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Earth Day, It's All About Choices!

Daily Journal
04/22/10

Earth Day! A day to point with pride at how far we have come, at how aware we are of the importance of conservation. It is also a time to view with alarm the multitude of problems we still confront. In 2010, Earth Day should also be a day to think about choices.

We awoke on March 28, 1979 to news of an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Middleton, Pa. The nuclear core was melting and people feared radiation releases or worse. We now know the accident caused no injuries or deaths, and the amount of radiation released into the air was too small to have discernible effects, but that morning, the fear of a nuclear disaster was palpable. Those fears and the tide of anti-nuclear sentiment they spawned seemed to be confirmed with the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Russia. We watched in horror and said "not here."

Anti-nuclear environmental leaders seized the moment. Anti-nuclear groups protested and, for almost three decades, no one tried to build a nuclear power plant in the United States. Meanwhile, our thirst for energy grew. Increasingly, we turned to the only available option to produce mass quantities of energy - fossil fuels. But today, coal, oil, and gas producers and users are demonized as major sources of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming.

Today, more than 600 coal fired electric plants in the United States produce 60 percent of our energy and 36 percent of our carbon dioxide emissions, about two billion tons, which is approximately 10 percent of the total global emissions of carbon dioxide. At the same time, 103 nuclear reactors deliver just 20 percent of our electricity. And they do so while emitting greenhouse gas emissions in amounts that are comparable to renewable forms of energy such as hydropower and wind according to the International Energy Agency.

While our choice after Three Mile Island was to turn to the very energy sources to which we now object because of their greenhouse gas emissions emissions, nations like France made different decisions. The International Energy Agency tells us France generates over 75 percent of its power from nuclear plants, Belgium over 50 percent, and Switzerland 40 percent.

Concerned and caring environmentalists effectively stopped the expansion of nuclear power in the United States - but there were consequences to that choice - no matter how well motivated. This is not to say that nuclear power generation, suddenly in vogue with the Obama Administration and some environmentalists, is the correct choice and is not without risks. No one should diminish the issue of nuclear waste disposal for example. But those who chose the no-nuclear option cannot pretend that their choice many years ago had no consequences for the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by this country.

Three decades after Three Mile Island, we confront a new national debate about how we can meet our energy needs. Energy conservation will help, but no one believes we can save our way to success and no longer need fossil fuels to power our industry, cars, and homes. Today's emphasis is on renewable energy. But, once again, we confront choices.

Many people want to tear down dams on California's Klamath River - dams that produce renewable hydroelectric power with virtually no greenhouse gas emissions. The benefits of dam removal are counted in terms of removing obstacles to salmon migration and growing those populations. But without hydroelectric power, residents and businesses will likely turn to fossil fuel generated power, thereby increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Some biologists ask if the salmon will truly benefit because the polluted sediments behind the dams that will be released if the dams come down could kill the salmon and destroy their habitat. Studies are underway to assess these issues, but we cannot ignore the fact that there will be environmental consequences from a policy choice to remove the dams.

The development of solar energy is a top priority for the Obama Administration, and the southern California desert together with Arizona's deserts are prime areas. Solar energy projects proposed in California and Arizona could generate enough renewable energy to power millions of homes - renewable energy that could replace or reduce the future demand for greenhouse gas emitting energy. These projects will create tens of thousands of new jobs. But project opponents point to possible impacts on tortoises, lizards, and other animals protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. Readers will have different views about whether producing renewable energy from these proposed projects is more or less important than potential impacts on protected species - but our choices will have consequences.

Similarly, opponents of ocean wind farms object to this renewable energy source because of potential effects on endangered species. Some wind farm supporters have been heard to say that beachfront homeowners are suffering from "not in my backyard" syndrome and are more concerned about aesthetics than species. Each of us will decide what value is more important. But, again, our choices have consequences.

The President's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) recently issued a draft guidance document telling federal agencies they must analyze the climate change impacts of proposed actions or permits that will result in greenhouse gas emissions. CEQ said agencies must analyze emissions that "may be meaningful," telling us that individually small and seemingly insignificant emissions can have cumulatively significant effects. As we make choices on this and future Earth Days about how and where to develop energy, we need to be mindful of the reverse corollary of CEQ's reasoning. Individually small actions over seemingly minor projects, minor in the sense of their overall contribution to our energy needs, will have cumulatively significant consequences for energy supplies and greenhouse gas emissions.

While we celebrate this Earth Day, while we point with pride and view with alarm, we should each recognize that choices about how to protect environmental values have consequences. We might still make the same choices, but we must understand what we are doing, and accept that our choices may have known or unintended consequences.

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