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U.S. needs to kick its gas addiction

U.S. needs to kick its gas addiction (credit: Emily Giedzinski/) U.S. needs to kick its gas addiction (credit: Emily Giedzinski/)
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At the start of October, the state-owned power company of Saskatchewan, Canada, began operating a new state-of-the-art power plant. It’s the first of its kind: a coal burning plant that manages to drastically cut its CO2 emissions by capturing up to 90 percent of the greenhouse gas produced, then pumping it deep underground, below what geologists assure is a nonpermeable layer of stone.

I believe them, although I’m sure that, as this technology is used on more and more plants, we’ll see failures on occasion, and fixing them will prove costly. Plus, the sequestration technology is being touted as equivalent to taking 250,000 cars off the road, which is something I have no complaints with. However, what I do have a problem with is the fact that this plant will still be adding 27,777 cars to the road with just the 10 percent of CO2 that will be escaping into the atmosphere.

In the meantime, all of the other coal- and fossil fuel-fired plants currently in use are releasing more than their fair share of CO2 (not to mention toxic radioactive ash). There are ways to clean up the fossil fuel-based power generation and, as retrofits to existing plants, sequestration technology is a worthwhile pursuit. But it’s like switching from cigars to filtered cigarettes: At the end of the day, you’re still addicted to something that is actively harming you.

The companies that stand to profit the most from our current global reliance on fossil fuels are attempting to do what tobacco companies did in the 1950s and ’60s, when the scientific evidence proving the link between cancer and cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and chewing tobacco, became almost universally accepted. Those companies were able to use their massive pools of capital to slow the implementation of regulations to promote the health of the population, which had the side benefit of decreasing the environmentally-taxing cultivation of tobacco.

Then, as now, opposition came from politicians taking money from a powerful economic block. They were backed by right-wing commentators who valued the “personal” liberty of major corporations and their owners to make a profit at the expense of both individuals and the health of the greater public. The current capacity of right-wing pundits to deny, misinterpret, and outright lie about the overwhelming scientific data about climate change was alive and well then too.

Consider Ayn Rand, the intellectual godmother to the libertarian movement, and a habitual smoker. Rand decried the “anti-smoking lobby” her entire life, even after having a cancerous lung removed in 1974. The most prominent floral arrangement at her funeral was a 6-foot-tall dollar sign.

Oil companies and the right wing both continue to point to “clean coal” technologies and talk about the financial costs associated with developing and installing alternative energy sources, as well as the loss of jobs in the mining sector. They’re right that it won’t be a simple matter to move away from traditional fossil fuels: They’re relatively easy to get, and cheap compared to the alternatives.

Quitting smoking, like kicking the fossil fuel habit, isn’t easy. But despite the urgings of groups like Greenpeace, it doesn’t have to be cold turkey. Nuclear energy has the potential to be our Nicorette. It has its drawbacks in the form of long-lasting waste, but it’s comparatively easy to collect and control, and there’s a lot less of it to capture and store. Carbon sequestration solves one problem of fossil fuels, but produces another.

We need to accept the fact fossil fuels are a dangerous base for our society that might prove one day to be an existential threat. We’ve already had warning signs in the form of higher tides, bigger storms, and dryer droughts. As a society, we need to suck it up and kick the habit.