"THE ROCKIES MAY CRUMBLE..."
Amid the tumult in Washington last week, some people may have missed what President Carter said about the environment. "We will protect our environment," he declared in his energy address. Then he added, "But when this nation critically needs a refinery or pipeline, we will build it." Behind the presidential rhetoric, the presidential meaning is clear: when they clash, Carter now will be more inclined to favor the imperatives of energy over those of the environment.
There has always been some trade-off between the two, of course. Developers are forever warring with environmentalists, one side giving ground here, the other there. The adversaries in this protracted battle have acquired a grudging mutual respect. Few apostles of growth fail to at least pay lip service to the desirability of preserving natural resources and protecting public health. And only the most naive environmentalists espouse a pastoral society utterly free of automobiles and air conditioning. The upshot is an uneasy accommodation in which economic growth occurs within a framework of institutions and regulations painfully—and imperfectly—worked out to protect the environment.
There is reason to fear that Carter might be on the verge of destroying that framework. In his speech he called for greater conservation of energy by such means as improved insulation of homes and for the harnessing of solar energy, both commendable objectives. But he also proposed a major commitment to the development of synthetic fuels. And to make sure that "nothing stands in the way of achieving these goals," he said he would ask Congress to create an Energy Mobilization Board empowered "to cut through the red tape, the delay and the endless roadblocks to completing key energy projects."
The most ambitious—and worrisome—part of the program is its emphasis on synthetic fuels. In urging that $88 billion be spent to achieve production of two million barrels of "synfuel" a day by 1990, Carter risks adding to the grave environmental problems already caused by such toxins as PCBs (SCORECARD, July 16). His program would increase the pollution of rivers and might well pose additional health hazards to humans. Because it would require wide-scale strip mining of coal and intensive excavation of shale, it also has the potential to disfigure vast areas of the West. At a briefing on the President's energy program last week in Washington, a member of the National Association of Manufacturers said, only half in jest, "We sure as hell better convince those people in Colorado that cross-country skiing is more fun than downhill skiing, because we're going to have to level the state."
One of the synfuels Carter is promoting is liquefied coal. As many as 16 plants may be built in, among other places, Utah, Montana and Wyoming. The biggest problem with converting coal into liquid fuel is that the process produces toxic waste, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a number of which cause cancer. These wastes would create risks for workers and would inevitably leach into ground water. Another concern is that great quantities of water would be required to process the staggering total of 100,000 tons of coal that would be used daily at each plant, further depleting already scarce water supplies.
Another synthetic fuel is shale oil. This probably would be produced at eight plants, most of them in Colorado. Roughly 1� tons of shale must be cooked at temperatures of almost 900� to extract a single barrel of oil, and disposal of the spent rock is complicated by a "popcorn effect": when heated, the shale puffs up and increases in volume by 20%. Much of the rock would be dumped into canyons and during heavy rainfall would leach salt and large amounts of arsenic, both of which would find their way into rivers, conceivably making the water unsafe for drinking or agriculture.
One of the Energy Mobilization Board's apparent purposes would be to sidestep federal and state environmental laws. Russell Peterson, president of the National Audubon Society, was among the 136 people who met with the President during his stay at Camp David, but other prominent environmentalists had to be content with a briefing by White House assistant Katherine Schirmer following the energy speech. She promised that well-intentioned people would be put in charge of the synfuel program, prompting one listener to express a preference for a government of laws. According to an environmentalist who attended the meeting, Schirmer replied, "For energy, we're going to have government of men and women, not laws."
The Harvard Business School, which can scarcely be accused of an anti-growth bias, recently completed a six-year study that found development of synfuels to be a far less promising course than increased conservation and greater reliance on solar energy. That conclusion was reached partly on economic grounds; and indeed, there is substantial evidence that the cost and technological difficulties of developing synfuel to the point where it can possibly help ease the energy shortage will far exceed Carter's estimations. At the same time, he almost certainly has underestimated the potential rewards of conservation and solar energy.
Concern over the environment takes many forms, and even reasonable men may care little about, say, highway beautification or the survival of the snail darter. The threat to the environment and to human health inherent in Carter's energy program is not so easy to dismiss. The perils are of such magnitude that a tradeoff to allow the development of synfuels might not be worthwhile under any circumstances. With better energy alternatives available, it certainly isn't worthwhile. In the President's pledge to let nothing stand in the way of his energy policies, that one word—nothing—is chilling in its finality.