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Author: Tom Haines

Title: "Walking to the Sun – A Journey through America’s Energy Landscape"

Publisher: ForeEdge, an imprint of the University Press of New England, 2018; 206 pages, six hand-drawn maps

In six, short, readable and well-written chapters, Tom Haines reports on the hikes he took through six different energy landscapes. These are not walks of discovery, since he knows each energy landscape has a positive or negative impact on climate change.

He lives in a home in New Hampshire heated by natural gas. He cannot “fathom the scale of my own consumption,” as he knows we must “shift from fossil fuels to sources that are renewable and carbon-free.” He questions whether we can “get from today to tomorrow.” As for the carbon-based energy landscapes, his walks are more to satisfy his curiosity and to reaffirm what he already knows as a fact.

In his first and longest chapter, Haines recounts his walk through McKenzie County from Tobacco Garden to Watford City through the oil patch. During all six hikes, he resists the comforts of hotels and restaurants. Rather, he hikes with a backpack along a predetermined route with advance permissions as to where he can pitch his tent each night and cook his meals. Of course, he flies or drives to his destinations using carbon-based transportation.

Most of us who are interested in the Bakken will recognize the places he sees and some of the people he meets, such as then Watford City mayor, and now lieutenant governor, Brent Sanford. He is not overly critical of any of the three carbon-based energy landscapes through which he hikes, as his observations simply reaffirm his knowledge of the impact of carbon on climate change. His descriptions of his North Dakota hike are fair and accurate.

Here, the energy source with a negative impact on climate change is oil produced by fracking.

“Sleeping at ground level, I could sense the danger that came with opening up the earth and uncorking carbon to support lives on the surface.” (Disclaimer: I own 20 producing mineral acres in the Bakken.)

His second hike took him from the New York state border into Pennsylvania to look at the result of fracking at shallower depths than in North Dakota. He notes New York has “a statewide moratorium on hydraulic fracking … but powerful corporations were lobbying to overturn.” In Pennsylvania, thousands of gas wells had been fracked with money for mineral owners and problems of contamination: “Each of the thousands of wells … was just another anchor committing to a fossil-fuel future.”

His third negative energy hike was in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin coal mines “where I hoped I would find there not an industry thriving, but weakening toward its end.” He found that “each day more than seventy-five trains from the Powder River Basin coal mines” move into the rest of America. He does admit nuclear energy can help replace fossil fuels. 

“The broader collapse of coal could not be stopped by politics. An investigation by Reuters news agency found that since 2010, more than half of the 523 coal-fired plants in the country had gone out of operation.”

His final three hikes were through the positive energy landscape. I found his first stop in Maine to examine the potential of power generation by the enormous tides of the St. Croix River to be very interesting. The idea is to place water turbines on the bottom of the river to capture the energy of sea water from the twice daily tides as they move with great force back and forth as the tides change. So far, no such project has been successful.

His fifth hike was in Texas among its 20,000 wind farms, making Texas “the single largest producer of wind energy in the United States.” Haines found the ideal speed of wind is 20 mph to 25 mph. He does report the American Bird Conservancy estimates hundreds of thousands of birds and bats are killed each year by wind turbines.

“Do the threats … outweigh the benefits of carbon-free power in the age of climate change?”

His sixth and final hike was to California’s Mojave Desert to take a walk through three arrays of solar mirrors heating solar furnaces.

From his hikes, Haines finds “water, wind and sun power combined would likely account for just 10 percent of all energy in 2040.” He concludes: “My walks through terrains of fossil fuels and renewable, carbon-free energy delivered me to this simple demand: care enough to see ourselves as part of the planet. Such humility is essential for our urgent attempt to realign the industrial world on natural currents.”

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Robert O. “Bob” Wefald is a retired North Dakota State District Court judge who served in the South Central Judicial District for 12 years. He was attorney general from 1981 to 1984. He served on active duty as a Naval officer from 1964 to 1967 followed by 24 years in the Naval Reserve retiring in 1991.