Stupid burning stuff

Denver Post/July 2015

By Alex Miller

On a recent return trip from downtown on the light rail, our car for a time rode next to a parked freight train full of coal in Union Station. For a few minutes, as we rolled past the seemingly endless line of cars brimming with the black stuff, I was able to leisurely regard the sight of a killer. Right out there in the open, for anyone to see, was a substance estimated to cause 13,000 premature deaths in the U.S. each year, and it was on its way down from Wyoming to do its dirty work in the power plants of America.

That may sound a little hyperbolic, but that’s a big number — the equivalent of some 1,444 Dylann Roofs or 1,083 James Holmes or 4.3 9/11s.  And it happens every year, and it’s not just coal. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 8 deaths worldwide each year are a direct result of all kinds of air pollution, most of which comes from stuff we dug out of the ground to burn for fuel.

Think about that: We dug it out of the ground and burned it for fuel. That’s how we’ve powered our society for a few hundred years, and while that statement may have seemed reasonable in, say, 1885, it makes increasingly little sense today when healthier, less damaging options are becoming more readily available.

Yes, I’m aware that I’m burning coal right now to type this column. I also know we’ll need to rely on Stupid Burning Stuff for a few more years as renewable energy becomes more established, efficient and affordable. It’s happening at a quicker pace than we’d imagined even a few years ago, fueled by cheap solar panels, more wind energy, better battery tech, increasing fuel economy standards for cars and other increased regulations.

These are interesting times, energy-wise. While renewable energy is surging, so, too, is domestic oil and gas production — due largely to the proliferation of oil and gas produced via the sketchy practice of fracking. And coal, even as its prevalence and influence wanes, is still being dug up, hauled about, shoveled into ovens and burnt for energy all over the world. “Clean coal” is a myth, a devious phrase meant to trick us into thinking technology exists that will strip every nasty thing out of that smokestack.

Well, maybe it does, but nobody wants to pay for it.

Meanwhile, coal’s liquid doppelganger continues to spill, blow up, pollute air and water and generally make a mess wherever it goes. Like beer and milk, oil is a substance that seems always to be straining at its container, yearning to be free. It spills willy-nilly in the oceans, lakes and rivers of the world on a regular basis, and yet we’re constantly on the lookout for more places to plunder.

How about the Arctic? Nothing could go wrong there, right?

On land, the tankers’ partner in crime, the pipeline, is busily spewing oily muck in various locales: more than 20,000 barrels from the Tesoro pipeline in North Dakota in September, 2013; up to 7,000 barrels of heavy crude from the Exxon Mayflower pipeline in a suburban neighborhood in Arkansas in March, 2013. And just this May, 100,000 gallons of crude oil defiled the waters off Santa Barbara.

And then there are all those rail cars full of oil and other scary stuff that have a disturbing proclivity toward the cataclysmic accident. When these things go off the rails and blow up and burn, we can’t even fight the fire. We just have to watch it, black smoke billowing and metal melting and communities terrified for days on end.

It’s really a terrible idea, after all, this Stupid Burning Stuff. But the writing is on the wall for its imminent demise, despite the best efforts of Big Oil and their climate-change denying stooges in Congress.

It just can’t come soon enough.


Alex Miller is a marketing writer in Highlands Ranch.

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