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Keystone for sustainability

by Mark von Wodtke

Why risk money on a pipeline through the heartland of America? 

The Keystone XL Pipeline to provide more fossil fuel is not the path to a sustainable future. A keystone to sustainability is using petrochemicals for lightweight materials—such as carbon fiber—that can be used to save energy and harvest renewables.

We need to greatly reduce emissions during the projected life of this proposed pipeline.  Energy companies (and investors) would be wiser to support clean renewable energy and not risk money on a pipeline that will be too expensive to use cost-effectively.

How can we meet Federal Air Quality Standards if crude from Canadian tar sands reaches refineries and is burned in air basins that have already reached their carrying capacities?  We need to avoid the hidden costs of pollution.

Refining this heavy crude in Texas will compound air quality problems.  Air pollution exceeds air quality standards —impacting public health—in many urban regions in the U.S. and throughout the world where this fuel would be sold.

How can we reduce global carbon dioxide emissions if we continue developing fossil fuel?  We need to avoid the hidden costs of destabilizing the climate.

Global climate change affects the health of the planet.  Bill McKibben, author of the End of Nature and a new book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, advocates returning our global atmosphere to 350 ppm of carbon dioxide to reduce effects of climate change. Working for positive change, he organized 350.org—a growing global movement that now also involves the 99% Movement.

Amory Lovins’ new book, Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era, envisions ways to transition from our dependency on fossil fuels by 2050. The team that worked on this book evaluates savings and jobs that will result from efficiency and transitioning to renewable energy. This transition will be more cost-effective than continuing to burn fossil fuels.

Who is going to buy expensive and polluting fossil fuel made from tar sands when more efficient automobiles may no longer have exhaust pipes?  Is it worth the risk to have this heavy crude ooze its way through a costly pipeline to refineries in Texas when demand will decrease?  Will fossil fuels become the next bubble in the global economy? 

I am one of a growing number of people working to become independent of fossil fuels.  We will not be buying fuel made of crude from tar sands. We will avoid spending money on energy that causes pollution, funds terrorism, and puts our planet in greater peril.  We have better options—efficiency and renewable energy.

We will work to develop more sustainable human ecosystems.  And by "we" I mean not only customers who purchase energy, but also investors who are stakeholders in companies which provide energy, food, and materials.  We include captains of industry with the vision to find better ways to use resources and develop business models that account for hidden costs. We have creative multidisciplinary design teams to help develop integrative and regenerative industrial ecosystems.  We involve people ready to work at well-paid jobs to make this happen.  And, we, the people— represented by democratic governments in both the United States and Canada— will vote for those who protect public health and the planet. 

Petrochemicals can be productively used in better ways.  It is time to work together to move beyond the degenerative processes of mining, refining, consuming and polluting.  We need to embrace more efficient regenerative processes using nature as a model.  John T. Lyle, my friend and colleague, demonstrated ways to do this in his books Design for Human Ecosystems and Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development.

What if we designed industrial ecosystems that eliminate pollution while providing valuable materials?  Alberta has some of the best sunlight available in Canada—comparable to Germany—which is becoming a showcase for productive ways to use solar energy.   Heat from the sun could help release bitumen and reduce the carbon cost of extracting this mixture of hydrocarbons.  Jobs-creating industries can add value to these raw materials by making carbon fiber for more efficient aircraft, motor vehicles, boats, and bicycles.

Hybrid power plants, which combine heat from the sun with heat from cleaner fuel, could balance electrical generation with demand—day and night, throughout the year.  Alberta also has good wind resources that could generate electricity, using more efficient wind-concentrating turbines—manufactured from high-performance materials using petrochemicals. Electricity could be sold through the "smart" grid evolving in North America.

Much of this electricity could be used in Alberta to manufacture energy-intensive materials such as aluminum.  Aluminum is needed in photovoltaic and solar thermal arrays to produce power from the sun at the point-of-use, throughout the world.  Aluminum can also be used in lighter, energy-efficient electric vehicles that can be powered using solar electricity.

Heat, along with carbon dioxide emissions, from the industrial ecosystem in Alberta could also be fed into greenhouses that use sunlight and biodynamic methods.  Plants assimilate carbon dioxide and provide oxygen, food, and bio-fuels, as well as other beneficial products.  Highly productive greenhouses can be built upon land spoiled by extracting petrochemicals from tar sands. 

Biological processes should also be used to regenerate the vast landscape being destroyed by mining and climate change.  Healthy forests assimilate carbon dioxide, offsetting some emissions from fossil fuels.  Forests also provide a sustained yield of valuable wood products.

Why destroy a large area of Canadian landscape for oil— ending the hope of addressing air pollution and climate change?

Instead, we should end our addiction to fossil fuels. Global energy companies do not have to plunder.  They can become catalysts for positive change and ensure their own survival by providing valuable petrochemicals and renewable energy.  Instead of building a pipeline for fossil fuel, we can create more jobs throughout North America by nurturing human ecosystems that could help sustain civilization for centuries.

Mark von Wodtke, FASLA, is a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects. He is a Professor Emeritus of Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, where he helped establish the Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies. He is also the President of Energy Harvester, Inc., a small renewable energy company developing solar and human power at the point-of-use.

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