Monday, September 17, 2012

Energy in NEPA: Past, present, and future

On July 3, 1778, a militia made up mostly of men in their 40's and teenage boys, with a few experienced soldiers sprinkled in, took up arms to defend the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania (at the time known as the Wyoming Valley in Connecticut, for reasons which are as bizarre and confusing today as they were way back then) from encroaching Tory Rangers and their Iroquois allies. The militia's actions were guided more by bravery than by good sense, and what at first was a comedy of errors and a textbook example of  how not to conduct a military campaign soon turned into a rout, and then a massacre. Many of those who survived the initial battle did not survive the immediate aftermath, as men and boys were murdered at close range even as they were promised safety, and captured prisoners had their heads smashed in in an act of brutality that sickened the people of England when word reached them of what had come to be known as the Wyoming Massacre.

Today a friend and I walked the route of the Battle of Wyoming, from the initial point where the men and boys lined up to confront the skirmishers who would draw them into a trap, to the point where the broken line of inexperienced soldiers took a stand against the more highly skilled Rangers and their native allies, to the point where the Iroquois attacked the line's left flank from their position of concealment as it wheeled about inexpertly to face them, to the places where the fleeing members of the militia sought safety and escape - and, more often, found death.

This post isn't about that.

As we processed from the initial lining-up point in Wyoming (which is not where the Battle of Wyoming was fought - it was fought in Exeter; "Wyoming" is a more recent construct, named in honor of those who died in the battle,) our guide directed our attention to a utility cut that showed some of the terrain as it was 234 years ago, before fill was added to the river flats beyond the precipitous drop to the south to allow construction of houses even closer to the Susquehanna. And that was where a striking vista displayed itself.


It's a little hard to tell from this first photo, but this image encompasses much of this region's past, present, and future. First, the river flat, showing what  the terrain might have looked like in centuries past. While I always think of Pennsylvania - my part of it, anyway - as being "Penn's Woods" and much like the densely forested area seen beyond the transmission tower, reports from the time of the Battle of Wyoming describe the area as sparsely wooded with white and yellow pine and some oak "shrubs." Much of the land would have been cleared for agriculture, and there was very little in the way of underbrush.

The trees beyond the tower in the distance - some 850 or so feet from where I took this picture -  mark the shore of the Susquehanna, which was the goal of the fleeing survivors of the Battle of Wyoming, who hoped to make it downriver to the relative safety of Fort Wilkes-Barre and Forty Fort. (No one thought to have boats tied up on the riverbanks for use if needed.) Beyond those trees, the black hills are actually culm banks well beyond the opposite riverbank, nearly a mile from where I was standing. "Culm" is the rock waste product from anthracite mining, a mixture of slate and low-grade coal that cannot be refined further in an economical manner. So instead it is piled up in great hills that once covered much of the landscape of Northeastern Pennsylvania. The culm is separated from the coal in buildings called "coal breakers," like the gray boxy building in the middle left.

Beyond the culm bank, more than six miles from where I stood to take this photo, is a line of wind turbines along a ridge. They can be seen here behind and to the sides of the transmission tower.

Throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, coal from the Wyoming Valley supplied power to this nation and its industrial expansion. Anthracite coal burns hot and relatively cleanly, at least when compared to the more common bituminous coal found in West Virginia and elsewhere. Coal mining provided a source of income to many of the people of this area. But it also killed and sickened may of those same workers, through mining accidents and "black lung," the buildup of coal dust in the lungs that resulted in emphysema and, ultimately, death. As revenue from coal mines dwindled, with the Knox Mine Disaster being be final straw, the coal mining companies abandoned their operations and left the area - placing upon the residents of Northeastern Pennsylvania the burden of dealing with the consequences of coal mining: the mine fires, the poisoned creeks and streams contaminated by flowing through old mines, the unpredictable collapses of old mines - where else other than Northeastern Pennsylvania are homeowners required to buy mine subsidence insurance, just in case a gaping hole should open on their property and consume some or all of their house?

The wind turbines are a more recent addition to the landscape. I noticed them suddenly back in 2006, though they may have been constructed months before I spotted them as I was coming home one afternoon. This group is just one of several constructed throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania. They  are not without controversy; some have criticized them for causing bird deaths. Turbine operators are hardly blase about bird-turbine collisions, as such a thing can easily damage a turbine blade. Turbines have "off" switches and are frequently turned off for servicing; it would be no large matter to temporarily shut down the turbines during times when they  might interfere with migrating birds.

Two aspects of Northeastern Pennsylvania's energy picture are not seen here. Some feel that Pennsylvania is not an ideal location for solar energy generation. However, Pennsylvania receives about as much incident solar energy as Germany, the nation  that is a world leader in the generation of electricity from sunlight. By following the German model, Pennsylvania can easily become a successful solar electricity generator. And anyone who still doubts is directed to view the (literally) green solar energy collection and conversion systems throughout this image. Yes, that's right - trees.

One other piece of the energy picture remains. (Two, if you count nuclear, which I don't; we have a local nuclear power plant in Salem Township near Berwick, it's past its rated lifetime, it's under consideration for expansion, and it supplies its energy to New York and New Jersey.) That is the extraction of natural gas entombed in layers of shale using a process known as hydro-fracturing, or "fracking." It is neither a safe nor a carefully-executed process, according to an article in no less a publication than the Wall Street Journal. It has resulted in numerous documented cases of drinking-well contamination. The uncontrolled release of methane - a clean-burning fossil fuel that happens to be an extremely powerful greenhouse gas when released directly into the atmosphere - has been detected. Migrating (and sometimes spilled or even dumped) fracking chemicals have resulted in ground and water contamination, even road damage. Fracking consumes many millions of gallons of water, locking it underground in deep shale prisons and effectively removing it from the hydrosphere forever.And accidents caused by reckless "roughnecks" imported into the area from other states have resulted in at least one death.  Meanwhile, residents dealing every day with the consequences of coal mining in the area are not entirely convinced that gas-drilling companies can be trusted when they state that they will clean up after themselves.

Two hundred and thirty-four years ago some brave and foolish men and boys took upon themselves the task of defending their homes, their farms, what they thought of as their homeland, from invading marauders bent on its destruction. Today, many of us feel the same when it comes to energy development. We have options available to us that will increase our energy independence and decrease our need for fossil fuels. We also have an option available that will slip the yoke of fossil-fuel dependence upon our necks while at the same time resulting in immediate and long-term environmental consequences.  Which one will we choose?

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