T. Boone Pickens gave a talk Wednesday night called “Solving America’s Energy Crisis.” It had a lofty title, but the content did not live up to it.
The “Pickens Plan” is an ambitious plan to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Yes, this dependence is a national security threat and the “270 million vehicles” currently running on oil in this country represent an enormous failure in innovation. Yes, his plan would reduce the amount of oil we import and consume. But at what cost?
Mr. Pickens repeatedly touted natural gas as “clean, affordable, abundant and ours.” How? It’s extracted by hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), which involves digging wells into shale beds with natural gas reserves and using a mixture of water and chemicals to put so much pressure on the rock bed that it fractures. Gas reserves are brought to the surface along with the “flowback,” the recovered fracturing fluids, which is then discharged into surface water or injected underground. Does this sound “clean”?
When I asked Mr. Pickens about the environmental risks of extraction, and whether decreasing our foreign oil dependence in favor of natural gas would be a fair trade-off environmentally, he gave the very political answer that he did not know of any risks. I made the mistake of backing down too soon. As a geologist, how is he not aware that our drinking water aquifers can be polluted by both surface and underground contaminants? That toxic chemicals released into the ground eventually end up seeping into the water table? That the fracturing of bedrock thousands of feet underground is not an exact science — that breaks cannot be controlled, and gas leaks inevitably occur in this process? These are all obvious risks of fracking, supported by the hundreds of cases of well pollution, livestock epidemics and environmental degradation brought against natural gas companies. It’s even the subject of a congressionally mandated E.P.A. investigation. If he “doesn’t know,” Pickens is either exhibiting a lack of knowledge about his own plan, which shouldn’t inspire confidence, or simply giving a canned answer that won’t hurt its image.
There is an extreme lack of up-to-date information and research on the subject. Halliburton, for example, was subpoenaed by the E.P.A. just last November for information on the chemicals it uses in injecting fluids. This brings me to the other problem with the Pickens Plan: it is just as shortsighted as our current thinking. He said that we have about a 200-year supply of natural gas under current demand, which would realistically translate to about 50 years under his plan — does this sound abundant? We are sacrificing the millions of gallons of water it takes to extract natural gas (“negligible”, he said), the drinking water for those living above shale gas reserves, including residents of New York City and Philadelphia, and the millions of trees that will need to be deforested to build gas wells. All this for a plan which would optimistically get us through the next 50-100 years. The plan says nothing about reducing fossil fuel consumption; it talks about wind only briefly, but doesn’t give it priority, let alone other renewable energies such as solar, geothermal and biodiesel. It relies on immediate fear of OPEC rather than true thought about the effects of our shortsighted actions.
Mr. Pickens warned that if we don’t adopt his plan now, we will be remembered as the generation that failed to exploit an abundant natural resource right under our feet. But wouldn’t that be better than becoming the generation who caused the misguided destruction of the water supply and lands of whole regions of our country? Haven’t we learned by now not to fall for shortsighted fixes? Let’s not make the same mistakes again. Don’t be blinded by Mr. Pickens’ lofty rhetoric — think about who his proposals would really benefit. Don’t pick his plan.
Julie Botnick is a freshman in Branford College.