Problems with million year old biomass

by Terry Lamphier

It was about 75 miles from Grass Valley as the wind blows (Glenn County) that I spotted a Halliburton trailer alongside of what appeared to be a natural gas extraction rig. Having seen the movie “Gasland” (available at Grass Valley’s Video Library), a documentary about the horrendous damage being caused by the natural gas industry (a result of then vice president Dick Cheney’s successful lobbying of Congress on behalf of Halliburton in 2005) I was immediately curious to see what operations look like.

Spotting a derrick in the distance, I drove out on a gravel levee to get a closer look and parked near a tanker marked with symbols indicating severe skin and respiratory danger (one inadvertent whiff from 40 feet away was enough to convince me).

My job as a County Supervisor involves being on committees that support biomass utilization – and one of its biggest hurdles is being competitive with natural gas, one of the problems that plagues the Loyalton biomass energy plant. I have since come to the opinion that if the true cost of natural gas extraction via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), with its extensive utilization of toxic chemicals, nearly unregulated release of toxic substances (including heavy metals and radon) and permanent damage to aquifers across the nation were factored in, biomass would have a real chance on the free market.

The last six years of deregulated natural gas extraction –with its examples of flammable tap water, animals losing fur and release of toxics into water supplies – have not gone unnoticed by some California legislators. A bill, AB591, is currently working through Sacramento that would require disclosure of fracking chemicals, an important first step that will help level the playing field. Given that central California’s Monterey Shale Formation, encompassing 13 counties, is alleged to be the largest and richest shale gas “play” in the nation (and a large northern California ‘play’ “is very promising”, according to bill sponsors), the timing is critical.

As to biomass utilization, the hurdles involve the aforementioned unfair environmentally subsidized competition, the challenges of costly and environmentally responsible transportation to processing facilities, the usual siting challenges of a new industry, and obtaining reliable and consistent “product”, start-up capitalization and supportive regulation.

The plus side is the opportunity for the creation of a vast number of new local, regional and national jobs (many of which do not require a high degree of training), utilization of a benign, readily renewable local resource, national security enhancement due to less reliance on foreign energy, and a nearly “carbon neutral” energy supply. It is important to note that there are environmentally and economically successful examples of biomass energy production in California.

There are compelling cases to be made for both “hard” (extractive) energy and “soft” (renewable) energy but unless and until science gives us a new, safe and reliable form of energy not yet seen on the planet, common sense dictates that we proceed conservatively with what we know and have.

Gary Greenberg, writing on new environmental books in a recent issue of Harper’s magazine, cites environmentalist Bill McKibben: “We know, definitively, that the old planet ‘worked.’ That is, it produced and sustained modern civilization. We don’t know that about the new one.” “(T)he big problem is that we’ve always been promised (by “every politician who ever lived”) that “‘our best days are ahead of us.'”

Greenberg goes on to cite a 1991 quote from Larry Summers: “there isn’t a risk of apocalypse due to global warming or anything else. The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error.”

McKibben offers a different view: “We’ve spent two hundred years hooked on growth” and it has “kept us perpetually adolescent…we’ve forgotten that between adolescence and senescence lies maturity, with it’s acceptance of mortality and cultivation of limits. We’ve been so busy growing, we haven’t bothered to grow up.”

Greenberg offers McKibben’s practical Vermont native perspective: “We will set and meet new, modest goals – to “”keep the lights on, the larder full, and spirits reasonably high” – with projects that are “myriad and quiet, not a grand few visible to the whole world.”

Regardless of where one stands in the debate, it is clear that humanity, with its multiple capabilities to permanently alter the globe and dramatically redefine “civilization” for the first time in human history, has to have unequivocal answers to the question: what does the maturity to responsibly manage and sustain ourselves look like?


Photo by Shirley Benedick

Grass Valley District 3 Supervisor Terry Lamphier’s views are not intended to represent the views of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors or staff. He lives in Grass Valley.

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