October 14, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Energy

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In the past year, ardent and persistent campaigning from students who have since established Energy Corps has yet to result in such a fund at this university. While I support Energy Corps and SEI for championing a self-sustaining funding stream for energy efficiency projects, I am not yet convinced that such funds and their concomitant projects result in a meaningful net reduction in energy use.

When I asked if the specific projects advocated by SEI were mostly technology retrofits targeted toward infrastructure, for example motion sensor lights, or if they included behavior change campaigns targeted toward users, Orlowski was careful to say that SEI focused on funding and left project selection up to each school.

Sure, retrofitting a building or dorm reduces energy consumption and carbon emissions, but if the University continues expanding in Ithaca and beyond, tweaks here and there will not balance the carbon books as more services are provided and students served. I am not anti-growth and share the excitement for the tech campus and other facets of our burgeoning global presence. I do, however, want to urge that as we cast our eyes on greater prospects, we must also hold the University to its commitment of climate neutrality by 2050.

Energy use, of course, is a mind-numbing practical and ethical dilemma facing not just universities but consumers at every level — from individuals to the world as a whole. It is certainly a big ticket issue in the presidential election, whether a voter is more concerned with securing supplies of fuel, access to which fluctuates with domestic and international politics, or more concerned with abating the environmental consequences of present and projected energy practices.

Energy independence is a far more complicated goal than the emerging reality the candidates have made it out to be. In the first debate, President Obama celebrated that “oil and natural gas production are higher than they’ve been in years.” Indeed, as James Burkhard of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates has testified in the Senate, “A ‘Great Revival’ in US oil production is taking place — a major break from the near 40-year trend of falling output.” Forty years ago, the U.S. was also in the grips of the Arab oil embargo, which cemented fuel supply as a supreme source of national anxiety.

The load of the U.S.’s oil imports is lightened by increased production and decreased demand. (According to IHS CERA, this is due to higher fuel economy standards — about as close as this administration has gotten to environmental reforms — and an aging population.) However, the $70 billion and growing invested in 2010 to develop U.S. oil and gas belies a continuing long-term dependence on fossil fuels.

The shift from reliance on foreign fossil fuel sources to domestic ones is not all that stabilizing. We have now deigned to figuratively scrape oil and gas from the very bottom of the barrel. The reserves that have trumpeted this Great Revival, such as Marcellus shale gas, Alberta tar (oil) sands, Arctic oil and deep offshore oil, can only be tapped at steep costs to fossil fuel companies, ecosystems and people.

These unconventional fuels, or forms of extreme energy in the words of Hampshire College professor Michael T. Klare, require extraction methods which are unprecedentedly invasive and which use inordinate amounts of water and release toxic amounts of waste. Due to environmental and human health concerns, activists in America, Canada and around the world have mounted successful campaigns to delay hydrofracking in New York, the building of the Keystone XL to pipe tar sands to refineries and drilling in the Arctic by Shell. The Great Revival is unquestionably beset with practical and ethical uncertainties which companies, policymakers and consumers must wrangle with.

I am one of those voters who is more concerned with environmental consequences than with fuel supply, and I don’t harbor any illusion that my camp is necessarily on higher moral ground. I would say that we are uninterested in business as usual, which is what further development of fossil fuels would maintain, at best. Sandra Steingraber writes in Living Downstream, a book about the environmental causes of cancer, of “the unimaginative way things are.” She attacks the unremitting momentum of petrochemical development (for fuel, for industrial products and for consumer goods) in the face of undeniable evidence tying the industry to environmental and human health problems.

For the U.S. to rejoice in further oil and gas exploitation, not as a crutch for advancing toward a truly energy independent future, but as an insistence on squeezing out every murky drop of oil and undisturbed pocket of gas is to be deeply unimaginative.

When we talk about increasing energy efficiency at Cornell without talking about reducing overall energy use, and when we talk about cutting dependency on foreign fuels without talking about building capacity for new domestic energy sources, we fall short on thinking through the full spate of practical and ethical considerations.

Jing Jin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at [email protected]. Ringing True appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Jing Jin