Organic vs. inorganic or nonorganic, terrorism vs. freedom and democracy, dirty oil vs clean, free range vs. feedlot, farmed salmon vs. wild.
These arguments seem so clear, so black and white, right and wrong, but there is one more that could be added to the list: pirate vs. privateer. If you were Spanish Francis Drake was a pirate (read evil) and if you were English he was a privateer, a man fighting to keep your country safe from the evil Spaniards.
Your perception of the issue will be different depending on what you think you already know about it. The language used to describe that issue will definitely play a part in how you perceive it, whether you know it or not. In this four-part series, I will take a look at some of these dichotomies of language that protesters, governments and industries use to sway public opinion.
To read Part 1 go here.
Part 2 of 4: Dirty oil vs. Clean
The argument behind the dichotomy of dirty vs. clean makes perfect sense at first glance. Dirty is bad, clean is good. Clean keeps you healthy, it is good for the environment, it is good for the senses, but is dirty all that bad? Ask my children after a rainy day and a few puddles to splash in and they will say no. The truth is that humans are dirty and all human activity creates some kind of mess to our environment. Dirty is not necessarily bad and labeling something as bad does not help the discussion.
In technical terms there are dirty petroleum products, which refers to crude oils and residual fuels such as heavy fuel oils; also known as black products. There are also clean petroleum products, which refers to oil products that do not stain the surfaces in contact with them, e.g. jet fuel, gasoline, diesel oil, etc. This definition is not looking at the environmental impacts of the product but the physical ones.
When groups speak of “dirty” oil, are they making a case that there is “clean” oil? The argument against dirty oil is that the amount of carbon needed to mine the tar sands oil is greater than other methods. Are they comparing crude oil from “tar sands” to crude oil from traditional drilling? If that were the case the questions would be: Is Middle Eastern oil cleaner than Texas oil? Is oil drilled in Alberta cleaner than oil from Albertan tar sands? If one type of oil is better than the other should we not also be concerned about the governments behind the oil? Would they support a Saddam regime over a democratic one? Which country has more regulation and oversight into the mining process?
The interesting thing about this dichotomy is that these groups are not actually comparing dirty oil vs. clean oil. They are comparing dirty oil vs. clean energy.
Greenpeace sets up this dichotomy concisely:
“On the one hand, we have an oil industry-backed proposal to gamble our economic and ecological future on the rapid expansion of the tar sands being “sustainable” in a world already suffering from global warming. On the other hand, we have those who want to ramp up investment in green energy and energy efficiency to meet our energy needs without frying the planet.”
Another group goes so far as to call it dirty energy.
- Extracting dirtier and more dangerous sources of energy, or
- Responding to the climate crisis by embracing clean, renewable and efficient energy.
Earthworks’ No Dirty Energy Campaign works to break our dependence on dirty energy while championing cleaner choices. Our future depends on:
- Avoiding so-called “bridge” energy sources, such as natural gas or nuclear power, that pose greater long-term risk without solving fundamental problems.
- Ending the “race to the bottom” for dirtier, more dangerous and harder-to-reach energy sources.
- Supporting sustainable solutions like solar and wind power and energy efficiency.
The question needs to be asked though: is clean and “green” energy really that clean?
Having personally used alternative energy sources for a fair number of years, I can tell you this much:
1. None of those components are constructed without using petrochemical products in some form along the way.
2. A few DIY (do-it-yourself) wizards have managed to construct solar systems that cost less per watt than power purchased from your local utility company…but only a few. For the most part, you’re losing money when you go solar, even allowing for highly hyped government “credits”, “rebates”, and the like. (And that’s without considering the ugly truth that all of those coins coming back from Uncle Sam were stolen from you as taxes in the first place.)
3. While some studies swear up, down, and sideways that a solar system can pay for itself over time (years and years), most such puff pieces conveniently ignore the repair-and-replace factor. The wiring/cabling can indeed last for decades, but most (if not all) solar panels do degrade eventually…and the batteries in the battery bank can be a horror story unto themselves. Even the best deep cycle batteries, those specially designed for the purpose, can only be recharged a certain number of times before giving up the ghost. (Those puppies aren’t cheap, either. Try $1,000 per battery –or more– for some of the better models.)
In addition to all of those nasty cost factors (and the fact that you’d better check those batteries regularly) is one really “dirty” problem: Lead-acid batteries run on sulfuric acid, some of which is constantly “offgassing” directly into the atmosphere. Yes, this happens with your normal car battery, too. But the point is that “green energy” advocates declare solar energy to be clean energy…and free-floating sulfuric acid doesn’t exactly fit that definition.
Never mind the battery-disposal problem when it’s replacement time.
Solar power is not without it’s costs and environmental impact, how about wind or hydroelectric energy?
We also don’t know from the article what percentage of this new, clean, power is coming from wind as opposed to hydroelectric sources. Some of the windmills are employed pumping water back up into the artificial lakes that dams create. Does damming rivers and flooding valleys benefit the environment? Environmentalists used to be opposed to that sort of thing.
And then there are the birds. A single wind farm on Altamont Pass in California has been killing between five thousand and ten thousand birds a year. That is probably the extreme example, but it has been operating since the 1970’s! In case it hasn’t occurred to you, migratory birds often travel where the wind is.
Maybe wind power can meet part of the human need for energy in a way that benefits both us and is kinder and gentler to the environment. Maybe wind power is an economic sink hole that turns wind energy and bird and bat guts into government subsides. We might ought to know which is which before we invest more. One thing is for sure: the language of dirty vs. clean and green energy is an impediment to even asking the right questions.
Here is another case where human activity, our need for energy sources, means that no matter what we do, we will have an impact on our environment. If petrochemicals and metals are needed to make the plastic and other components of clean energy systems then we cannot stop all oil, gas and metal mining.
There is no question that we could be better stewards of the energy sources we use. For example, not everyone needs to commute to work, by themselves, in a giant SUV. However, calling for a complete stop to the mining and processing of these resources is also not an option.