Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Renewable energy or renewed pollution potential?

When the Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” I wonder if they were considering the development, or preservation, of language. That's become an  issue in the governance of the Navaho nation, according to this article from the guardian. The Navaho nation has some challenging governance choices. The article made me think about the choices presented to Minnesotans and the governance framework we have to help us make our choices. Most responsible adults that I know agree that moving away from fossil fuels and to more renewable sources of energy is likely to provide a more sustainable future for us and our grandchildren than continuing to dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. There are, as always, exceptions.

maple tree renewable photosynthesis
Photo by J. Harrington

Our reluctance to move ahead aggressively toward a renewable future while continuing to accommodate more risks from today's energy sources raises in my mind a different kind of question The question is: what are we trying to sustain? It remains, I think, an unanswered or not well answered question, especially when we take a look at some of the oil pipeline issues potentially affecting Minnesota's water resources. There is growing concern regarding the pollution potential of an oil spill near the headwaters tributaries of the St Croix River. A similar concern has been raised regarding another oil pipeline's potential impact on the headwaters of the Mississippi River. I've started to wonder about the framework for assessing these proposals. The St. Croix is a wild and scenic river with heavy recreational use. The Mississippi serves as a potable water source for a number of communities. I couldn't find a mention of the St. Croix serving such a role.

oak tree renewable photosynthesis
Photo by J. Harrington

I'm not trying to set up a question of which river is more or less expendable. I am wondering if Minnesota needs to have a better framework for assessing alternative pipeline routes versus rail transport on something more than a case-by-case basis. Do the Department of Natural Resources or the Pollution Control Agency have any insights to share about whether it would be more feasible to protect or clean up after a spill disaster in one location or another? This is a problem of growing significance as capacities are increased, because even the Wall Street Journal, that bastion of capitalism, notes that oil spills too often, for too long, go undetected by pipeline operators. But then, how many major population centers do the pipelines traverse? Is it time to think about bringing back something like the State Planning Agency to take a look at some of these broader questions? Or, should we just offer up a prayer, hope for the best and trust the railroads and oil companies to do right by us?


By Louis Untermeyer 

What are we bound for? What’s the yield
   Of all this energy and waste?
Why do we spend ourselves and build
       With such an empty haste?

Wherefore the bravery we boast?
   How can we spend one laughing breath
When at the end all things are lost
       In ignorance and death? . . .

The stars have found a blazing course
   In a vast curve that cuts through space;
Enough for us to feel that force
       Swinging us through the days.

Enough that we have strength to sing
   And fight and somehow scorn the grave;
That Life’s too bold and bright a thing
       To question or to save.

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