9 December 2010

Goal: Harness Energy Without Losing Air, Soil, and Water Quality

Posted by John Freeland

Oil sands facility, Fort McMurray, Alberta. Photo David Dodge, The Pembina Institute.

Energy extraction, including drilling and mining, is one sector of our economy that’s has been especially damaging to soils, like those near the oil sands operations in Alberta shown in the above photo.

As a soil scientist, I’m interested in sustainable land use that recognizes the life-supporting services of healthy soils. That means, to the extent feasible and practicable, our infrastructure, agriculture, and energy systems need to preserve the fundamental role of soil as the foundation of terrestrial ecosystems. Any activity that significantly damages soil quality is an activity to avoid unless that activity is essential and the soil impacts are unavoidable and minimized. Unavoidable impacts should be mitigated.

As for the oil sands, even with eventual land reclamation (interesting video from Suncor Energy), it’s difficult to see how the future revegetated tailings basins would be used as anything other than wildlife habitat. Wind turbines can work in traditional agricultural settings without significantly impacting the soil or prior land use. Land and water requirements are certainly modest, compared to surface mining operations.

Wind turbines in farm field near Bowling Green, OH

What are the land costs of a particular energy generating system? Are they permanent or temporary? Likewise, what are the water costs? How will the air quality be affected? How will the changes in surface conditions affect the way the land heats and cools? These questions and many more need to be addressed, not just dollar amounts, as society compares its options and chooses its energy future.