This is written very well and is from one of my favorite magazines.
Driving his black Chevy pickup to the top of the bluff where Baard Energy wants to build the first large-scale plant in the United States that would turn coal into liquid fuels, Rick Williams points a thick index finger at the vacant homes and empty store fronts that make up his Ohio River Valley town and reminisces about what used to be.
The son of an ironworker, Williams, 56, spent much of his adult life as a union laborer, often in the local steel mills and power plants fueled by nearby coal mines. The work wasn’t hard to come by. For much of the 20th century, Wellsville, Ohio, was a small but active town of about 8,000 residents, most of them connected to one or more union locals.
But now most of the steel mills are closed, the union jobs are fading, and the town is going with them. Wellsville’s population is half what it was 40 years ago. Only 65 students graduated from the local high school this year, and all but a handful will likely leave in search of jobs. The overgrown riverfront parcels where thousands of people once made a good living have been scraped clear of factories and equipment. Of the 2,000 homes here, nearly 400 are vacant, according to federal census figures.
Williams now serves as the town’s zoning administrator, without a whole lot to do. The city issued only one permit for a new home in the last four years, he says as his Chevy crests the bluff. “This used to be a pretty lively place. There was a lot of work and a lot of things to do. Now there’s nothing here.”
So it’s not hard to understand why Williams and many of his neighbors welcomed the idea of a $6 billion coal-to-liquids plant that would create 4,000 construction jobs and require 500 people to operate. According to Baard Energy, the small West Coast energy developer behind it, at peak production the plant would transform 25,500 tons of coal a day into 53,000 barrels of aviation and diesel fuel.
But it would also be a major new source of greenhouse gases and other pollutants in a region that already suffers from significant public health problems due to air pollution. Environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club are fighting to block Baard’s plans through legal challenges to government air and water quality permits.
Williams and his neighbors realize the Baard plant would bring more air and water pollution to a region that’s just finally starting to get clean. The Ohio River — once so contaminated and full of sediment that only catfish and carp survived — now provides local fishermen with a regular catch of bass, bluegills, and muskie. One morning in early March, Williams says, he spent 20 minutes watching a bald eagle devour a fish as it floated past on an ice flow. “Never saw a bald eagle around here until five years ago,” he says. “The river was a lot dirtier than it is now.”
Still, given the choice, William says that he and the rest of Wellsville would prefer the jobs. “It’s too bad the working man has to choose work over the environment.”
Massive Expansion of the Fossil Fuel Era
Across America, the energy industry is taking advantage of economic desperation in towns like Wellsville and driving to develop hard-to-reach reserves of fossil fuels, while clean energy — with its own promise of job creation and a transition to a new, renewable form of production — struggles to make up ground against powerful, entrenched interests.
Though scientists raise growing alarms about climate change, and high gas prices serve as a daily reminder of just how strung out on oil this country is, the energy industry is flexing its muscles in government and the financial sector, winning permits and billions in cash to perpetuate the age of fossil fuels. The result is one of the grandest industrial expansions in recent decades, much of it at the center of the continent.
North American, Asian, and European companies are prepared to spend $15 billion annually to turn tar sands into oil in northern Canada; $7 billion annually to drill shale oil wells on the northern Great Plains; $30 billion to build a pipeline network for transporting tar sands oil, shale oil, and natural gas through the center of the continent to the Texas Gulf Coast (an effort opposed by NRDC and many other environmental groups); and $22.6 billion to expand and modernize refineries in the Midwest, Great Plains, and Gulf of Mexico. A Canadian developer wants to open new tar sands mines in Utah, and as of 2010, North Dakota had become the fourth-largest oil-producing state in the nation — quickly heading to number two behind Texas.
These new sources of fuel are more difficult and dangerous to extract and transport than conventional crude, and they carry greater risks of air pollution, groundwater contamination, and greenhouse gas emissions than ever before. The cleaner and safer alternatives — renewable and energy efficiency — face an overwhelming disadvantage when it comes to investment capital, consumer familiarity, and government support and subsidies. And Big Energy isn’t about to give up that advantage — no matter how many oil-company commercials with windmills you see on the nightly news.
In addition, although national public opinion polls show broad support for renewable development, individual projects often have a tough time getting built, as clean energy remains unfamiliar and controversial in many communities. Hundreds of local environmental and civic groups in at least 35 states are fighting to block large-scale wind, solar, biomass, and smart grid projects because of worries about scale, safety, or damage to their views and landscapes. Working under a National Science Foundation grant, for example, Roopali Phadke, an associate professor at Macalester College in Minneapolis, has identified 200 opposition groups working to block big wind projects in 30 states.
A shift to renewable sources of electricity and electric or hybrid vehicles represents “a revolution in energy production,” Phadke says. “There is an assumption that everyone has been on board. They aren’t.”
Advantage: Fossil fuels. (Like they needed one.)