Skip
Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

4 minute read

What Do We Mean When We Say "Clean Energy"?

We need to stop using natural gas and nuclear on our way to truly clean power.

What Do We Mean When We Say "Clean Energy"?

Images: Merfin via Shutterstock

We now know how extensively and dangerously oil industry giants, such as ExxonMobil, sowed doubt in the American mind regarding the existence of global warming, it’s human-caused connection, and the negative environmental impacts resulting from extracting and burning dirty fossil fuels.

Doubt, it turns out, is a powerful weapon, which is why other big energy industries and interests are now getting on board the disbelieving bandwagon.

There’s new doubt-sowing being done and it’s equally dangerous. It has to do with what constitutes "clean energy." There’s fertile ground for it: Americans poll well when it comes to the concept of clean energy. And understandably so, it’s hard to disagree with clean energy.

Nobody wants dirty fossil fuels, and given that coal plants are closing all across this country, the energy industry is scrambling to present it’s next in line: natural gas and nuclear power. They’re claiming that it’s clean. And while we desperately need to get off dirty coal and oil, this bait and switch is dangerous.

We are here to say, categorically, that it isn't clean and any attempt to move America off of coal and oil and onto a heavy reliance on gas and nukes would be disastrous. Emissions would still be with us. Waste would still be with us. Insecurity would still be with us.

This isn't the direction we should go. We would be punting the climate can further down the road and postponing the necessary transition to a zero-carbon economy that is safe and secure for all Americans.

On natural gas, if one does an accurate accounting of its cradle-to-grave emissions, it’s impossible to say that it’s clean. It’s a massive methane emitter, air polluter, water poisoner, and it is prone to leaks and explosions. Shale gas is wrought with waste. Creating more global warming—per unit energy generated—than coal when accounting for its methane leaks, shale's carbon footprint is reaching levels 34% higher than the entire gas industry's 2014 footprint. No surprise: methane is 86 times more potent than CO2—per unit mass—as a global warming agent over a 20 year period. And it's impact on our water, air and land is alarming. Our drinking water is now "dangerous" in many American states, requiring urgent "hazard mitigation." Our air is toxic: carcinogenic benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and n-hexane all stem from fracking with long-term exposure leading to birth defects, neurological problems, blood disorders, and cancer. And the 2.3 million gas wells and associated well pads, roads, and storage facilities that pockmark the Great Plains of North America take up a land area the size of Maine. No one can in good conscience call any of this clean. It’s a fossil fuel that we must keep in the ground if we’re to keep warming to within 2 degrees Celsius, something we pledged to do at the Paris climate talks in December.

The false choice that pro-gas proponents proclaim—that it’s either gas, as a bridge fuel, or back to dirtier coal—is intended to confuse and obfuscate the debate. Those aren’t our choices. Yes, we must transition off coal immediately, but not to natural gas with its costly infrastructure and myriad negative externalities. Renewables are the only way. If we’re going to invest in new infrastructure, let’s make sure it’s what we want five, 10, 20 years from now. Using that as our measure, based on what we know we need to reduce in order to stay alive, then it’s solar and wind.

On nuclear power, the fact that we still do not have a home for the thousands of tons of nuclear waste merely makes every aging plant a ticking time bomb, especially when stored on site. Seven Nuclear Regulatory Commission engineers noted this month—in their personal capacity, notably, since the commission has a history of siding with industry—that 99 of America's 100 nuclear power plants have significant safety concerns. As an example, Indian Point Energy Center, a 50-year-old nuclear plant that sits above New York City on the Hudson River and is running on expired licenses, has had seven major malfunctions in the last year, including radiation leaks and oil spills. (And yet, despite this precariousness, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is allowing a gas pipeline expansion to take place immediately adjacent to the nuclear power plant.)

Until America’s aging nuclear plants stop leaking radioactive contaminants, dispose properly of their nuclear waste, and find a less destructive way of cooling its systems without killing billions of fish, eggs and larvae, then there’s no way we can call this energy clean. And don’t even get us started on the cost. To ramp up nukes, it’d clean out our energy budget quickly as plants are prohibitively more expensive and time intensive to build and repair. At a fraction of that cost we could ramp up renewable infrastructure instead.

Yet the purveyors of this "clean energy" agenda are trying to sell a bill of goods that future generations cannot afford. All of the above requires serious funding for serious infrastructure, stuff that will stick around for decades to come, putting us on a course for more emissions, not less. If we’re serious about clean and green, the only way forward is via a legitimate renewable agenda whose pollution, emission, and waste footprint is infinitesimally smaller than gas or nuclear.

We cannot allow big energy interests and industries to decide what gets dictated in the dictionary of record. No future student, as they’re choking their way to school, will look back on this history and agree with this industry’s definition. So before it gets written down for good, let’s strike it from an increasingly dirty record.

Michael Shank teaches sustainable development at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

Leilani Münter is a biology graduate turned professional race car driver and environmental activist.

loading