Craft energy policy to protect fresh water

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

By Heather White, Environmental Working Group chief of staff

Guaranteeing a clean and ample supply of water should be at the core of our energy policy. Sometimes Washington seems to have forgotten that. But a recent survey shows that the American people have not.

Earlier this month, the Civil Society Institute and the polling firm ORC International released a survey of Americans from the states hardest hit by the current drought, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Nevada, South Carolina and Texas. It found that most Americans–regardless of political affiliation — understand the connection between extreme weather events and the nation’s broken energy policy.

According to the poll, Americans believe that the federal government needs to take decisive action to deal with the drought – and not just as emergency relief. Americans are ready for a new, bold clean energy policy. Eighty-five percent of Americans say that the clean water should be a “top national priority.” In drought-hit states, the total rises to 86 percent in California and 90 percent in Georgia. Nearly 90 percent of Americans agree that they want U.S. energy policy to be made “with full knowledge and understanding about the availability of water regionally and locally, and the impact this water use from specific energy choices has on their economies, including agricultural production.”

Nearly three out of four Americans agree that because of the current drought conditions “federal spending on energy should focus on developing the energy sources of tomorrow, such as wind and solar, and not the energy sources of yesterday, such as nuclear power.”

As this survey makes clear, the vast majority of Americans know that the business-as-usual and “all of the above” approaches to energy policy simply aren’t going to get us a secure energy future that is also sustainable and safe. It’s time that we make a fundamental shift toward clean alternatives like wind and solar instead of doubling down on energy sources like fracking and nuclear power that use vast amounts of water, emit air pollutants and, in the case of nuclear power, can cause catastrophic accidents.

The ORC survey underscores a fundamental value we’ve frequently seen in polls: Americans believe that protecting our water supply and water quality should be a top national priority. This survey demonstrates that Americans understand how water quality, water supply, public health and energy policy are interconnected.

The reality is — American clean energy policy can’t be defined solely by how much carbon dioxide a particular generation facility emits.

Weather extremes — droughts and hurricanes — are likely linked to energy choices we’ve made in the past. As we chart the course for the future, we need to make sure we’re looking at all the implications of various types of energy generation. We have to temper the renewed interest in nuclear because it is supposedly carbon-neutral with the reality that this energy source requires lots of water for cooling and creates large volumes of radioactive waste. Just last week, a nuclear power plant in Connecticut shut down because the local seawater temperature was too hot to cool the plant. The Fukushima nuclear disaster serves as a devastating reminder that our energy choices have real, long-lasting public health impacts.

The shale gas drilling boom has created a carbon-versus-methane debate among environmentalists. Every day, gas drilling and fracking operations across the country generate millions of gallons of “produced water,” a drilling industry euphemism for polluted water with dissolved solids, chloride, radioactive material, benzene, toluene and secret fracking fluid components. A typical fracked gas well uses 6 million gallons of freshwater in its lifetime. Many local municipalities can’t even treat the contaminated water.

The drought should be a wake-up call for Washington. It’s time to invest in solar and wind to put this country on the clean-energy path. We need to ensure that water quality and quantity and public health, not just carbon emissions, are key factors in charting our clean energy future.


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