Something remarkable happened last week, Wednesday July 21, in Otsego County. It happened in other places, too — New York City, Philadelphia, Albany, Ontario, Boston — in fact in the entire northeastern part of the country.
Most people thought it was a heavy fog, typical of all the other heavy fogs that are apt to enshroud us in the mornings this time of year, only to disappear before noon when the sun burns through the atmosphere.
But it wasn’t that familiar heavy fog. It was smoke, and it came from the abundant, heavy, uncontrolled wildfires currently blazing far out west. And with it the National Weather Service sent out air quality warnings.
To date this year, more than 75 wildfires have scorched more than one million acres in 13 western states. The Bootleg fire in Oregon is the largest in the state’s history. It’s half the size of Rhode Island and so massive it has created its own weather. Of the fires in California, all but one exist by natural causes — extremely high temperatures — and they total more than 2,000 square miles of inconceivable heat, flame and threat.
And we are still in July, not August, when historically most wildfires spring up.
It’s recently been reported that Otsego Now, the economic development arm of Otsego county, is proposing a natural gas decompression station in Oneonta to help alleviate energy shortages that have plagued some businesses and institutions in the city.
Otsego Now is applying for a $3 million grant to help facilitate the project, which is estimated to cost $17 million.
Currently, SUNY Oneonta, Fox hospital, and Lutz Feeds suffer interrupted gas service during winter cold snaps when demand exceeds supply. Gas service is maintained for residential customers only by having these institutions inconveniently switch over to more expensive oil.
There has been talk of enlarging the existing NYSEG DeRuyter gas pipeline from Norwich to Oneonta. But Otsego Now Executive Director Jody Zakrevsky is quoted as saying that the estimated cost has ballooned to $100 million and may take a decade.
Zakrevsky estimates that the gas needed could be delivered to the proposed decompression station by two or three trucks a day for a couple of weeks a year.
This story leaves me scratching my head. Zakrevsky reports that natural gas is not only cheaper than oil, but that oil “pollutes more.” This ignores compelling evidence, first developed by Cornell University researchers, that natural gas is as much a polluting greenhouse gas as any other fossil fuel.
The pollution comes from cumulative seepage of methane during the life-cycle of natural gas production, from drilling to end-use. By the time the gas would get delivered to Oneonta – in what some call “bomb trucks” – the polluting damage would already have been done, starting back at the well-heads in Pennsylvania.
So why are we looking at the local energy scene solely through the lens of natural gas?
Why is there no serious consideration of non-fossil fuel alternatives?
We are facing a climate crisis. Our warm summer days feel good, but Arctic ice is melting, storms are getting more severe, and ecological instability is staring us in the face.
Under these circumstances, as I suggested in an earlier column, any proposal to expand the use of fossil fuels ought, at a minimum, to be accompanied by an equally funded parallel proposal to develop renewable energy.
We don’t have to rely on oil or gas. Efficient, low-cost heat exchange systems, which do not burn fuel, are now widely and cheaply available. The minimal electricity required to run such systems in our area comes from relatively clean hydro-sources.
Otsego Now might do better to forget the decompressor station and apply for a $3 million grant to convert residential and non-industrial systems from natural gas to heat exchange systems, and leave gas to those few situations for which it may be essential.
Somehow, there are always excuses why we can’t do renewables. Zakrevsky tells us that “weather and expensive batteries” are issues. Somehow the weather around here hasn’t stopped other solar projects from going forward.
As for the costs, here is where government subsidies, particularly from New York State, ought to come in. How much solar power is needed to make up for two or three gas trucks a day for a couple of weeks a year? How much solar power capacity can you buy for $17 million? How about a cost-benefit analysis?
For you pro-business people out there leery of borrow-and-spend, remember that’s how the Erie Canal, the railroads, the electrical grid, indeed America itself, mostly got built.
Neither government (socialism) nor business (capitalism) can do it by themselves. Government ought to be giving business the infrastructure it needs so that private enterprise can prosper, and it ought to make sure that the infrastructure we build doesn’t hurt the environment.
These kinds of decisions are too important to be left to a small agency like Otsego Now. What’s needed is comprehensive leadership – perhaps an Otsego County Energy Task Force – drawn from broad sectors of the community.
Other places are already doing it; just Google, for example, the “Tompkins County Energy Roadmap.”
Our Board of Representatives could take the lead in setting up such a Task Force for Otsego County, ideally composed of members from the colleges, businesses, non-profits, and other key sectors.
Once established, the Task Force ought to be empowered to make the decisions now left to Otsego Now. It should prioritize getting renewable energy subsidies, and be prepared to fight for them if they are not available.
Such a Task Force would be crucial in giving Otsego County a voice promoting its energy interests in Albany and beyond – something now sorely lacking.
Adrian Kuzminski, a retired Hartwick College philosophy
professor and Sustainable Otsego moderator, lives in Fly Creek.