More common sense needed on fossil fuels

Column Jul 11, 2020 Times Leader by RANDI POKLADNIK

Environmental Consultant and Trainer

Last week’s Times Leader (July 5, 2020) carried an op-ed by Greg Kozera, the director of marketing and sales for Shale Crescent USA. In the op-ed Mr. Kozera talked a lot about common sense and our need for fossil fuels: specifically, plastics.

In a world drowning in plastic, common sense would dictate that we need to significantly cut down on our production of single-use plastics. According to the Ocean Conservancy, which monitors litter on beaches worldwide, the 10 most common items of litter picked up by volunteers were made of plastic. This included cigarette butts, food wrappers, drink bottles, caps and grocery bags. Not surprising, as plastic packaging makes up about 40 percent of all the plastics produced today.

One of the major issues with plastics is that they do what they are intended to do very well; they last forever. Plastics are long-chain carbon polymers that are synthesized from petroleum or natural gas feedstocks. Unlike other naturally occurring long-chain carbon compounds, such as carbohydrates found in plants, plastics will not degrade when exposed to enzymes or bacteria in the environment.

Common sense would ask is it wise to expand the production of something that never degrades? According to a study published in 2017 in Science Advances, we have produced approximately 8,300 million metric tons of plastic since the 1950s. Plastic waste now blankets our planet. More than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year. Peer reviewed studies show that water from the Great Lakes contains a substantial amount of microplastics. Research published in the Public Library of Science disclosed microplastics were in 12 American beers. A study published in ORB Media determined that of 159 tap water samples taken from around the world, 83 percent contained plastic particles.

Mr. Kozera points to recycling as a solution to our plastic wastes. In 2017, there were 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste. Only 9 percent was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated and 79 percent ended up in landfills or the environment. I am old enough to remember the Keep America Beautiful anti-litter campaign of the 1970s. Backed by the beverage industry, it was a slick attempt to continue the production of plastic beverage bottles by passing off the responsibility for litter to consumers. Common sense would ask how successful has recycling been if after nearly 50 years, we only recycle 9 percent of our plastic waste.

In order to make plastic, the industry relies on a finite resource; fossil fuels. The fracking required to obtain ethane creates an enormous impact on the planet, including water and air pollution. Greenhouse gas emissions, in the form of methane and carbon dioxide make plastic production a major contributor to climate change. Under the Bensten Amendment, oil and gas wastes from exploration and production are exempt “from federal hazardous waste regulations.” Tests have shown wastes contains high levels of brine, toxic chemicals and radioactive isotopes. This brine is being marketed to consumers as deicers and spread on Ohio’s roads. A study by the Colorado Department of Health has shown that living near oil and gas activities results in exposures to toxic compounds such as benzene and toluene and poses a substantial health risk to people.

Given all these negative externalities, such as health effects and environmental destruction, does it make sense to use plastic wrap or containers for food items that have a shelf life of days? How could we explain to our great grandchildren that we used precious fossil fuel resources and ruined our planet to wrap green peppers and bananas?

Mr. Kozera tries to spin COVID-19 as a reason to use plastic bags. A recent Harvard study determined that “long-term average exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is associated with an increased risk of COVID-19 death in the United States.” The Shell cracker plant will emit 159 tons of 2.5 particulate matter a year. Peer reviewed research shows that when exposed to toxic compounds, plastic acts as a sponge absorbing those toxins. Plastic can also leach unreacted monomers as well as plasticizers such as bis-phenol A (BPA). Chemicals can migrate from the plastic into the foods inside.

Certainly, there are applications that suit the use of plastic, ones that involve long-term uses. However, the industry is currently creating a supply, not filling a need as it pushes single use items and plastic packaging at the consumers of the world. According to the statistics site, Statista, the amount of plastic produced each year, 300 million tons, is equivalent to the weight of humanity.

Mr. Kozera says “we just can’t blindly follow or believe everything we hear or read.” I totally agree. We need to do our own research, finding sources that produce data based on independent studies, ones not funded by fossil fuel money. Lenny Bernstein, a climate expert with Exxon Mobil, said the company was aware of climate change in 1981, but they chose to cover the data with a massive program to promote climate denial much like the tobacco industry. This industry also receives $20 billion a year from the U.S. in subsides.

Mr. Kozera says “we need to educate ourselves and let go of long held beliefs that are wrong or not true.” I totally agree. This can be said of the belief that the Ohio Valley cannot have environmentally sustainable, safe jobs. Residents must stand-by while foreign corporations use the resources of the region to make profits for stockholders, leaving taxpayers with the bill to clean up the environmental destruction.

Contrary to Mr. Kozera, I believe most people realize that solar panels do not work at night. What he doesn’t know or fails to state is that excess solar energy can be stored in battery farms. Bloomberg reported that Tesla’s Hornsdale Power Reserve has saved South Australians $116 million as it stores power during low demand times and releases it during high demand times. China also has a battery farm, The China Shoto produces 30 MW of solar power supported by 20 MW of energy storage.

When it comes to the fossil fuel industry “common sense is much less common than you think.”

Randi Pokladnik is a Urichsville resident who holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry as well as amaster’s and Ph. D in environmental studies. She is a member of the Fresh Water Accountability Project Board of Directors, holds a certificate in hazardous materials regulation and is an Ohio certified naturalist volunteer. She also is active with several local environmental organizations.