Image Credit: Sierra Club
Image Credit: Sierra Club

New York is protecting its air and water by banning fracking. This continues our tradition of having other states and countries bear the environmental costs of our energy use. Whether or not this is ultimately good or bad for the environment writ large very much remains to be seen. I hope that it is.

The only truly clean energy is the energy you don’t use. If we’re not allowing fracking to happen in New York, we need to think about what to do instead. In the short term, it’s very likely that we’ll continue to use a lot of natural gas within the state, and a lot of that gas will come from hydraulically fractured wells in other states (mostly Pennsylvania). According to the US Energy Information Administration, most homes and businesses in New York are heated with natural gas and it provides 45% of our electricity. New York gets twice as much energy from natural gas as from any other source (gasoline is #2) and 98% of that natural gas comes from out of state. As Pennsylvania’s production has grown 17-fold since 2007 and it is now the second biggest producer (after Texas), the lion’s share of the gas New York uses almost certainly comes from wells in Pennsylvania. It raises interesting and important ethical questions to ban the production of something, but not the use.

Noting these realities doesn’t make me pro- or anti-fracking, but raises questions that deserve to be discussed. The discussion should reflect at least basic understandings of the science and mathematics of the energy system. Fundamental to that is recognizing that renewables are generally less bad for the environment than fossil fuels, but they have very real negative environmental impacts as well. Presently, we cannot make much in the way of renewable energy infrastructure without using fossil fuels and nuclear power to do so. We also can’t do it without copper and rare earths and both of those have substantial environmental impacts associated with their extraction.

Renewables also are generally lower in energy density than fossil fuels and nuclear, meaning that they require huge amounts of space to produce energy on the scale we are accustomed to and that has substantial environmental impacts. For example, Cornell University now has the largest solar array in Upstate New York. It covers 11 acres and provides about one percent of Cornell’s energy demand. So, we would need 1100 acres to meet the current needs of that one single (granted, fairly large) institution. New York has ten power plants with production capacities exceeding 1,000 megawatts. In the space of any one of those power plants, there is room enough for a few 1.5 megawatt windmills. Of course, once renewable sources are online, the wind and the sun, not dirtier fuels fuel them.

Fossil fuels have both made modern society possible and imperil modern society. We’ve reached a point where we almost certainly need to leave the vast majority of the remaining supplies of these wonderful and terrible fuels in the ground. We need to remake our energy infrastructure and how we use that infrastructure. We also need to face the reality that we have to use the infrastructure we have to make the infrastructure we need. If we were to rely only on renewables to make renewables, it would take many, many decades.

I do grant my hardiest congratulations to my many friends in the environmental community who helped make this ban happen. I hope they will continue onto the next step of figuring out how we can power our society in ways that are genuinely sustainable and not simply burdening other states and countries with the environmental costs of our actions. I suspect the most effective way forward in the short term is to continue and accelerate the general decrease in energy demand of the last several years.

Don Duggan-Haas, PhD, Director of Teacher Programs at the Paleontological Research Institution.

With financial support from the National Science Foundation, Duggan-Haas along with PRI colleagues Robert Ross and Warren Allmon, co-authored of The Science Beneath the Surface: A Very Short Guide to the Marcellus Shale. The opinions expressed here represent Duggan-Haas’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of GSA, PRI or the National Science Foundation.

An abridged version of this blog first appeared in the Buffalo News on 15 January, 2015.  This version published with permission.