The Planetary Patient: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Thirty six years ago, our then President, Jimmy Carter, spoke directly to the American people about governance and energy independence in a speech titled, “Crisis of Confidence” – a speech derisively labeled “The Malaise Speech” by his then Republican Presidential opponent, Ronald Reagan.

Putting aside the fact that Carter never used the word “malaise” in the speech, it is instructive to look back three and a half decades later, and reflect on how much has changed, and how much remains the same, especially when it comes to the “1%” and our planet’s health relative to energy consumption.

Carter begins by sharing quotes from every day Americans that he has recently collected. They include:

“I feel so far from government. I feel like ordinary people are excluded from political power.”

“Some of us have suffered from recession all our lives.”

“Some people have wasted energy, but others haven’t had anything to waste.”

“The big-shots are not the only ones who are important. Remember, you can’t sell anything on Wall Street unless someone digs it up somewhere else first.”

A few paragraphs later, the President reflects, “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Later he describes a Washington that is tied in knots.

“What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another.”

If he was prescient about the politics at home, he was a bit short-sighted in his assessment of the energy crisis. Understandably, he sought to stem the tides of importation of oil from the Middle East. As one voter had told him, “ “Our neck is stretched over the fence and OPEC has a knife.” The Commander-in-Chief said, “Energy will be the immediate test of our ability to unite this nation, and it can also be the standard around which we rally. On the battlefield of energy we can win for our nation a new confidence, and we can seize control again of our common destiny.” As we have seen, that morphed into an aggressive philosophy of “Manifest Destiny” a few short decades later.

As for the immediate response to the crisis, as laid out on July 15, 1979, he recommended, “To give us energy security, I am asking for the most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in our nation’s history to develop America’s own alternative sources of fuel — from coal, from oil shale, from plant products for gasohol, from unconventional gas, from the sun.”

It’s amazing how, in such a short blink of human history, how much can change. But here we are, with the health of our “planetary patient” now hanging in the balance. Today, the potentially devastating impact of global warming is well understood and accepted by all, except the most stubbornly ignorant or politically expedient. Yet the crisis remains largely unaddressed.

Coal, most now agree, is irreparably dirty, and oil less clean than Carter’s “unconventional gas”. The oil shale, so celebrated in Canada, piled up to flow down a trans-national pipeline that will never be authorized, has become prohibitively expensive, and bears an enormous carbon footprint, as energy prices continue to head south. The promise of solar (and wind), even with continued technologic advances and improving cost effectiveness, has thus far wilted under the withering criticism of traditional fossil fuel energy investors anxious to jump on innovators at every hiccup in development.

A tumultuous Middle East, absent our subsidies as chief importers of their only real export, oil, remains an infectious threat to the “planetary patient”. Ungovernable, and living on the edge of civilization, their human populations cry out for civility, opportunity and modernity.

Our planet is changing, and yet in many ways, we humans stay the same – slow to adapt, wed to self-interest, long on aggression and short on wisdom.

Case in point: Fracking in Oklahoma for “clean natural gas”. Halfway between Tulsa and Oklahoma city sits a town of 8000 called Cushing Hub. It is also home to one of the largest oil tank storage facilities in the world. Which is fine, were it not also host to one of the largest fracking operations on the globe. That effort has resulted in the injection of tens of millions of barrels of wastewater underground. That lubricated liquid has apparently facilitated the movement of previously stable giant rock mantles, allowing them now to more easily slip over and under each other.

That the underground rock is on the move is clear from the numbers. In 2009, the area experienced 3 quakes measuring magnitude 3 or greater. Five years later, there were 585. Currently the Cushing oil storage hub holds 53 million barrels of crude awaiting transport to refineries in the south. In October, 2014, two quakes over 4.0 erupted just below the facility. Scientists are now predicting a 6.0+ quake as highly likely in the near future. One 5.7 or greater would disrupt the facility and cause a massive and devastating spill. Even the states oil and gas regulatory body, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, is concerned. But the state legislature isn’t too sympathetic. They cut the Commission’s budget by nearly 50% in response to their vocal concerns.

Speaking for the “planetary patient”, here’s the good and the bad news. We’re no longer energy dependent on the Middle East, but have managed to insert ourselves into that unforgiving environment with destabilizing effect, instigating among others problems a mass migration of our fellow humans of Biblical proportions.

Adding to the incredible, war-induced, loss of human life (including many civilians) and massive environmental degradation, we have directed our best energy technology solutions toward a energy choice that is fraught with environmental hazard.

Yes, we have begun to move from dirty to less dirty fossil fuels, and along with China, have begun to address global warming. But we have no rational national environmental controls on fracking. Rather we rely on energy industry controlled state bodies. Often those are the very same bodies who currently have Donald Trump in the lead among Republican primary candidates, and the same bodies responsible for gerrymandering voting districts and designing various new barriers to disenfranchise voting rights for young and poor citizens.

If the “planetary patient” could talk, what would she say about our choices on energy since Carter? Likely, she would note that our United States remains dramatically ununited in the pursuit of truly clean energy. Second, she might remind us that earthquake fault lines do not respect human designated geographic state boundaries. And third, that 35 years after President Carter’s speech, our problem with “crisis in confidence” remains, and will not be cured by high walls or rampant creed or blocking the vote. Rather it will require wise leaders and the will of a majority of determined and enlightened American citizens.