Never forget that energy always costs…

I recently read in the Nature Canada blog about a death threat received by a Kenyan activist opposed to a new energy initiative in the region.

A death threat?

The issue is the mass planting of jatropha in the Tana Delta by the Canadian company Bedford Biofuels.

From their site:

“Jatropha is a biofuel feedstock that burns up to 78% cleaner than traditional diesel and serves as a drop-in replacement for diesel. Jatropha has been certified for transportation, heavy industry, aviation and for use by the US military.”

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Jobs, cleaner biodiesel, green development in Africa.

According to Nature Kenya (via Nature Canada):

“Nature Kenya and others are worried that jatropha is untested, that Kenya has yet to adopt a biofuels policy and that 10,000 ha is too big to be a pilot. Also that the proposed project is within the very sensitive Delta floodplain and that there needs to be a land use plan for the Delta in place to provide a strategic framework before individual large-scale developments proceed. For all these reasons Nature Kenya is maintaining their challenge to the Bedford consent and hoping that the Kenyan Government will act on NEMA (the National Environment Management Authority) advice to cancel the Bedford consent.”

It is a highly contentious issue, with one commenter on the blog saying:

“You do nothing for the people of the Tana Delta for years and years and suddenly you’re concerned? It’s almost like you don’t care at all about people… that your priority is on leaving nature absolutely untouched regardless of the human cost.”

And another complaining:

“…the kind of Lease Agreements between the Ranchers and ‘Developer’ are paying less than 75US cents per hectare, per annum payable AFTER four years of planting IF the plant is successful. How could this possibly benefit 13,000 people? Even conservation pays more than that.”

The problem with energy is that we use an awful lot of it. Our ancestors, who used much less, burned wood until the old world forests started to disappear. Then they burned coal, until their skies, buildings, drapes and lungs turned black. Then it was on to damming rivers, wiping out valuable migratory fish species and displacing both people and animals.

In the pursuit of “clean” energy, we can often get stuck looking for a magic bullet. We reduce petroleum emissions by combining it with ethanol made out of corn, which causes the price of food (especially cord-fed meat) to rise, reduces biodiversity, and requires genetic modification and/or oceans of pesticides. We reduce our energy emissions by producing nuclear power, which produces its toxic waste in sold form, and can sometimes cause catastrophe. We put up modern windmills, only to complain about noise, migratory bird deaths, and the destruction of scenic views. We put up saloar panels and… what’s the downside of solar again?

And Jatropha, according to a statement by Bedford:

“…produces a clean oil that is superior to fossil fuel – an oil that is not derived from a food crop, but from a non-food biofuel. This is the evolution of biofuel.”

Bedford also says that it will not grow in the delicate flooded delta soil. But if it’s being grown on arable land, what is it supplanting? What impact could an reliance on inedible cash crop have on the region’s future food security?

This is the big-picture practical view we need to take, because all energy use has a cost — an environmental one, a resource one and a social one.

We also need to be aware that big energy projects often bring big social conflicts, whether it’s protests over the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States or nuclear power in Japan. On one hand, there is money to be made and livelihoods to protect. On the other, there are sensitive environmental and community realities.

No matter how strongly we feel one way or another, though, it should never let it come to the kind of nastiness seen in Kenya (which, I insist on presuming, had no direct involvement from the Canadian company):

“Mr. Hajj Idris Bakero, a religious leader in Garsen Division, received death threats, presumably for his opposition to a jatropha project in the area.

On September 9th 2011, his wife Hamida Kori found a black plastic bag at the main gate to her compound, in it was petrol in a small plastic bag, four rounds of ammunition for an M16 Gun, and a warning note.

Translated, the note warned the cleric not to continue ‘barking about’ the project or else ‘these four bullets will get into your body, we will burn your wife and children with petrol so that your name disappears forever.'”

The only real answer to energy woes is to have a rational and open-minded discussion of what we and our children are willing to pay — globally — for the energy we use. And ultimately, we need to find ways to use less of it.

This is how I’ve always tried to approach any kind of energy-related social issues marketing — with an honest assessment of the benefits and costs. There isn’t one single answer for the world’s energy problems except to conserve whenever possible and to be constantly aware of what it costs to light up our lives.

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