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[Editor’s note: Dr. Sandra Steingraber presented a keynote speech for the New Environmentalism Summit of the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium, on June 3. The text follows.]

ssteingraberI would like to begin by quoting from comments made yesterday by Angela Knight, a former Conservative MP in Britain.

As a reaction to the recent elections here in Brussels, Ms. Knight said, “We have an opportunity in the energy industry to get fact based, logic based, properly costed and sensible EU policy-making and to encourage a move away from an emotion driven and expensive agenda.”

That statement appears in yesterday’s The Guardian, and I couldn’t have said it better myself. 

Dr. Sandra Steingraber speaking at the New Environmentalism Summit in Brussels, Belgium. Photo credit: HEAL on flickr.
Dr. Sandra Steingraber speaking at the New Environmentalism Summit in Brussels, Belgium. Photo credit: HEAL on flickr.

Indeed, that’s exactly what I have come to European Commission to ask for: for the European Union—and for my own union, the United States—a fully cost-accounted energy policy based on facts, logic and science rather than emotion.

But here’s the notable difference:  Angela Knight and I are arguing for opposite courses of action.

Ms. Knight is a lobbyist for Energy UK. Her group seeks to mute the EU’s commitments to green energy, stall ongoing efforts to counter climate change and maintain dependency on fossil fuels.

I am a biologist, a science advisor for Americans Against Fracking, and a co-founder of both Concerned Health Professionals of New York and New Yorkers Against Fracking. The groups of which I am part seek an acceleration of the transition to energy policies based on wind, water and solar power and believe that further investments in fossil fuels in general—and shale gas in specific—are irrational, ruinously expensive, unsustainable and immoral.

These two worldviews are fundamentally incompatible. They cannot be reconciled or bridged. They require a bold leadership choice that rejects one and embraces the other.

In New Yorkers Against Fracking, we speak of standing at an energy crossroads. One signpost points to a future powered by digging fossils from the ground and lighting them on fire. The other points to renewable energy. You cannot go in both directions at once. Subsidizing the infrastructure for one creates disincentives for the other.  

This is no more true than with fracking, the process by which fresh water is mixed with sand and a cocktail of chemicals and then used as a poisonous club to shatter layers of shale bedrock inside of which are trapped tiny bubbles of natural gas—scattered like a fizz of champagne inside of a chalk board that is buried a mile below the earth’s surface.

In the United States, fracking has created such a temporary abundance of cheap natural gas that it has stunted research and development into renewable energy sources and has further delayed action toward a goal that science tells us that we must urgently meet: namely, to leave 80 percent of the remaining carbon in the ground and to redesign our economy to run almost entirely on renewables by mid-century in order to avoid catastrophic climate tipping points.

We are also running out of places to store all this excess shale gas.

One proposed solution, which is being developed with the encouragement of the European Commission, is to liquefy the excess and give it a passport to Europe. Doing so would require the construction of multi-billion dollar export terminals along our coastlines together with fossil fuel-fired power plants that are needed to run the cryogenic refrigerators that turn natural gas into LNG by super-chilling it to minus 260 degrees F.

You cannot advocate for the construction of multibillion-dollar LNG infrastructure projects that presume a 40-year return on investment and also claim in the same breath that you are building a bridge to renewable energy future. Those two ideas cannot be brought into alignment.

Another proposed solution to excess American shale gas is to bury it in abandoned salt mines.

I have personal experience with this idea because I live near a lake under which lies a gallery of old salt caverns left over from 19th century mining. These caves are now being repurposed for the storage of compressed methane gas along with other liquefied gases that are the byproducts of fracking, namely, propane and butane.

I refer here to Seneca Lake, the largest and deepest lake within New York State. Seneca Lake holds so much water that it creates its own microclimate that is uniquely favorable to growing of grapes. The shores of this lake thus form the heart of New York’s wine region. Indeed, the vineyards that lie over the hillsides where I live are the goose that lays our golden egg: Grapes and wine contribute $4.8 billion to our state’s economy. In particular, the Seneca Lake region is famous for world-class Rieslings.

This is also an intensely lovely place, named by Yahoo Travel as one of the top 10 lake-side destinations in the world, with beauty to rival Italy’s Lake Como and England’s own Lake District.

And now Seneca Lake is slated for mass industrialization, as plans are laid for compressor stations, flare stacks, pipeline, brine pits and other infrastructure required to transform the loveliest lakeside vacation spot in America into a regional hub for the storage and transport of fracked gas.

Absent our intervention, this is the fate of New York’s wine region. Earlier this month, permission was granted by the U.S. federal government to move forward with the first part of this massive industrial project. 

But we are intervening. And those of us who do so see ourselves as part of a human rights struggle. Seneca Lake not only allows wine grapes to flourish in this otherwise cold, northern zone, it is also the source of drinking water for 100,000 people. Those who oppose turning the lakeshore into a storage depot for fracking are not just defending grapevines. We are defending water, which is life itself.

I’ve now talked myself into my assigned task: to explore the most critical issues currently facing the planet and help generate ideas that lead to breakthrough solutions.

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