In 1969, we landed a manned spacecraft on the moon. The frigging moon. That’s about a quarter million miles away from the Earth (238,700 to be exact). We had to build a spaceship that could achieve the proper thrust to escape Earth’s gravitational pull, hold up sufficiently to protect the humans inside as it went through a number of different atmospheric layers with differing levels of friction and therefore heat, respond with the necessary control in zero gravity to get to the moon in the first place, and then safely return after all those physics and engineering hurdles have been jumped. The government was also able to successfully solve any and all problems related to life-support systems on board the space shuttle. Do you realize how hard that had to be? And that was 40 years ago.
Since then, the leaps we have made in all technological areas have been astounding. Did you know that Sony’s Playstation 3 has 8 Sony Cell cores each running at 3.2 GHz? Don’t know what that means? Neither do I, but all I know is that it makes it possible to create video games that look like this:
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots for the Playstation 3
We’ve got computers IN OUR CARS that can find any point on any map and tell us how to get there. And the computers TALK to us, we don’t even have to be in the least bit literate to use them! Our phones can record video, send that video to a computer, and ruin a guy’s career! And the Internet! Thanks to the Internet, you can read the news, shop, correspond, and watch movie trailers, when before you would actually be getting work done. And need I even mention the olfactory miracle that is Febreze?
This is why our ever-present energy problems never cease to blow my mind — and by “blow my mind” I mean “frustrate me to the point of shattering my sanity.” When we need energy, we don’t flip on a compact mini-generator that plugs into our roof or use some kind of energy cell that harnesses the power of a clean-burning chemical reaction, or as I have long advocated, kidnap marathon runners and make them all run in huge hamster wheels somewhere out in the Great Plains. No, for the past 150 years, when we need energy, we dig a bunch of huge holes in the ground and pump out the remains of dead dinosaurs and plants, then put that stuff in a big noisy contraption that burns it. Seriously.
It would be nice if our national leaders, recognizing that it’s not just foreign oil dependency that has us headed for a crisis but carbon dependency in general, would start drafting real strategies to quickly and economically encourage the development and use of clean, alternative energy sources. If we could pull that off, we’d be both safer from a national security perspective and on our way to a more environmentally-conscious domestic agenda. Plus, the next time mahmoud ahmadinejad writes another one of those weird-uncle Albert letters to the White House, Bush by way of reply can fax a xerox of his presidential ass to the Iranian embassy and tell that bearded little gnome to kiss it (and that he can splash around all he wants in the Strait of Hormuz, we’re fine without it, thankyouverymuch).
But as they have made unambiguously clear with their post-liberation Iraq plan, this administration really doesn’t see much point in, whaddayacallit, “planning ahead.” I think if Cheney, Rumsfeld, Feith, and O’Beirne went to the grocery store with instructions to make a turkey dinner for that evening, they’d walk out of there with some Mountain Dew and a bag of pretzel sticks, and figure the bird would, I don’t know, show up somewhere along the way. And so it is with the Department of the Interior. We need more sources of energy, so instead of funding research for better bio-refineries or solar power, the Bush administration is knocking down some pesky regulatory roadblocks to mountaintop coal mining.
Mountaintop removal mining or mountaintop coal mining is similar to the underwater “bottom-trawling” I discussed in a previous post. The website for Mountain Justice Summer (which includes a very clear and informative explanation of what the process involves) describes it as “strip-mining on steroids.” Here’s the quick and very, very dirty on how it works, with a tip of the cap to Mountain Justice, the New York Times, and various other websites with similar content:
1. Trees on the tops of mountains are clear-cut. Then explosives blow the dirt and rock beneath loose.
2. Huge shovels dig into the top soil, dump it into trucks, and the trucks start to haul it away.
3. A dragline digs into the rock to expose the coal seam, and the mining company starts to extract it.
Here’s what a mountain looks like when they’re done:
The gray part used to look like the green part
So they have all this dirt, topsoil, and rock that was blasted off the top of the mountain, right? Well, that gets called “overburden” and it gets dumped right into adjacent valleys, streams, and rivers, creating what’s called “valley fill.” The Times reports that 724 miles of streams were buried under mining waste, with that much more expected to be ruined by 2018 if the Bush administration’s proposal goes into effect. And the coal companies are supposed to re-soil the mountaintops and plant trees in order to “reclaim” the environment, but who woulda thunk it, it’s tough for trees to grow in topsoil that was recently blasted clear out of the ground by heavy explosives. What can you say, trees are wimps I guess.
You would think that brazenly dumping the top of a freaking mountain into a stream or river would be illegal, and until 2002, it was. But when nobody (and by nobody I mean the press, of course, who really should create a Pulitzer category for Best Looking The Other Way) was paying attention, the Bush administration pulled some of its now-famous regulatory language ju-jitsu and changed the definition of the blasted rock and soil from “waste” to “fill.” The 2002 “fill rule,” as the change has come to be called, made life a lot easier for coal companies. And under these new regulations, all the mining companies have to do is demonstrate that they “intend” to prevent any undue environmental damage, and promise to clean things up later. Quick environmental law rule of thumb: when you let an extraction company say “We’ll clean up later,” you’re screwed. Those companies, by the way, have been major contributors to the Bush campaign, and have been heavily involved in elections in general, the GOP being the primary beneficiary of their largesse:
Probably just a coincidence, just like the fact that a guy named Dirk Kempthorne, who has always had a friendly ear for the extraction industries, is Bush’s Secretary of the Interior. Dirk (his name is Dirk!), in his 6 years in the U.S. Senate (1992-1998), scored a “0” on the League of Conservation Voters’ legislative scorecards every year except 1993, when he scored 6 percent on the basis of one vote against funding a rocket booster for the space program that environmentalists judged harmful to the environment.
It used to be that when the Bush administration tried to foul the air or the water, they at least attempted to do so under the pretext of what you might call “creative environmental management.” Logging in protected old-growth forests = more spotted owls! and so forth. But now, they’re not even bothering. We’ve actually come to a point where, faced with a serious, generational energy management crisis, the best minds the White House can summon (check that, the best minds the White House will listen to) are turning mountain tops into parking lots. I guess there’s a silver lining though: with traditional Appalachian mining towns decimated by mountaintop removal mining, it’s the perfect time for Wal-Mart to come in, build some stores, and create a bunch of new jobs. And wouldn’t you know it, some nice and flat mountaintop real estate keeps opening up. Three cheers for the efficient economy.