Have we learned energy's true costs?

Thoughts from Kal Stein, EarthShare's CEO

It was just over a year ago on April 5, 2010 that the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia exploded and killed 29 workers. Then on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and spewing crude oil into the Gulf. The country held its breath for months as the oil company and response crews worked to stem the flow of oil and prevent contamination of surrounding beaches. The well was not capped until July 12, by which time almost 5 million gallons of oil spilled, resulting in the largest offshore spill in U.S. history.

More recently, the world watched with horror as Japan struggled to contain the radioactivity seeping out of damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The full toll on human health from this disaster will not be known for many years, just as it will take years to assess the damage to the Gulf, and just as coal-mining exacts a price and impacts miners and surrounding ecosystems for years.

What do these things have in common? Energy, plain and simple, and the very apparent human and environmental costs of obtaining the energy we need to fuel our lifestyle and economy.

WVA_minedisaster Can we count on these being isolated incidents? There are over 1,000 surface mines and more than 1,000 underground mines in the U.S., and more than 3,800 oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico alone. As for nuclear, there are 440 commercial nuclear power reactors operating in 30 countries, 56 countries operating a total of about 250 research reactors, and an additional 180 nuclear reactors power some 140 ships and submarines.

Few people ever see the incredible effort it takes to deliver a kilowatt nor the damage those efforts can cause. The fact is that our seemingly endless need for energy has an extremely high price, the full costs of which are not always reflected at the pump.  This includes human impacts and ecosystem damage that persist for a very long time, potentially even thousands of years in the case of nuclear waste.

That’s one of the reasons why EarthShare member organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Institute, Environmental Defense Fund, NRDC, and the Environment and Energy Study Institute, have been calling for increased energy conservation and the development of renewable sources for many years. Other reasons include our problematic dependence on foreign sources and the fact that the increasing cost of energy consumption will continue to be a drag on our struggling economy.

In fact, most consumers can make a huge contribution to the energy picture by practicing energy conservation at home, at work, and when traveling -- EarthShare and its member charities have many great tips for getting that done.  And, of course, businesses, governments and other institutions can also play a critical role by practicing conservation and seeking sustainability in their practices and policies.

But conservation alone will not get it done. There must be continued emphasis from all sectors to create a vibrant range of renewable energy options and the infrastructure to take advantage of those sources -- efficiently and safely.

Please learn more about what EarthShare's members charities are doing and how you can help advocate for a clean and safe energy future. And please learn about how you can save energy -- it may also save lives.

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