Impact of the Environment on Resources

The environment impacts our resource needs, both directly and via the action of people concerned about the environment.  The biggest direct effects center around the feedback loops with our water supplies:  too little water in an area, and suddenly mineral or hydrocarbon extraction becomes much more difficult, and energy production suffers (witness power plants shutting down because of drought exacerbated by climate change, or simply because cities upstream from them had sucked up too much water).

The indirect impacts of the environment on resources are due to the growing power of environmentalist organizations:  if a resource extraction, processing, or transport facility threatens the local environment (especially if it threatens nearby people’s health), environmental protection groups often spring up and can slow down or completely halt the permitting process (if the facility is not yet in place), or even shut down an existing facility if it is proved sufficiently hazardous.

On a national scale, this has translated into the environmental movement systematically campaigning to stop all mining, drilling, processing, and production projects, even when some of those projects would arguably reduce damage to the environment.  During the last century, the biggest example was the visceral hostility of most environmentalists toward nuclear power, even though nuclear power does demonstrably less harm to the environment and causes much less health risk than the coal plants it would replace.  Even the big scare tactic, radiation, was bogus, since the radiation exposure created by mining and burning coal is far greater than the exposure from uranium mining and nuclear power plants.

Today, many thoughtful environmentalists are cautiously endorsing nuclear power and many more wish we had built more nuclear plants in the past because it would have greatly reduced our carbon dioxide pollution levels.  However, the environmental movement as a whole seems poised to recreate the same pattern of errors by its reflexive campaign against fracking, even though the environmental harm from fracking and natural gas use is much less than the harm from the coal-fired plants that the fracked gas will displace.

The problem is not merely that localized, NIMBY-based decision-making is erratic and adds up to bad national policy.  There is also an opportunity cost.  Those same environmental groups could have used their power to lobby for more investment in better engineering and safer nuclear power systems instead of using it to shut down the industry entirely, and we would now be far closer to safe, economical “fourth generation” nuclear power systems that would realistically take a lot of the burden off the environment while providing base load capacity to complement the inherent variability of renewable energy systems like wind and solar.

Similarly, the same efforts being used to block fracking today could be used to campaign for very strict controls and effective oversight of fracking operations that would prevent water contamination and methane release into the atmosphere.


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