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OPINION: Earth

OPINION: Earth

The planet's health will shape the economy and the lives of future generations

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On Earth Day 2015, Nebraska regulators with ties to the oil and gas industry will decide the fate of a proposed fracking wastewater well that will serve as a toilet for the same industry’s toxic industrial waste from several states.

They say the site will be used to return saltwater produced by gas and oil drilling to a safe place a mile underground. On Friday, lightning struck an injection well in Greeley, Colo., setting some of that so-called water ablaze. According to the Associated Press, firefighters “had to wait for the explosion risk to subside” before they could approach the raging fire. And of course, that reassurance is coming from the same industry that five years ago this week spilled at least 134 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico after a massive explosion on an offshore oil platform owned by British Petroleum. The leak took months to cap and is still causing problems for fisheries, tourism and other industries today.

Keep that in mind when the industry’s shills tell us that there’s no possible hazard to people, agriculture or our water supplies.

But there’s good news. As you might have read last week, the Nebraska Public Power District, which has suffered bad publicity recently for its steadily climbing electrical rates, is planning one of the first electric plants in the nation powered by hydrogen. That might freak out some folks whose only experience with hydrogen is grainy historical footage from the Hindenberg zeppelin disaster. But although hydrogen burns explosively, it also burns cleanly. When it combines with oxygen in the process, the only emission is water — H2O. Not only that, but the operation near Hallam will bring 100 new jobs to rural Nebraska.

An existing company will capture hydrogen emitted during its manufacturing process, and NPPD will burn it in part of a former nuclear plant that had been converted to burning coal. The effort will help NPPD reduce its environmentally damaging greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 1.1 million tons. The project involves only one boiler in the two-boiler plant, but it’s a move in the right direction. Continuing to burn coal requires costly re-tooling to protect Nebraskans from exposure to fossil fuel toxins and comply with pollution limits.

According to the Center for Rural Affairs, a Nebraska research think tank, Nebraska ranks high among the states for energy consumption per capita, and consistently ranks in the bottom third among states for using energy efficiently. That’s confirmed by the financial website WalletHub, which ranked the nation’s “most and least eco-friendly states." Nebraska ranked 39th (higher numbers are bad), including 33rd for environmental quality and 41st for eco-friendly behaviors. Wyoming ranked 41st overall, including a ranking of 23rd for environmental quality but 44th in environmental behaviors, which include producing clean, renewable energy; per-capita consumption of electrical energy and gasoline; water consumption (including waste); recycling; and the percentage of population that walks, bikes, carpools or uses public transportation.

Some will argue that a low ranking in those areas is no big deal, but short-sighted decisions on energy production are driving up our rates, extending dependence on finite fossil fuels and changing the world’s atmosphere and weather. Bad decisions about how to deal with wastes from fossil fuel production could pollute Nebraska most valuable resource — subsurface water — and threaten agriculture, its most important industry. Developing renewable clean technologies isn’t a matter of who wins political squabbles, it’s important to our economy and the quality of life for future generations of Nebraskans. And in the long term, it’s inevitable.

Look at it this way: It’s not politics when you leave a campsite cleaner than how you found it. That’s just good citizenship. Many Americans have been duped into believing that our livelihoods depend on our willingness to indulge a chemical-dumping, oil-spilling, clearcutting, strip-mining, ocean-fouling, poison-spraying, habitat-wrecking corporate culture that’s turning America the Beautiful into a wasteland and cancer ward. We ought to insist that it take responsibility for its wastes and emissions at the source rather than fouling our air, water and soil — or sending them far down the road in tank trucks to become somebody else’s problem.

There’s nothing subversive about wanting to breathe clean air, eat healthy food, drink pure water and see wildlife abiding in places where it belongs. Earth Day won’t cost you any overpriced greeting cards or make you fat from eating heaps of unhealthy junk food. You won’t get the day off. At best, a few devoted volunteers and teachers will use the opportunity to counter the political propagandists who attempt to make environmentalism a dirty word and will share information, foster smarter habits and enlighten future generations.

Every step along that path helps to ensure mankind’s long-term survival and improve our stewardship of the only liveable planet we’ve been given.

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