One Natural Resource We’ll Never Run Out Of: Misinformation

Profile photo of Tex Austin 81 By lonestar
June 25th, 2012

Launch Blog, Category 6: Energy and Environment


One Natural Resource We’ll Never Run Out Of: Misinformation

We love our big screen TVs…. high-end household appliances… central air… rechargeable iPads and iPods… and long, hot steamy showers. And as electric cars and “Smart Home” devices catch on, it’s no surprise that between now and 2030, total energy demand is expected to increase 40%, with electrical demand leading the way with a projected 76% growth in demand.

But just try to get a power plant built in your state… or try to get the permits needed to explore for fossil fuels. Even before the recent Fukushima nuclear plant shutdown, and Horizon Deepwater oil spill… the environmental lobby, the EPA, climate scientists (including some with their thumbs on the scale), and a curiously uncurious media have combined to create a cacophony of noise that drowns out any reasonable discussion about striking a balance between energy needs and environmental management.

Instead, the U.S. imported 4.1 billion barrels of petroleum, 60 percent of our needs, in 2011; we gave $453.6 billion to foreign countries – many of whom hate our guts – for a natural resource we already have plenty of where within our own borders. And then we wonder where terrorist get their funding from.

The environmental narrative goes something like this: “Nature is a delicate, irreplaceable ecosystem of interdependent plants, animals, and climatic conditions; the slightest interference by man results in the disruption – and perhaps the destruction – of the habit and all the life within it. Animals cannot survive if we disrupt their habitat, and vital links in the ecological chain will be broken… with untold, devastating consequences for the Earth and humanity. Therefore, large expanses of land need to be completely off limits to any sort of man-made development… and, to be safe, anything related to modern civilization needs to be rewound to pre-Industrial Revolution levels.”

After that they say, “The science is settled,” they snort, and they huff out of the room.

But there are a multitude of valid counter-arguments that seem to get drowned out when questioning the environmental movement and its allies. For example:

  • Wildlife extinction is not man-made: To quote the American Museum of Natural History website, “Species go extinct all the time. Scientists estimate that at least 99.9 percent of all species of plants and animals that ever lived are now extinct.” As many as 20 mass extinction events – in which up to half of all animal species are wiped out – have occurred in Earth’s history. What appear to be mass suicides, like whale beachings, have been occurring long before human’s industrial age. You can’t blame that on man.
  • Most wildlife evictions are not caused by man: There is abundant research to suggest that greatest threat to nature is… nature itself. Forest fires started by lightning, floods, freezing temperatures, drought, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, microbes like “red tide,” and other natural disasters have been displacing animals from their natural habitats since the beginning of time. For millions of years, animals have been adapting to events in their habitat that are far worse than anything man cooks up.
  • When it’s “Man vs. Nature,” nature wins: As the mathematician in Jurassic Park observes, “Life… finds a way.” Animals are far heartier, and more resilient than we give them credit for. Even the site of the first atomic test – Trinity, at Jornada del Muerto, New Mexico – is now described as a “pristine high-desert ecosystem where plant and animal life… thrive.” In subsequent atomic tests, about 75% of animals exposed to the nuclear blast and radiation survived. Wildlife has taken some of man’s best shots, and they just shake it off.
  • Man’s most intrusive activities haven’t killed off native species:  Consider that 1) In the wake of extensive water management efforts after WWI, there are an estimated 75,000 dams in the United States, creating tens of thousands on man-made lakes and reservoirs. These assets ensure fresh drinking water – and environmentally clean hydroelectric power – for millions of Americans; or 2) Since the widespread adoption of the automobile in the 1920s and the construction of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, about four million miles of roads were built across America, supporting more than 250 million cars.

    In the past 100 years, the federal government flooded or paved millions of square miles of what was formerly wilderness. While many animal habitats were flooded during the past century’s dam-building spree, and accidents involving cars and animals are common, it would be a gross fabrication to suggest that wholesale populations of wildlife been threatened with extinction by the creation of our national reservoir or roads systems. Despite our forays into their territory, there is no shortage of deer, moose, bears, squirrels, armadillos, or other indigenous life in America. Just as wildlife learned to avoid human hikers in the woods, they’ve largely learned to avoid rising lake levels, cars and roads (unless they are scavengers seeking roadkill, in which case they’ve formed a commensalistic relationship with the automobile.)

  • Wildlife travels really, really well:While environmentalists wring their hands about the pristine and irreplaceable nature of wildlife habitats – and make dubious claims about the symbiotic importance of every insect, weed, and piece of moss in the ecosystem – they conveniently ignore how well they thrive when relocated. Especially when you don’t want them to.Don’t think animals can survive relocation? The Burmese python is thriving in the Florida Everglades, with an estimated population of 150,000, almost 10,000 miles from its home in Myanmar. Many introductions – of monitors, iguanas, the Asian swamp eel, the Northern snakehead, walking catfish, and armored catfish – are the result of people releasing former pets into the wild; even though that occurs in negligible numbers, at this writing, some 50,000 destructive, non-native species are flourishing across America, resulting in control costs and damages estimated at $120 billion per year.If infrequent, sporadic releases of animals result in burgeoning population growth, you would think that an organized, well-funded effort would be wildly successful. And you’d be correct: the U.S. Fish and Game Wildlife Service, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN)/Species Survival Commission (SSC) and other organizations are constantly reporting on animal species that have been successfully relocated, reintroduced to a comparable habitat, and brought back from the brink of extinction. Some examples include the bald eagle, bison; California condor; black-footed Ferrets; musk ox; Gray Wolf; and wild horses.

Why are these arguments important to keep in mind, when debating the impact of energy vs. environment? Because fossil fuels (and nuclear power) remain our most viable option for reliably generating power until alternative energy sources like solar and wind power are ready for prime time… something even EPA cap-and-trade computer models concede. (One EPA simulation testing the outcome of capped fossil fuels, compensated for by renewables, showed a 36% shortfall between energy generated and demand… or, in layman’s terms, blackouts and brownouts.)

And yet, political bluster aside, American companies are largely barred from oil and gas exploration in areas where known reserves exist underground… simply because the presence of plants and animals in the vicinity automatically makes them “endangered” in the eyes of the EPA, Department of the Interior, and Department of Energy.

But what happens if we jeopardize our energy independence for environmental reasons… and we’re just flat-out wrong about the consequences or aftereffects? Despite all the positive news about the wildlife and their adaptability, U.S. environmental regulations and endangered species laws appear to be mired well-intentioned, but overblown fears:

  • Caribou: Remember when environmentalists said that the Alaska pipeline would decimate the caribou population? Not only did their numbers increase… but it has been widely reported that the Caribou actually have migrated to the pipeline, because it was a source of warmth – the friction of the oil passing through the pipe – they did not have before.  As Arthur C. Clarke described the apes’ reaction to the alien monolith in 2001, A Space Odyssey, “The next day, as they went out to forage, they passed [the monolith] with scarcely a second thought; it was now part of the disregarded background of their lives.  They could not eat it, and it could not eat them; therefore, it was not important.”The same appears to be true with Alaskan wildlife.  Yet, because we cling to disproven old arguments, oil rich areas like the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge remain largely off-limits to serious exploration.
  • Polar Bears: For years, people have been posting heart-wrenching photos on the Internet of lone polar bears standing on small patch of floating ice in the arctic… as a call to arms against global warming (later downgraded to a more cover-all-bets term, “climate change.”) But more recently a leading Canadian newspaper, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported that the most recent aerial survey showed the polar bear population was at least 2/3rds greater than “scientists” expected.
  • Sea Lions, and Seals, and Sharks… Oh, my: Sometimes, we humans are too smart for our own good. The 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits “the act of hunting, killing, capture, and/or harassment of any marine mammal.” (It defined “harassment” nebulously: “any act of… annoyance which has the potential… to disturb a marine mammal.”) Because it was backed by fines of up to $10,000, Americans understandably ran the other way when they spied seals, sea lions, and other animals approaching… and soon, animal populations skyrocketed, especially in areas shared with humans along coastlines.Of course, nature never misses an opportunity, so predators like the Great White Shark took note of the buffet and moved in… to the detriment of human surfers, swimmers, and beach goers. Today, shark-related beach closings are occurring up and down the Atlantic and Pacific coast of the United States, and almost 40% of Great White Shark attacks now occur in the “Red Triangle,” area off the coast of northern California.

The lesson here is that our track record for predicting how human behavior will impact wildlife is pretty abysmal; not because we’re stupid, but because nature is so inherently unpredictable. Not only do we routinely find wildlife thought to be extinct, but we find thousands of previously-unknown new species every year. International Institute for Species Exploration (IISE) at Arizona State University reports that “about ten million species still remain unknown to science and are awaiting discovery and study.”

While it is prudent to think through the possible consequences of man’s encroaching on nature, maintaining our current “Hands Off” approach is a needlessly punitive and unwise option, given our need to better manage America’s natural resources. Some present-day examples where our overprotective view of natural resources causes us to lose sight of The Big Picture include:

  • The Sand Dune Lizard, found in a 1250-square mile area spanning Texas and New Mexico, will put some of America’s most promising oil fields off limits if it is added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species List. “As far as I am concerned, it is Godzilla,” said one Texas land commissioner. “It’s the biggest threat facing the oil business in memory.”(Perhaps representatives with the Texas oil industry should sit down with members of the U.S. Fish and Game Wildlife Service about funding a “Lizard Round Up,” so these critters can be relocated to somewhere where the oil bubbling up from the ground doesn’t get on their little feet. It could be that these lizards are philopatric; and will, even if transported miles away, make the long journal back to their original habitat – oil rigs and all.)
  • To preserve the habitat of the Delta Smelt – an inedible, two-inch fish called a “worthless little worm” by one member of Congress – pumping operations from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta have ceased… intentionally turning hundreds of thousands of acres of California’s most productive farm land into a dustbowl. Tens of thousands of agricultural jobs have already been lost, and a UC-Davis economics professor predicts that at least 40,000 jobs and $1.15 billion will be lost if current water restrictions continue.

Of course, not every member of the animal kingdom enjoys such overzealous protection: some wildlife is being thrown under the bus – or rather, into the blades of wind turbines – at alarming numbers. The American Bird Conservancy recently reported:

Federal government estimates indicate that 22,000 wind turbines in operation in 2009 were killing 440,000 birds per year. We are very concerned that with Federal plans to produce 20 percent of the nation’s electricity from wind by 2030, those numbers will mushroom.” “Some of the most iconic and vulnerable American birds [like eagles] are at risk from wind industry expansion….”

Of course in the eyes of environmentalists, massive wind farms and huge banks of solar panels are somehow more visually pleasing than even a single low-profile oil rig. So imagine their surprise to learn that, besides serving as giant “Bird Zappers,” wind turbines are also being investigated for being significant contributors to a phenomenon that is best described as localized global warming. As described by FORBES magazine:

The basic effect is that given that the ground at night is generally cooler than the atmosphere, thus the air near the ground is cooler than the air higher up. Turning blades of the turbines mix up this air, cool with warmer, and thus lower the temperature of the higher up air.

Some would note the irony that a “Save the Earth” technology like wind power is actually wrecking havoc on Mother Nature. And more ironic that one of the earliest leaders of Greenpeace, Dr. Patrick Moore, is now a leading proponent of nuclear power, having co-founded CASEenergy Coalition along with Christine Todd Whitman, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Its motto: “Nuclear Energy is America’s Clean and Safe Energy Solution.”

Environmentalists and animal right activists are correct that man has done some pretty horrific things – from Love Canal to clubbing baby seals – to the planet and our fellow inhabitants. But some point, America needs to have a thoughtful, non-shrill discussion about how we can balance our energy needs and our environmental goals… without hyperventilating about The End of the World if someone steps on a blade of grass.

We all need to be diligent about preserving nature and protecting wildlife; but it could be, too, that if the Delta Smelt and Sand Dune Lizard can’t figure out how to adapt to their new surroundings – as so 50,000 other relocated and invasive species have done successfully in America – maybe it’s time for us to let them join the 99.9%.

One Comments to “One Natural Resource We’ll Never Run Out Of: Misinformation”

  • Profile photo of Jim Pease Jim Pease says:

    Solar power generation has very little transmission loss when installed on site, unlike large scale generation plant which have up to 90% transmission losses so to get a usable mega watt at site. it requires 10 mega watts of generation using the fuel required to generate 10 mega watts. wind is not so much a bird problem with the newer low speed turbines. but suffers the same transmission issues unless you are on site generating.
    Everything has consequences and many times they are unforeseen and those has cost dearly. so to rush headlong into any major energy project is foolish until the efficiency of existing system is addressed most American buildings are only about 25% efficient meaning the work that now sues 100 Kw could be done with 25Kw if proper systems were in place. since this is also cheaper than building power plants and is also faster turn around and ROI.