Energy Costs: There Is No Free Lunch

In this installment of their regular column, Anne and Paul Ehrlich made a detailed survey of energy costs — the economic, environmental, and social costs of extracting and using the energy forms most prevalent in 1980.

| November/December 1980

Nothing enrages the oil companies' publicity hacks more than the statement we've often made: "Giving inexpensive and abundant energy to Americans today would be like giving a machine gun to an idiot child." However, that view — as much as it may conflict with the corporate cheerfulness of the multinationals — simply reflects our own concern about the energy-intensive assaults that this society has launched (and continues to launch) upon Earth's life-support systems.

If humanity hopes to preserve the planet's vital interrelated support systems (instead of paving them over or plowing them under), two important decisions must be made: How much energy should we mobilize, and how should we mobilize it? Such decisions can be intelligently made, however, only if one completely understands energy costs, or the costs that accompany the benefits of each energy technology.

It's a well-known economic principle that "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch," and that maxim applies to the energy field as well. No source of energy — no matter how clean or abundant it may be — comes without its costs, which must be taken into consideration right along with the technology's positive effects. So, to guide you in the continuing debate over energy use, we'd like to present a "score card" of the liabilities of a number of potential power sources.

Fossil Fuels

The operation of our present energy economy depends upon fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas), and there are, as you know, a considerable number of liabilities associated with their use. Occupational hazards — such as coal mine explosions and the dangers involved in drilling and transporting oil and gas — make such combustibles rather nasty to mobilize.

The use of fossil fuels also incurs direct health costs primarily as a result of the air pollution produced by their combustion. The greatest overall liability of fossil fuels, however — and that which poses the most immediate threat — is the negative effect of their use on environmental systems. The full danger presented by oil spills is not yet totally understood, but is certainly worthy of concern; aquatic systems in the western U.S. will be damaged as water is diverted for use in coal and oil shale operations; and, of course, few human activities are more directly destructive of the environment than strip mining for coal.

Acid rains (which are a product of air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels) are now threatening the lakes, streams, and soils of vast areas, and the same phenomenon will probably have an increasingly harmful effect on future crop production and forest growth. Worst of all, the by-products of petroleum combustion — carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates — have the potential to alter global weather patterns. As physicist John Holdren has written, "A CO2 climate-induced famine, killing a billion people before 2020, certainly cannot be ruled out."

1/2/2008 12:40:22 PM

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