Final Project: Energy and Ecology – Tying Everything Together

For my final project, I am taking a look into the relationship between humans and the environment through the lens of our pursuit of energy. I was first interested in this kind of topic even on the first day of class. At one point, the harm and potential harm fossil fuel corporations impose on the environment was being discussed. Some of the things other people said made me really interested in the topic and it made me look into some of the things energy corporations did. Later on in the class, we discussed the relationship that humans have with animals. In the class text, Why Look at Animals, John Berger discusses the break between humans and animals that was expedited mainly through corporate capitalism.[1] Berger’s article inspired me to look into the break between humans and animals through energy corporations. When I started to research more and more into the topic, I realized that the break was not just between humans and animals but the environment as a whole. However, I did not want to just bash bad energy corporations for advancing the break, but I wanted to see if there was a way where energy corporations could amend this break between humans and the environment. I dedicated a series of five blog posts that try and capture this idea. This essay is an examination of those blog posts and provides a dialogue for moving into the future.

E&E Part 1: The World’s Most Dirtiest Oil is a great example of how detrimental energy corporations can be on animals and the environment. I was first brought attention to this topic through Garth Lenz TED talk on the subject. The Alberta Tar Sands cover an area of 142,200 square kilometers which is roughly the size of the entire state of New York.[2] All of this land once belonged to the Boreal Forest, the largest terrestrial biome in the world. But besides from using that much land for oil, the environmental effects caused by the Alberta Tar Sands are almost inconceivable. The oil is called the world’s dirtiest oil because the oil obtained produces the most greenhouse gases in the world.[3] The impact, however, that comes from tailing ponds is what I thought to be the most devastating. Tailing Ponds contain the leftovers from the oil refining process and are considered highly toxic. Birds that land in these tailing ponds are not able to get out and soon die there. What is worse is that these tailing ponds leak into the Athabasca River contaminating the entire ecosystem. Fort Chippewa is the home of 800 Aboriginal people and is down the river from the Alberta Tar Sands. In that area, cancer rates are ten times higher than they are anywhere else in Canada.[3] The industrialization of the area is planned to continue and will take on the size roughly the size of the entire state of Florida. I found this incredibly alarming and it made me wonder what impact other fossil fuels had like Natural Gas.

I was gladly surprised when I first started looking into Natural Gas. Natural Gas pales in comparison to the harm that oil causes and actually has a promising future. I detail this further in E&E Part 2: Natural Gas – A Bridge to a Cleaner Future. It is obvious that the United States has a debilitating dependence on oil. We use 25% of the oil consumed daily yet we only constitute 4% of the population.[4] The United States needs to switch to another source of energy, but renewable resources are not viable enough to fulfill all of our energy demand. T. Boone Pickens believes that Natural Gas can fill the void until renewable sources of energy become viable and he makes some good points. Here is his TED Talk about Natural Gas and the energy market right now. After watching his talk, I thought that Natural Gas is a great solution but I had always believed that Natural Gas was dangerous, especially fracking. The more I looked into fracking the more muddled the topic got. There was no conclusive evidence that pointed to the method of fracking that directly caused water contamination.[5] This gave me hope that Natural Gas can and should be used as a sort of bridge fuel until other sources of energy are good enough to fully take over. After this, I looked into what renewable source of energy is the closest to replacing fossil fuels, which as I found out was hydroelectric power.

Hydroelectric power accounts for 80% of all renewable source energy.[6] This got me excited because if it accounts for so much it must be a very viable source of energy, which it is. However, hydroelectric power, at least on a large scale, is actually quite problematic. Obviously building giant dams is a difficult task but what I didn’t foresee was how many problems reservoirs have. The details of this are much more discussed in E&E Part 3: Hydroelectric Power, but for now I will give a brief overview of them. Reservoirs are needed basically to control the flow of water through the dam. If the water levels are controlled well, plant and animal life downstream can experience dry-outs which can kill them. The decomposition of the plant life actually causes a substantial amount of greenhouse gases. Additionally, the water in the reservoir is stagnant so algae and other aquatic weeds often crowd out other plant and animal life.[7] The worst problem, however, comes from the actual formation of the reservoir. These reservoirs are made by flooding large areas which kills a large amount of plant life. As mentioned earlier, the decomposition of plant life produces a substantial amount of greenhouse gases, but in this case it is done on a much larger scale. In some places, the flooding of certain areas causes so much greenhouse gases that the life cycle emissions of that hydroelectric plant is comparable to that of a fossil fuel plant.[7] Up until this point, my research has only shown me that energy corporations struggle with not having a serious impact on the environment and animals, some more than others. What I really wanted to find was an energy source that didn’t just minimize the environmental impact but actually supported it. I found that energy source when I stumbled upon offshore wind farms.

Offshore wind farms was the first topic I found that on top of producing clean energy, it actually promoted life instead of harming it. In E&E Part 4: Offshore Wind Farms, I discussed the benefits of offshore wind farming such as more wind, less impact on birds, and they are away from human populations. But the most interesting benefit from these offshore wind turbines is that they can act as artificial reefs. An artificial reef is a man-made structure that attracts barnacles and mussels which attracts fish which attracts even more animals like seals. I thought that this was so cool because it shows that in our pursuit of energy we can actually help animals. Additionally, if we were to take this idea even further, we could design wind turbines as habitats for even more marine life.[8] This idea of integration is key to moving forward into the future if we as humans want to amend this break that we have with the environment and animals.

An even better example of amending this break can be found in E&E Part 5: Floating Algae Ponds. The OMEGA project is a NASA sponsored project designed to find a way to implement a system for biofuels that doesn’t compete with agriculture for water, fertilizer, and land.[9] OMEGA stands for Offshore Membrane Enclosure for Growing Algae.[9] Out of all the biofuels right now, microalgae is the most efficient at producing fuel for the amount of land it takes up.[10] Microalgae also has virtually no carbon footprint since all of the carbon dioxide released from it was already in the atmosphere in the first place. Microalgae need four things to produce biofuel which are sunlight, carbon dioxide, nutrients, and temperature control. What is amazing about microalgae is that all the nutrients they need can be found in wastewater. So this prompted the brilliant idea by OMEGA scientists to make these offshore enclosures near water treatment facilities. By doing this, not only do you get clean energy but you reduce water pollution at the same time. However, the economics of these systems are still not that great, but Jonathan Trent brought up the idea of integration in his TED talk.[10] When making these systems, we should look how we can integrate other sources of energy as well as helping the environment. Wind and solar energy sources can easily be incorporated into these OMEGA systems. Furthermore, since these systems are offshore, we could turn them into artificial reefs that promote marine life just like the offshore wind farms mentioned earlier. To go even further, these OMEGA systems could be implemented in the reservoirs used for hydroelectric power. I believe that this idea of integration is vital for humans as we move forward and not just for our own energy purposes but for the environment as well.

Berger was right that corporate capitalism is expediting the break between humans and animals but it is not too late for energy corporations to reverse this break. The energy crisis is going to get worse in the near future and we will soon face hard decisions in the energy sector. It is my hope that as we push forward, we focus on not just minimizing environmental impact but how we can produce energy that stimulates life and aids the environment.



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