding off the government’s committed green largesse are hanging in the balance. Renewable energy project developers, Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs), and Public Utility Commissions in places like Kansas and Iowa have increasingly sought the power of eminent domain to take private land for wind and solar project infrastructure.
Absent nuclear and (at least) natural gas, the forced energy transition creates a landscape in which the overwhelming majority of our electricity comes from highly diffuse sources on the surface of the earth, rather than highly dense sources under it. In order to do that, property rights, wildlife habitat and ecosystems are just going to have to suffer. Deal with it.
If it were clear the “energy transition” envisioned by the Paris Agreement and advanced nations would prevent a catastrophe, saving the planet to death at the expense of wildlife and ecosystems might be justified. But it has been clear since even before the inception of the vaunted pact in 2016 that it would do no such thing.
In a 2015 paper in the journal Global Policy, recovering environmentalist heretic Bjorn Lomborg calculated the anticipated future difference in surface temperature that could be expected in the year 2100 by the Paris Agreement achieving its goals. Using the same integrated assessment model co-funded by US EPA and used in all 6 UN IPCC reports, Lomborg calculated a future difference in temperature by the end of the century of between .048 degrees Celsius (worst case) and .170 degrees Celsius (best case). Increments this small cannot even be differentiated from natural variability.
The environmental effects of the energy transition are being felt worldwide.
A mine in the Brazilian rainforest providing aluminum for the Ford F-150 turns out to have contaminated a watershed. The rocks brought out of “artisan mine” tunnels in the Congo by boys as young as 12 to feed the West’s thirst for cobalt are washed in rivers and streams causing damage to watersheds. Rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia have been clear cut for palm oil plantations for more than a decade, partly to feed the EU’s biodiesel mandates. Last fall, Indonesia announced a “green” industrial park to feed the developed world’s hunger for nickel, mostly for electric vehicle batteries. The plan is to advance to manufacturing batteries for electric vehicles (EVs) and eventually EVs themselves.
In a prior post, we noted how Southern U.S., Canadian and Baltic trees are being cut, pelletized, and shipped to the UK (using bunker fuel – oil!) and fed into converted coal-fired boilers at the Drax power generation plant. The electricity generated (from “biomass!) is farcically categorized as “green”.
Wind turbines kill untold quantities of birds and bats, including many birds of prey, with few consequences. The industry gets a virtual pass under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the U.S.
We grind up 500-year-old Yucca plants and Joshua Trees in the Mojave Desert to build solar plants. We pretend this is saving the planet.
And we’re just getting started. Australian mining engineer Simon Michaux has calculated that humanity needs to mine ~6 times the total amount of all copper ever extracted from earth since the Bronze age in order to produce what will be needed for one generation of infrastructure to replace fossil fuels. And that’s only copper. The sheer volume of mining for the metal inputs required by the “net zero” transition is mind boggling, if not unrealistic.
Mining and environmental engineers know that acid mine drainage (AMD) impacts to surface water and groundwater are one of the most serious, long-term environmental consequences of industrialization. Unsurprisingly, most of the worst, uncontrolled AMD impacts on human health and the environment are in developing countries.
And the voters in advanced nations who are forcing this transition are increasing such risks, outsourcing the consequences to poor nations while patting themselves on the back for “saving the planet.” In the developing world, lifting people out of poverty takes priority over environmental regulation and enforcement. Many in the western nations that voted for these policies turn their heads away from this realization (if they understand it at all).
Virtually all of the technology associated with the “zero carbon” energy transition will have orders of magnitude far greater impacts on earth’s surface than the systems we are attempting to replace. Those impacts will be felt across large areas of the planet.
All this is to say that unchecked, we are on a path to further environmental degradation at home and abroad than is necessary, sacrificing wildlife habitat and open space, all with no measurable impact on the earth’s average temperature by the end of the century. That any of this passes for materially improving the environment is a scientific ruse of epic proportions.
“Anthropocene” is a term often used by environmental catastrophists to describe the current geologic era, in which humans dominate and overwhelm earth’s natural systems. If correct, our legacy will also include scars left on earth’s surface from “renewable” energy. Everything in life is a tradeoff. Energy is no exception.
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