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The toxic legacy of mined energy

We are stardust ? Well, not quite. As carbon-based lifeforms we’re actually the offspring of a young sun, composed of the lighter elements, with a low concentration of a few transition metals essential for our health and vitality. Irn Bru, anyone ?

The actual products of exploding old stars that got lodged in the crusty skin of the accreting Earth are often quite toxic to us. Over millions of years, heavy and radioactive elements, being of no use to the ecosystem, have been deposited at the bottom of lakes, seabeds, and ended up lodged in seams of coal, and caverns of petroleum oil and Natural Gas. Uranium ores and other nasties have been overlain by forests and deserts, and only rarely vent, like radon, from Vulcan’s infernal lairs.

And what do humans do ? We dig this stuff up to burn or fission for energy, and when we do it creates toxic waste, that hurts us, and the life around us. Why are we surprised that mercury from the coal power industry is killing fish and harming children ? Why is it a shock that the tailing ponds from mining tar and oil sands are devastating pristine wilderness and waterways ?

The daughter radionucleides from Nuclear Power are a cornucopia of toxic elementals. It’s not only radiation that we need to quarantine – we need to keep these cooling ponds of dangerous chemistry, vials of demon blood, away from surface life, or risk teratogenic, congenital damage to the wider gene pool.

Those who adovcate for new Nuclear Power, and dangle shiny new toys, apparitions of unproven nuclear technologies, in front of our energy-greedy faces, need to think carefully. The human race, collectively, hasn’t yet managed to safely dispose of the last century of radioactive and highly toxic nuclear waste. It would be insane to create more. We can’t dispose of the problem simply by making depleted uranium into weapons and inventing enemies to shower with the stuff.

And those who believe that we have the liberty to keep mining the Earth for coal, petroleum and Natural Gas of worsening quality, need to recognise the risk of toxic overload to our local environments. This is a dangerous game, to chase after more toxic and complex hydrocarbons and coal with diminishing energy returns.

Shale gas, the “gamechanger” or “game changer” of the energy industry over the last couple of years is bringing a whole new dictionary of toxic risks from the hidden graves, the sedimentary strata below, to the sunlight realm of the living on the surface of the planet. The “frackers” are poisoning waterways and aquifers and soils, just as efficiently as fallout from a punctured Fukushima reactor in meltdown.

But even if the regulations are devised and enforced to limit this damage, it won’t make Shale Gas clean-burning. The Law of Diminishing Energy Returns is in play – shale gas wells deplete faster than other gas wells, and so infrastructure needs to keep moving on from place to place. More plant construction and more heavy vehicle traffic mean that there is more air pollution. So, even if the hydraulic fracturing fluid is safely disposed of, the higher level of truck traffic will create a danger we thought we’d finally regulated out – smog :-

There are finite limits to energy we can dig up, and we’ve already gone far enough in our mass alterations of the life support system we call Earth :-

Any which way you look at it, mining and pumping energy out of the ground is becoming less and less beneficial. It’s time to move on, into a 21st Century drive for ambient, quiet, safe, truly clean energy.

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