Life Without Fossil Fuels? Careful What You Wish For

Life Without Fossil Fuels?

Careful What You Wish For

Editor’s Note: Mike Zagata, Ph.D., who lives in Davenport, is a former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. This is reprinted from this week’s Free


Mike Zagata
Mike Zagata

There is virtual agreement that we must move away from fossil fuels to energy sources that are renewable.

First, fossil fuels are non-renewable, i.e. at some point we will run out of them. Second, there are scientists and politicians that believe the burning of fossil fuels contributes to climate change.

No matter which reason one chooses to support, there is a legitimate need to begin now to seek energy sources that are renewable and increasingly more environmentally friendly. We’re already beginning to see some promising alternatives such as uranium mining, but it is also important to recognize early on that there is no such thing as a “free lunch” when it comes to energy. Each alternate we seek, be it solar, hydro-power, tidal power, wind power, etc., will have environmental impacts.

For example, with wind power there is an issue with the impact of the vanes on birds. With hydro-power there are fisheries impacts like the declines of Western salmon runs. In the long run, it will become a matter of trade-offs and political will.

There are those who argue we should cease producing and burning fossil fuels right now. There are others who favor using them as a bridge to provide our energy until we have feasible alternatives. A mere year ago there were people who argued that the problem would take care of itself as fossil fuels would price themselves out of the market. As we now know, just the opposite has happened and gas is now less than $2 at the pump.

Let’s take an honest look at what life in the US would be like if the government banned the use of fossil fuels tomorrow.

Those fortunate enough to be able to afford to install solar panels on their roof or in their yard would appear to have an advantage over the rest of us. Is that really the case? They might well have enough electricity to heat or cool their home during the daylight hours. However, solar panels don’t generate electricity at night. What would happen then? They would be like the rest of us and freeze during winter and swelter during summer.

If they drove their electric car to work expecting to recharge it overnight guess what – they’re out of luck. You see that wall outlet or fancy recharging station formerly got its electricity from a coal-fired plant. Coal is a fossil fuel and thus can no longer be burned to generate electricity. If they’re going to recharge their electric vehicles, it will have to be done at work if they have enough of a charge to get there.

Those of us who awaken to the aroma of bacon and eggs would need to awaken much earlier to stoke up the wood stove (wood consists of the same ingredients as coal, but it’s not yet “fossilized” so it might be legal to burn). Our gas stove or electric stove that gets its electricity from generating plants that burn coal or gas (God forbid we use nuclear energy!) would no longer have a fuel source as fossil fuels are banned.

Wood stoves emit particulates that, when conditions are right, may cause inversions where polluted air is trapped near the ground and people are forced to breathe it. That’s not good for people with emphysema or other lung issues. Air quality in Denver, Colo., got so bad as a result of wood-burning stoves, that the city banned their use during certain weather patterns. Having to cut our own wood might provide an unexpected health benefit as we would likely become more fit. Cutting more trees might even benefit certain songbirds that rely on openings in the forest for food.

For those of us who like to drive to meetings so we can plan our strategy for protesting something, we would be in for a shock. As previously discussed, electric vehicles would likely be home-bound. Our cars and trucks definitely would be. Gasoline is a fossil fuel; burning it would be banned. Not only would our freedom to travel via the car be restricted – so would our ability to travel via the airplane as jet-fuel is also derived from fossil fuel. There went those mid-winter breaks to Florida. What about overnight mail via FedEx or UPS? The Post Office would need to revert back to the pony express.

Even if we could burn the gas, diesel or jet fuel, we wouldn’t have a car, truck or plane to burn it in. Cars and trucks are mostly steel and plastic and, you guessed it, natural gas is used in the manufacture of steel and petroleum products are used to make plastic. Airplanes are mostly aluminum and manufacturing aluminum is very energy intensive. Even more surprising is that petroleum is used to make synthetic rubber and 70 percent of our rubber today is synthetic. It takes about seven gallons of petroleum to make one typical tire. What happens when we run out of the existing stock of tires if fossil fuels are banned?

Our clothing would also undergo a dramatic change. Synthetic fibers are petroleum based. Cotton fields and sheep would again dot the countryside as we would be forced to use “natural” fibers like cotton and wool. Packaging, as we know it today, would be a thing of the past.

Instead of bacon and eggs we could eat cereal – or could we? Petroleum is a key ingredient in fertilizer and pesticides/herbicides. Instead of going to the local grocery store, we would be maintaining our own garden and that can be labor intensive – especially without a way to control pests. The examples are real – just as the need to continue using fossil fuel as a bridge to the future is real. Please take a minute and reflect on all the things you use every day that require fossil fuels. Without them our lifestyle would undergo a dramatic change for the worse. With them we have a window of opportunity to find alternatives that will both enable us to maintain our lifestyle and protect the quality of our environment.

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