Fire rages at a well in Bobtown, PA
The topic of fossil fuel extraction is a difficult one. On one hand, we want to be as far from the site of extraction as possible. We want to avoid the smells, noise, sights, and potential toxicity of a industry that seems to roll out disaster after disaster. At the same time, we demand consistent access to these sources of fuel and are sometimes forced to rely on them despite any ethical objections. Furthermore, while most communities do not enjoy being near areas of fossil fuel development, it is hard for them to say no due to some of the short-term economic benefits for many residents. For example, in my current research in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s most active unconventional gas developments, residents have found new employment and income opportunities, especially those who have leased their mineral rights. People have used these funds to upgrade their farms, send children to college, and save for their future. While they might not be thrilled about some of the impacts of hydraulic fracturing, it is hard to criticize them, especially if they previously were not affluent.
The term NIMBY, or “Not-in-my back yard”, was supposedly coined in the 1980s by British politician Nicholas Ridley (Nimbywars.com). Since then, natural resource researchers have begun using the term and developing theories, such as NIMBY syndrome, which refers to the, “[P]rotectionist attitudes of and oppositional tactics adopted by community groups facing an unwanted development in their neighborhood” (Dear 2007, p. 288). Even renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, bring up NIMBY concerns. Citizens have complained about the noise and obstructive view of wind turbines, as well as bat and bird mortality. While there definitely is a need to continue developing better renewable energy sources, we currently live in a world dominated by fossil fuels and will for at least the next couple of decades. Despite some benefits we experience from such development, it seems like the fossil fuel industry has evoked disaster after disaster, which is why I as well, wouldn’t want them in my backyard. Although some technologies, such as hydraulic fracturing, can theoretically have little impact, at least on the surface, mistakes and malfunctions inevitably occur. Now I will share a few recent examples of why fossil fuels have me sweating and hoping that they will stay as far away from my community as possible:
Earlier this year, a natural gas well exploded in the sleepy community of Bobtown, PA. It burned for 5 days released thick fumes and smoke into the air. The well operator Chevron’s response? Free pizza and pop!
In that same month (February) of this year, a large dike failure in North Carolina led to a massive coal ash spill, resulting in many concerning environmental impacts. Just this past week, reports have come out that the company, Duke Energy, was caught on camera intentionally spilling coal ash into nearby streams.
And of course, who could forget this year’s coal-related chemical spill in West Virginia, leaving nine counties without tap water.
Finally, the battle over the aftermath of the 2010 Kalamazoo river spill in my home state of Michigan, the largest inland oil spill in US history, continues. All in the light of proposed construction of more pipelines in both Michigan and across the United States, as well as shipping tar sands across Lake Superior, which I discussed in a post last year.
Obviously, there is a serious ethical issue here. That being how could I expect not to be impacted by fossil fuel development when I use them, thus impacting others. This is an important question to ask on both an individual and societal level, but is a complex question for another time. That being said, don’t forget to think about it, especially when you are reminded of tragedies similar to those above or just the everyday burdens of those experiencing, willingly or unwillingly, fossil fuel development in their communities.
Dear, M. (1992). Understanding and Overcoming the NIMBY Syndrome. Journal of the American Planning Association, 58(3), 288–300. doi:10.1080/01944369208975808