You may have missed the news story over the holidays, but California is currently experiencing the country’s worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill. Over 150 million pounds of methane have leaked from a natural gas storage facility in California since October, and the problem can’t be fixed for months. This leak especially bad for climate change because methane traps 25 times as much heat in the atmosphere as as carbon dioxide does. The human impact is more immediate: 2,000 people have been evacuated from their homes because of health dangers and local schools have closed.
Natural gas advocates often describe it as a cleaner fuel than oil since it emits less carbon dioxide at the time of combustion. But this disaster disputes the “clean” label. How can we accept a fuel as “clean” when it has the ability to cause such significant harm? The California leak is from just one faulty safety valve. How many valves must there be across the natural gas pipeline system in the state, or in the US?
No fuel is benign, but some fuels – like wood – are a whole lot less risky than others. Look at the advantages of wood: Bulk wood pellets come from locally harvested wood and are shipped within the region. They aren’t extracted far away and then brought in by pipeline. They aren’t volatile or poisonous. There are far fewer opportunities for things to go wrong along the delivery chain from extraction to manufacturing to delivery to use.
At the consumer’s end, modern appliances and boilers have made burning wood much safer and cleaner than it used to be, and certainly much safer and cleaner than using fossil fuels. Today’s central wood pellet boilers produce only marginally more fine particulate matter (the primary concern for public health) than a traditional oil furnace, and wood pellets result in a net decrease in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as trees grow and reabsorb carbon dioxide. The EPA has a website devoted to being smart with wood heat: http://www.epa.gov/burnwise.
I understand that our energy challenges require a mix of fuels and that not everyone can heat with wood, but it’s clear to me that we cannot ignore the health, safety and climate implications of our fuel decisions. Modern wood heating is a far less risky option.
As a partner of ours likes to say, “If there’s a wood pellet delivery spill, it just takes a few people with shovels and wheelbarrows to clean it up.” No Hazmat suits, no climate change implications, no evacuations—it certainly won’t close the local schools!