Last week, Santee Cooper announced that their reliance on coal for generating electricity is at a 50-year low. Couple that with the fact that the utility company recently decided to close four coal-based generators by the end of last year and it seems like good news for environmentalists.
However, Santee Cooper's decreased dependence on coal is not the direct result of a move toward a clean, renewable energy source. The energy company was motivated to close the plants because the cost of upgrading the facilities to meet new environmental guidelines was too much. But new regulations aren't the only obstacles the energy sector faces.
Energy producers are also dealing with problems related to the long-term storage of coal ash, a problem highlighted by a 2008 environmental disaster at a Tennessee Valley Authority facility. After the embankment on a coal ash pond collapsed, 5.4 million cubic yards of ash flowed into a nearby river, polluting waterways and destroying homes. While coal ash can be reused in a number of ways, even the pro-coal American Coal Ash Association — yes, there really is such a group — acknowledged in 2008 that only 43 percent of the estimated 131 million tons of ash produced each year is re-purposed.
Even without these concerns about storing coal ash, coal itself has been the subject of great debate in our national energy debate. Mining is still a big business, and coal still plays a major role in policy development. This is why President Barack Obama often mentions "clean coal" in the same breath as other "green" or "renewable" energy options. It is part and parcel with our bizarre and completely irrational attachment to fossil fuels.
In fact, part of what makes the news from Santee Cooper so frustrating is that like many other utility providers across the country, the energy company is becoming increasingly reliant on natural gas.
You may remember T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman who spent a lot of his time and money in 2008 on commercials pleading for more natural gas production, as well as the development of renewable energy sources. You may have even wondered, as I did, why a wealthy guy like Pickens didn't just start drilling for natural gas on his own? The reason is pretty simple. For this to be profitable for businessmen like Pickens and other champions of natural gas over oil, certain restrictions on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, need to be removed. And since fracking is a controversial practice, it just so happens that the best way to convince people to support the removal of these restrictions is to run a lot of TV commercials that scare up a lot of the usual anti-Middle Eastern sentiment in order to get oil-loving Americans on a different energy-source bandwagon.
Fracking, of course, became a household word shortly after the release of Josh Fox's controversial documentary Gasland. In this film, Fox examines how fracking has damaged the environment. In one Pennsylvania town, fracking has so contaminated the ground water with methane that people are able to create small gas explosions just by holding a lighter over their kitchen sinks. However, the issue is far simpler than whether or not fossil fuels are bad for us.
The truth of the matter is that fossil fuels are finite. Eventually, there will not be any more oil, coal, or gas to extract. Personally, I find the fact that BP produces commercials about its alternative energy research division to be a good indicator that they believe peak oil — the point at which oil production will reach its highest annual point then decline until no more oil is available — is right around the corner. And if an oil giant like BP realizes this, there really is no need to debate the cleanliness of fossil fuels, or their effect on our health or the climate. Instead we should be focusing our efforts on finding alternative energy sources — not because it's good for the environment or it frees us from Middle East dependence— but rather because we must.