Continuing to burn and extract fossil fuels comes at a terrible and rising risk for pretty much everyone. Thankfully, the capacity to reduce our dependence on these fuels from hell and transition to far less environmentally harmful energy sources is available like never before. But whether or not we make that choice as a society will depend on the actions of both political and economic leaders as well as individuals in the U.S. and around the world.
Biggest Oklahoma Earthquake Ever Seen and Fossil-Fueled Storms
In Oklahoma, the filling of fracking wastewater injection wells is applying a huge stress to the bedrock. There, the new presence of billions of tons of water is changing the way the land bears weight even as it lubricates existing fault lines. This change, in turn, is setting off earthquakes of never-before-seen intensity, not only in Oklahoma, but in many places across the central U.S.
(USGS map of a fracking-related earthquake that struck Oklahoma City on Friday. Continuing to frack in the central U.S. will likely produce increased risk for such quakes even as it provides greater access to climate change-worsening fossil fuels. Image source: USGS and Arstechnica.)
On Saturday, one of these quakes reached a 5.6 magnitude near Oklahoma City, injuring one person, damaging a number of buildings in the historic section of town, and causing stock losses at local grocery stores. As earthquakes go, this was a moderate-intensity event, but it was the largest such event that Oklahoma City had ever seen. There is a reasonable and growing concern that the fossil-fuel extraction activity that is fracking could produce far worse — especially if sections of the New Madrid Fault Line to the east in Missouri become stressed.
Farther south, concerned residents in Louisiana, after suffering a 500-year rainfall event linked to climate change that dumped 6.9 trillion gallons of water over the state in just a few days, are attempting to block oil exploration leases in the Gulf of Mexico. This heavy weather is being born in a world in which increasing rates of evaporation are intensifying droughts in some regions and sparking powerful rainfall events in others. This type of extreme weather will continue to worsen so long as we keep burning fossil fuels.
(A 500-year rainfall event that dumped 6.9 trillion gallons of water over Louisiana in August — one of numerous climate change-related 500-year flood events hitting the U.S. in 2016 — helped to raise concerns and spark protests over the opening of new drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico. Image source: Weather Matrix/Jesse Ferrell.)
Louisiana residents are starting to get worried, and with good reason. Now, hundreds of Louisiana protesters are valiantly attempting to prevent the opening of new fossil fuel leases that could free up another 30 billion tons of carbon-based fuels for burning. If such oil was discovered and brought to market, it would effectively add three more years to the lifespan of global fossil-fuel burning at a time when a rapid cessation of such burning is necessary to preserve anything remotely resembling a livable climate. Similar protests along the East Coast spurred the Obama Administration’s choice to close oil exploration leases in the Atlantic for at least the next five years. Sadly, thus far, no such positive outcome has occurred for the Gulf. After the recent exploration rights auctions, the production of these harmful fuels is one step closer to market.
A Huge Opportunity For the Alternatives
Fracking-related earthquakes in Oklahoma City and oil-lease protests as an upshot of climate concerns by citizens are just two events in a larger tapestry of conflict over the use of dangerous and volatile fossil fuels. As this conflict rages across the globe, new energy sources are starting to make inroads. In particular, wind and solar power during recent years have gone mainstream as electrical power generation sources. In the U.S. so far during 2016, more than 90 percent of new installed electricity generation capacity has come from wind and solar combined. On the current path, these two energy sources will account for ten percent of total U.S. electricity production by 2021, a more than five-fold increase in ten years.
Moreover, a recent report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) finds that it is technically possible for the largest grid in the world (occupying the eastern U.S.) to receive fully 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2026. These potentials do not include recent and projected advances in battery storage technologies, which provide an opportunity to further expand wind and solar generation by helping to make these clean energy sources less variable.
Improvements in renewable energy cost and continuing technological advances have helped to drive this expanded access. In almost all major markets, wind and solar are competitive with fossil fuels on price. Utility renewable power purchase agreements (PPAs) now range as low as 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour while homeowners who install solar are often able to save money and recoup investment costs in as little as five years. In addition, the fact that wind and solar does not result in damage to water supplies, rising earthquake risks, various fossil-fuel related health hazards (related to air and water contamination), or the greenhouse gasses that have so wrecked our climate, adds another huge cost benefit to civilization at large — a strong justification for the continued subsidization of these fuel sources (as well as the obvious justification that fossil-fuel subsidies should be cut).
In the end, the action by political parties, economic leaders, voters, and individuals will determine which path we take over the next ten years. If solar and wind energy are suppressed by fossil-fuel interests strong-arming local and state governments (as they were in Nevada), if Republican climate change deniers continue to be elected to Congress or capture the Presidency, if economic leaders around the world continue to support government subsidies for fossil fuels, if capitalists continue to use financial market levers to suppress renewable energy industries, and if individuals do not take the increasingly available opportunities to reduce their fossil-fuel energy consumption and make the energy switch, then fossil-fuel burning will continue to increase over the next ten years and related harms will continue to ramp up.
However, if everyone makes the choice to start doing something about these rising problems now, then we have an opportunity to make a big leap forward, to make our civilization more resilient to climate change, to reduce climate harms, and to rapidly set out on a path toward a much-needed energy transition. Ultimately the choice of seeming ease in continuing to use fossil fuels is really one of seriously increasing pain. We need to make the other choice. And we all need to start doing it now.
Hat tip to June
Hat tip to Colorado Bob
Hat tip to DT Lange