America First: but at what cost?

Whilst Donald Trump pledges to “embrace the shale oil and gas revolution,” research from Duke University has revealed that 16 percent of hydraulically fractured (fracking) oil and gas wells, used in these very shale oil fields, leak every year.

The research, conducted across four states over a 10 year period, identified over 6,600 leaks, the largest of which spilled in excess of 100,000 litres of fracked gas or oil. Of the spills the majority took place during the moving and storage of the fuels through pipelines, with equipment failure and human error causing most incidents.

67 percent of the leaks occurred in North Dakota, the second largest oil producing state in the US. The state is currently embroiled in controversy over a proposed 1,172km pipeline carrying fracked oil from North Dakota’s oil fields to Patoka, Illinois. The Dakota Access Pipeline is opposed by environmentalist and Native American groups. Both hold concerns over the risk of spills from the pipeline and the potential impact on water quality. The pipeline is located upstream on the Missouri river which provides drinking water to the Standing Rock Sioux. These concerns are well founded, in 2010 a spill from an oil pipeline into the Kalamazoo river released 840,000 gallons of crude oil. Furthermore, both campaigners and scientists have highlighted the incompatibility of fossil fuel expansion with commitments to reduce carbon emissions, essential to mitigating the impacts of climate change. The pipeline also crosses sacred land of the Standing Rock Sioux, cutting through burial grounds and sites of prayer.

The Sioux and their allies have constructed a protest camp at Standing Rock, delaying the construction of the pipeline. In December 2016, after months of protests, the US Department of the Army announced they would not grant an easement for the pipeline. This, however, was overturned by Donald Trump in January as part of his America First Energy Policy.

The America First Energy Policy, was a cornerstone of Trump’s election pledges, and aims to “ lower costs for hardworking Americans and maximize the use of American resources, freeing us from dependence on foreign oil”. The programme plans to “take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves”.

Trump’s policy, designed to increase energy security and increase employment, does not mention renewable energy despite the considerable growth in the industry and the necessity to transition to low carbon energy sources in the face of dangerous anthropogenic climate change. Over 250,000 Americans now work in the solar industry with the sector reporting a year-on-year employment increase of 24.5%. Although the absence of renewables in a policy designed to improve energy security may seem incongruous, it is hardly surprising given Trump’s climate change denial throughout his election campaign, which spouted that it’s a Chinese conspiracy to destroy American industry.

Although Trump’s perspective on climate change seems to have shifted since 2009, where he called on Obama to “ensure meaningful and effective measures to control climate change,” it is reflective of a widening political polarisation around the issue where climate change now proves the single most divisive issue between Democrats and Republicans, with white, male conservatives being more likely than any other group to deny the existence of man made climate change.

What is clear is that whilst the Trump administration is highly supportive of the extractive shale oil, natural gas and “clean” coal industries there is strong evidence that these policies pose significant threats to the environment both locally: by impacting water supplies and contaminating soils, and globally: by locking America into a fossil fuel economy, incompatible with serious attempts to reduce carbon emissions. Trump’s promise of “protecting clean air and clean water and conserving our natural habitats,”in the face of this latest research and his commitment to rolling back climate and conserve energy seems unlikely.


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