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Sandra Steingraber: The Fossil Fuel Body Burden

Acclaimed ecologist and author Sandra Steingraber discusses the need for meaningful reform of toxics regulation and why extreme energy extraction must end.

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And increasingly now since we've run through all the natural gas pockets that used to be under the ground is the form of giant bubbles of natural gas, you could stick a cocktail straw down into the ground and up came the gas. Now what we're left with are tiny bubbles that are scattered in the bedrock like a petrified fizz of champagne, and to get them out we have to blow up the bedrock. And when you do that you create inherently leaky systems, so that there are methane leaks at every point along the extraction and delivery system. With those methane leaks come really high emissions of greenhouse gases.

Kari: I'm sure he would be and you are an inspiration to us all. What would you say to those people that say, "Natural gas is going to get us to that clean energy future. It's just a bridge"?

Sandra: Natural gas is not a bridge. It's a wall to a clean energy future, and it's always been a wall. Those who claim otherwise are saying so on the basis of no data whatsoever.

Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Its lifespan is shorter. It lasts on the order of decades rather than the centuries that carbon dioxide will persist in the atmosphere. So depending on whether you look at this over a 20 or 30-year period or a 100-year period, natural gas comes off as worse for the climate than coal, or maybe the same, or maybe a teensy bit better. But what's really clear, and all the authoritative agencies, including the International Energy Agency agree on this, is that natural gas is not better enough than coal to help us avoid catastrophic tipping points. So it's not going to save us.


On the other hand, an immediate effort to decarbonize and invest in real renewable energy will get us there. But we have to do that quickly. There's no time left. And I think the economic data are also clear on this, that the more we invest in shale gas, which is very capital intense, the more we dry up capital that could be going into wind and solar and things that we know for sure would really work.

And so I'm trying to work as a biologist in this moment to expose the metaphors that make no sense, right. And one of those is this idea of natural gas as a bridge. And as a writer too, I'm interested in the way that metaphors kind of shape our thinking about things. So, in a recent piece I said "It's not a bridge. It's a plank that we walk at the point of a sword, and the pirates are not our friends." And so, we just need to get rid of the bridge metaphor because it's absolutely not helpful and inaccurate.

Kari: Well your plank analogy reminds me of your book, because in your book you often use very funny stories, very personal stories, but you always deliver serious messages. Now, how is  Raising Elijah  different from your past books?

Sandra: Well, I think you just hit on it. I mean, it's my most comedic book. I mean,  Living Downstream is still a book I'm most well-known for, no doubt because that was turned into a film. And  Living Downstream  takes a look at my early life as a cancer patient. I was diagnosed at age 20 with a cancer that my own diagnosing physician pretty much told me was an environmental cancer. So that really, for me, at that young age, as a biologist, redirected my interest away from going to medical school into looking at environmental health.

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