Column: Oil, natural gas fuel wildlife recovery
Petitioners were gathering signatures in Michigan last June to place a ban on fracking — the extraction of natural gas from shale deposits — on this year’s ballot when a cougar was photographed near Lansing. What do these things have to do with each other? More than you might think.
The cougar sighting is one example of a resurgence of once-rare or locally extinct wildlife returning to our state. Michigan’s wolf population has grown nearly 25 percent in the last two years and is expanding into the Lower Peninsula. Our state’s wild turkey population, extinct in 1950, has exploded to over 200,000 birds living in every county. Black bears are increasing their populations and range, as are coyotes, and fishers (a large relative of the weasel). Michigan has 1.75 million whitetail deer — In 1800, the whitetail population in the entire U.S. is estimated to have been 500,000.
Across the country, there are similar stories of rebounding wildlife. Behind this wildlife boom is an unexpected ecological hero: the oil and gas industry. Before widespread use of oil and gas, the primary sources of energy were timber, coal, and whale oil.
In the 1700s and early 1800s, wood fueled most of America’s energy needs — and forests were decimated. Timber harvesting in Michigan peaked in the 1890s and reduced our forest cover by almost 80 percent. A surge in conservation concerns is often credited for ending unlimited logging and, indeed, was a major factor. But the transition from wood to coal in the late 1800s was the biggest reason many trees were spared the saw. Coal mining and burning, however, also came at a high cost to land and air quality.
Today, coal use is in a freefall thanks to fracking. Despite the controversy it engenders, fracking is vastly more environmentally friendly than coal. Coal use spews up to 100 times more toxic chemicals into the environment than fracking does, according to a 2017 University of Michigan study.
The replacement of coal and timber by oil and natural gas helped significantly improve U.S. air quality. Since 1970, carbon monoxide emissions have fallen by more than half, nitrogen oxide emissions have fallen almost 30 percent, sulfur dioxide emissions fell by over 50 percent, particulate emissions fell by 80 percent, and lead emissions have decreased by more than 98 percent. While stricter environmental regulations are a major factor, such large scale pollution reductions could not have been accomplished without the transition from coal to natural gas.
Some consider oil and gas to be villains. It’s true that fracking, oil, and natural gas have environmental costs that should be reduced as much as technologically and practically possible. But to ignore the substantial environmental improvements derived from shifting to oil and gas, and away from lumber and coal, is to deny scientific reality.
Environmental awareness, conservation practices and regulation have substantially improved our environment. But the role of oil and gas is rarely understood or appreciated. Instead, these energy providers are demonized — as is nuclear power. Wind and solar likely have a place in our energy future, but they come with their own substantial environmental impacts. Batteries to store such energy are highly toxic, for example, and wind turbines kill increasing numbers of birds and visually mar landscapes. Also, alternative energy sources cannot come close to providing enough of our energy needs with existing technology.
Our air quality, forest cover, and wildlife populations have improved far faster than most realize. Today, 53 percent of Michigan is forested — and forest cover has increased nationally, as well. Credit is due to better environmental stewardship, dedicated conservationists, and environmental awareness. And the scale of that success was made possible by the switch from wood and coal to oil and gas — including fracking technology.
It is a sad irony that anti-fracking and anti-oil pipeline activists are working to ban the very industries that made the resurgence of our forests and improved air quality possible.
Leon Drolet is a Macomb County commissioner and chair of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance