Are You a “Banana Person”?

A couple protesting air pollution on their wedding day.

In “suburban language,” a “banana person” is a person who wants to “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.”

I bring up the matter of building things in view of some controversial projects in my neighborhood.  In order to bring wind power to markets where electricity is really badly needed the Rock Island Clean Line electric power transmission line is proposed.  Activists are protesting it.  Also, in order to bring crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and ultimately to oil refineries as far away as Texas the Bakken oil pipeline is proposed.  Activists are protesting that too.  A wind power project is proposed for Lincoln county in South Dakota.  Activists oppose it.  The Hyperion oil refinery proposed to be built near Sioux Falls, South Dakota will not be built.  Activists were victorious.  (Hence the opportunity to build the Bakken oil pipeline!)

When you pull your car up to a gas pump and fill the tank you create demand for oil pipelines and oil refineries.  When you switch on the air conditioning at home you create peak demand for electric power which usually comes from burning natural gas–delivered by pipeline.  Then the electricity is sent over transmission lines nobody wants to see to your location.  If you depend on reliable electric power for hospitals, flood control, and other vital needs then you create demand for baseline electric power from sources such as coal, hydro (dams) and nuclear energy from refined uranium.  When the Uranium is depleted of its energy then it goes. . . well, “temporarily” into a pool of water at the generator site (think Fukushima) since nobody can agree on where to store that waste or how to safely ship it anywhere.

Some people abhor all the negative consequences of using energy, yet blithely fill their gasoline tanks, crank their air conditioners, and expect world-class healthcare, etc.  Obviously, I have a problem with that.  Sure, I too regret and dislike ugly transmission lines, leaky oil pipelines (with consequent fire risk and pollution of aquifers), etc.  But I also recognize the tremendous benefits these also bring.

To help put this in context I’d like to explore the numbers related to the consumption of gasoline in the United States.   In the paragraphs below I show that the gasoline we use (just gasoline–not counting diesel, propane, natural gas, electricity, etc.) gives us a tremendous amount of energy that we are dependent on for the food we eat and much more.

In 2013 the U.S. consumed 134.51 billion gallons of gasoline. The population of the U.S. was about 300 million. That works out to about 450 gallons of gasoline per person per year, or about one car’s gas tank filled-up per week per person in the population. But that also means that 369 million gallons of gasoline need to be refined, transported to gas stations, and sold in the U.S. every single day. It takes a little over two gallons of crude oil to make one gallon of gasoline. Let’s just say two gallons. That means 737 million gallons of crude oil have to be shipped, piped or otherwise delivered to oil refineries every single day. A single rail tanker car holds about 30000 gallons. That means, if all oil travels by rail, 24567 tanker cars per day. A train might have 100 cars. That is about 250 trainloads of crude oil per day. I’m sure we would prefer that most of this goes through pipelines instead–if it must be transported at all.

What crude oil does not get made into gasoline gets made into diesel, aviation fuel, asphalt, etc.and shipped out to the population. All this happens quite invisibly, yet our daily lives depend on this flow of crude oil, gasoline, and diesel etc. (e.g. keeping the grocery store stocked) Sobering isn’t it? Even if we cut our driving, flying, purchasing in half in order to cut crude oil consumption in half, the numbers are still staggering.

Gasoline contains about 35 kWH of energy per gallon. (it varies a bit depending on processing and additives.  The 35 kWH/gallon figure might be a bit optimistic, but 32 kWH would be about as low as it might go.) Putting this in terms of horsepower, that’s the work of 50 horses for one hour. (OK, actual horses vary in their ability to do work, but those are the numbers and they are ballpark reasonable. Most horses actually cannot produce a full “horsepower” for a meaningful amount of time, so the numbers are optimistic.) So our national annual gasoline consumption works out the the equivalent of 768 million horses working 24 hours per day. But real horses only work 8 hours per day, so we need 2.3 billion horses just to replace our gasoline consumption. That’s about 7.7 horses for every living person in the country. Let’s just say 8 horses per person–and that only replaces gasoline. We would still need to replace diesel, aviation fuel, electricity, natural gas, propane, etc.

Cleaning up after 8 horses per person makes pipelines and rail tanker cars look pretty good I’d say! Not to mention trying to feed and stable all those horses!

The Bible mentions that the Earth has been placed under the dominion of people–all people, not just Christians. (Genesis 1:28) and that it “groans” under the effects of sin (Romans 8:22).  As much as I would like the earth to be in some way perfect (would that be “100% natural,” or “pristine?”  That’s a debate in itself.) I realize perfection is impossible.  We as humans will contribute to the groaning of the Earth.  Sometimes we are reduced to choosing the lessor evil, such as pipelines, rail tankers, or gasoline shortages.

If you are inclined to protest the building of new oil refineries, pipelines, electric transmission lines, and more, please be sure you are prepared to live with the consequences.  It is not fair for you to drive or fly to a rally in Washington DC to protest an oil pipeline for example.  Get on with life without using the products produced by the infrastructure you are protesting. All that said, there is a place for protest.  The couple who choose to protest extreme air pollution by wearing gas masks on their wedding day may be heroes.  Protest raises awareness of issues that are getting out of control.  The protection of the environment in the United States (at least) has much to do with the effectiveness of protests of pollution.  It is unprincipled protest that I’m protesting here.  It is protesting before any damage has been done (or can reasonably be predicted) that I’m protesting.  It is a nostalgic vision of a “100% natural” unblemished-by-sin world that I’m protesting.  Minimizing the effect of sin is what I’m advocating.

As for me, the risks of oil pipelines are what I’d prefer compared to rail transportation of oil.  The reduction of gasoline consumption is something I’d like too, but like most of us, I consume my fair share of gasoline and can’t seem to figure out how to significantly reduce that, even though I drive an electric car most days.  I’m not one to have protested the oil refinery proposed for South Dakota, the Rock Island Clean Line project or the Bakken oil pipeline.  I do however support pollution controls and maybe more of them.  I support wind power realizing that this will kill some birds and that windmill blades make an annoying noise for several miles around them.  (So do freeways!)  If windmills eventually cause serious problems for birds, I’ll reconsider.

How do you decide what you support and what you protest?  I hope and expect you are not a “banana person.”

Thanks to my daughter, Naomi, for an exchange of Facebook postings that prompted this blog post, and to my daughter Kim who prompted me to add links to show my sources.

Photo credit: HAP/Quirky China News/REX.

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UPDATE, 2/25/2015
Cherry Creek Solar Project Tabled

A 10 Megawatt Solar project proposed for the Sioux Falls South Dakota area has been tabled for now.  This project might eventually still be built, but clearly there are objections from people living near the presently proposed site.  The Argus Leader has a description of the original proposal and KELO news has a story on the tabling of the proposal.

About Douglas De Boer

Please see my Dordt College homepage for more information about me. Also be sure to see my "Curriculum Vita" for my personal testimony
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