U.S. still grappling with energy transformation

On the 45th anniversary of Earth Day this week, there are many positive developments in ensuring the protection of the environment. But the effort to produce a more uniform and “green” energy policy for the United States is going slower than expected.

On the positive side, the Obama administration and several states — including Delaware — have acted quickly to plan ways to reduce global warming in response to the reports of four different groups about record temperatures in 2014. Among the methods proposed are lessening methane emissions and increasing public transit. Further, more states are experimenting with solar and wind power on a large scale and are creating the infrastructure to convert to these sources.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

However, traditional energy sources such as coal, natural gas and oil continue to have challenges. The coal industry is still active and is thriving in exports to other nations. Though coal’s contribution to electricity production remains high, its use as a total of American energy output has been falling. Coal conversion to cleaner sources of energy, while expensive, has improved in the last decade.

Although natural gas seems plentiful and cheap, questions about the potential dangers of fracking have slowed the pace of production and resulted in some states rejecting the extraction technique entirely. One recent study revealed that Oklahoma, a state which permits and utilizes fracking extensively, experienced more than its share of tremors or mini-earthquakes ostensibly tied to the practice.

The petroleum industry is still recuperating from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which occurred five years ago. Most tragically, 11 workers perished in the explosion of the drilling rig, which was operated by British Petroleum.

For almost three months in 2010, beginning with the explosion of the rig and failure of the blowout preventer underwater, more than 4.9 million barrels, or 210 million gallons, spewed into the Gulf waters. The litany of BP mistakes made in trying to cap the well is familiar to most, but one which was avoided was not taking the advice to use a nuclear blast to stop the leak.

While BP’s quick acceptance of a $20 billion cleanup fee was applauded, civil and criminal settlements from the crisis have exceeded $20 billion and there are still hundreds of victims waiting for payouts. According to NBC News and several environmental studies, there have been at least three negative consequences of the BP spill.

First, dolphins who swim in the Louisiana area have experienced reproductive problems and a record number of strandings. Second, turtle nesting at various points in the Gulf region has been decimated. Finally, with coastal erosion has come less space for birds and wildlife. Even if fishing seems to have recovered in some spots, plumes of oil residue remain a toxic brew for marine life.

Going forward, overland transport of petroleum is of great concern to federal and state officials, given the rash of recent accidents. Other than ensuring the truck and rail safety, evacuation plans for stationary refineries should be reviewed and reapproved on a periodic basis, as is done in the nuclear industry.

Earth Day’s original celebration educated and excited a generation of youth to take charge of their environmental future. Four-and-one-half decades later, many of those young people are now in positions of authority and serving in government. It is up to them to take appropriate action now and up to all of us to keep our commitment to sustainability strong in the future.

Editor’s note: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. While earning an MA degree from American University, Dr. Hoff worked for Clean Water Action Project in Washington.

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