So When Does the Sputnik Moment Begin?

It's been more than a month since President Obama addressed the nation in the State of the Union and declared this our "Sputnik Moment," referencing an energy revolution. Yet in the month since that speech, there has been little activity that I would call revolutionary and a fair amount of what I would call detrimental. It's no secret that the political revolutions in the Middle East are having an impact on oil prices at home making our habit more expensive to feed. No major initiatives or plans to wean us from the addictive fuel have captured the public's attention the way that the Gemini and Apollo projects got us hooked on space, so I can only assume that it's back to business as usual and Sputnik be damned.

In most cases, "business as usual" is no benign program. According to Democracy Now, New York City Council members made it public on Tuesday March 2nd that they intend to open areas of the state's watershed to natural gas drilling operations. Groups such as New York H2Oare vehemently opposed. The group's founder, Joe Levine, says, "They know it's contaminated and they're doing it anyway."

The contamination in question should come as no surprise to anyone who took in the films nominated in this year's Best Documentary Oscar category. One film, Gasland by Director Josh Fox, details the environmental consequences of natural gas extraction, particularly the process known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking."

The bad news on fracking isn't exactly new. It is a process innovated by Haliburton "which shoots vast amounts of water, sand and chemicals several miles underground to break apart rock and release the gas." Additionally, as requested by then-VP Dick Cheney (who was also former chairman and CEO of Haliburton), gas drilling has enjoyed the status of exemption from regulation since 2005. However, according to a 2008 article by ProPublica:

a hydrologist dropped a plastic sampling pipe 300 feet down a water well in rural Sublette County, Wyo., and pulled up a load of brown oily water with a foul smell. Tests showed it contained benzene, a chemical believed to cause aplastic anemia and leukemia, in a concentration 1,500 times the level safe for people.

However, like oil, natural gas is a hot commodity, and that was only one sample right? Well... not exactly. Still, the New York City Council's move is not exactly surprising. Even less so considering that New York State uses about 1.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year. Adding to the "drill baby drill" mentality may also be that fact that a vein of natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale just happens to run under Pennsylvania and into southern New York.

The problem is, it isn't just ONE sample, and various industry officials and government regulators have most likely known that for some time. According to a March 2nd report by Democracy Now documents exist which indicate that government regulators and industry officials in various sewage plants knew that problems existed pertaining to their treatment and release of radioactive wastewater from gas drilling into rivers and streams but did nothing to rectify the situation.

The same day this report was published, another source reported U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and a group of colleagues called for further public water supply testing when it was discovered that the wastewater created as a byproduct of drilling Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania was found to have "higher levels of radioactive materials than was previously disclosed."

In addition it was reported that there was

one occasion when more than 155,000 gallons of wastewater containing high levels of radium from an Ultra Resources well in Tioga County were sent to nine towns in Tioga, Bradford and Lycoming counties to spread on roads for dust suppression.

So here we are at the "Sputnik moment" when even our low-emission fossil fuels are detrimental to our health and environment by virtue of the way in which they are extracted. Why, then, do we continue to funnel money into programs like additional gas wells in the New York State watershed instead of embracing newer, cleaner programs like wind and solar? One article, published by Lin Edwards in Physorg, claims that achieving total energy independence using wind and solar by 2030 is a matter of a concerted building effort inspired by the political machinery to make it happen. Perhaps that is overreaching a bit, but the moon seemed like a bit of a stretch at the time as well.

In short, what is missing at this moment, what makes it different from the actual Sputnik moment, is the sexiness of the Apollo program. Kennedy's plan succeeded, NASA succeeded in large measure because of some really great PR and a recognizable enemy. So far we've not made the issue of environmental degradation and global climate change visceral enough to make a real impact on behavior. Environmental crises are no Soviet Union. Secondly, plans for dealing with the issue lack the organization, glory and commercial tie-ins of Apollo. We need astronaut equivalents. Sorry Al; you had your moment, and we need some fresh blood. So who will step up, formulate a plan, then sell it to the still unconvinced? Just calling this a "Sputnik moment" and then returning to the status quo is not getting anything done.