Op-ed column: Long road to greener living

While I was bicycling in France and Belgium this August, the state DEC released its 2009 Draft Energ

While I was bicycling in France and Belgium this August, the state DEC released its 2009 Draft Energy Plan, a masterful and detailed analysis of energy needs, energy sources, energy costs and energy issues in New York state.

I was struck by the irony of the date of its release. There I was, bicycling away in countries with efficient short- and long-distance public transportation systems, with heavy investment in nuclear energy (France) and wind energy (Holland) and with what I call “bicycle cultures.”

People in Belgium and Holland (and to a lesser extent France) are heavily dependent for short-distance travel on bicycles. Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, has many hundreds of miles of bicycle paths, many of them along the rivers and canals. These paths are clearly marked, mapped and numbered and are heavily used.

Filled with bicycles

The train station parking lots in places like Ghent and Brugge, Belgium, are filled with bicycles — hundreds of them, parked as their owners go off on trains, waiting for their owners to return. In Brugge, one is more likely to be run down by a cyclist than by a car. In the larger cities, there are clearly marked bicycle paths to separate cars from cyclists, and there are heavy fines (at least in Paris) for any motorist who is caught crossing the line into a bike path.

I’m not one of those Americans who believe automatically that because it’s European it has to be good. As a North American, I don’t want to pay the tragic price of two cataclysmic world wars that brought Western Europe to the place it is now. The price Europe has paid has been overwhelmingly high. Yet I wonder what price we will all have to pay to avoid what’s ahead — the warming planet?”

This brings me back to the 2009 Draft Energy Plan, released to the public on Aug. 10. The draft contains very little that I personally would disagree with, given the complexity of the subject and the fact that New York is feeling the burden of the economic recession perhaps more than other states.

We can all agree that as a state, New York should produce, deliver and use energy more efficiently, that we should develop in-state energy supplies, that the state should invest in energy and transportation infrastructure, that the state should stimulate innovation in the clean-energy economy and that the state should engage others in achieving the state’s policy objectives. These are the five strategies outlined in the plan’s Executive Summary. No argument here, I guess.

There is great emphasis in the draft plan on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (primarily CO2) and the

development of the clean-energy economy. There is a promise to develop a Climate Action Plan in 2010.

The draft plan acknowledges that as a state we will exist in what is delicately described as a “carbon-constrained environment,” an environment in which oil is becoming scarcer and more expensive, in which coal is unusable because no one has yet solved the carbon dioxide emissions problems and in which domestic natural gas, while seen as a fabulous resource that will solve all of our energy problems, will only last us, as a nation, about 20 years.

Issues remain

This is a draft plan and not the final document, and we are promised a detailed implementation plan, complete with milestones and deliverables. Still, I am disappointed in several recommendations. The draft plan recommends the development of the Marcellus Shale gas fields in “an environmentally acceptable manner” and recommends studying the potential for private investment in extracting natural gas in the Marcellus Sale on state-owned lands. I wonder what lands these might be?

The current love affair with natural gas overlooks not only the fact that it, too, is a fossil fuel (a non-renewable resource with carbon emissions all its own) but also that the extraction technology for shale gas is environmentally degrading.

Horizontal drilling and use of hydrofracking technology is on hold in New York, awaiting the release of the state DEC’s environmental impact statement guidelines for this technology, but I am not optimistic that the GEIS, or generic environmental impact statement, will withstand the scrutiny of those of us extremely concerned about the negative impacts of this technology.

To me, the core problem with the development of natural gas resources in New York, Pennsylvania and elsewhere is that it takes our attention away from the heavy investment at a scale needed to develop renewable sources of energy — wind, solar, hydro, nuclear.

Furthermore, our draft plan asserts that our neighbors Quebec and Ontario, with their massive hydropower projects way up north in James Bay, could supply all the electrical power this state needs! The draft plan seems to reject this source of power, yet the eastern electrical grid includes these Canadian provinces and we are currently buying power from HydroQuebec.

A public comment period on the draft plan is being held through the end of September. The plan and the schedule of public hearings can be found at www.nysenergyplan.com.

As for me, I will continue to rejoice in the development in Schenectady of more bicycle paths. I doubt that given our sprawl, and our love affair with automobiles, we will ever reach the status of a bicycle culture as I found in Belgium and Holland. We have some hills, too, like the big one between my house and the downtown library. And I worry about my bike getting stolen.

But we are, as a community, moving in the right direction with the development of an infrastructure that allows the use of non-polluting, non-motorized forms of transportation. And nowhere in our Draft Energy Plan did I see a commitment from the state of New York to develop this infrastructure! It is discussed, but the development of this infrastructure (bicycle paths, sidewalks) is not a recommendation, at least not one that I could find.

Patricia O’Reilly Rush lives in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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