Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Wrong Way?

Summer forest

            Last summer, while navigating around a major traffic jam on I-80, my wife and I found ourselves in the midst of another, much more bizarre, traffic snarl. We were deep in the wilds of Pennsylvania, on narrow dirt roads, and being passed ever 2 or 3 seconds by semi trucks bearing drilling gear.

            Soon we discovered what was going on: Passing a clearing in the forest, we saw a sprawling drill pad with a half-dozen trucks and at least as many hard-hat workers. By the shape of storage tanks we could surmise that the bounty coming out of the earth was natural gas.

            The next day I skimmed through newspapers and affirmed that, indeed, Central PA is in the midst of a natural gas bonanza. According to articles in the business section of the New York Times, surveys of the mountaintop shale beds have discovered so much natural gas that the country’s entire needs are now guaranteed for decades into the future. In fact there is so much that if it were released onto the market it could cause prices to plummet by as much as 75%.

            (If you think this blog has nothing to do with baking, turn on your oven. That hissing sound? Natural gas.)

            Gas producers of course don’t want a price crash. Instead they’re storing the stuff, claiming and holding wells, and figuring out ways to export it.

            Wait a second.

            In this country we’re tying ourselves in knots about gasoline consumption, falling for such dubious escapes as electric cars and rooftop solar panels and watching every political shock in the mideast translate into threats to the economy….. while we have so much natural gas we’re sending it off-shore??

            Now I fully realize that extractive industries are environmentally destructive. A lot of the drilling activity I witnessed was churning up prime chanterelle territory. When it comes right down to it I’d rather see self-renewing industries than self-depleting ones. But it does seem to me that, since the technology to convert gasoline-burning internal combustion engines to natural gas already exists, and is cheap, we’re probably going the wrong way to convert transportation power sources to electricity.

            Consider the consequences of all-electric cars. They’re convenient for single-family-occupancy houses but not much else. I live in an apartment building with a parking building across the street. Most of the buildings on my street are multi-families without attached garages. For me to plug in a rechargeable car means convincing my condo board to install metered electricity in the garage – not just for me but for everyone who parks there. For my neighbors to recharge their cars means running power cables out the window. After, that is, struggling to get a parking space close enough to do so. Imagining an electric car future in a dense urban area is to imagine a world of utter chaos.

            On the other hand, we could all move to the ‘burbs and plug in our cars easily. Or to say it another way, we could depart the most energy-efficient environment humans have yet devised for the least.

            Maybe we could put solar panels on our cars’ roofs? Yet, how much energy does it take to make a solar panel? Do they ever produce as much as is consumed making them? (If you know, post your answer, please…)

            So I say, let’s put protective legislation in place (such as anti-fracking laws, and no-new-roads protection for publicly owned land) and start converting our cars, power plants, truck and trains to natural gas. Sure gas won’t last forever, but using it will buy us some cheap time while we work on a better solution.

            And I wouldn’t mind baking for less either. Open that PA pipeline – please!


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