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Noel S. Williams / June 9, 2014

Protect Our Pale Blue Dot

In David Bowie’s evocative song Space Oddity, castoff Major Tom – while floating in a most peculiar way – ruminates that “Planet earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.” But to keep Earth blue here’s something we can do: reduce flare gas.

Satellite images of N. America reveal that sparsely populated N. Dakota is glowing brighter than nearby metropolises. This is because oil production in the state is booming thanks to hydraulic fracking, a process that produces gas flaring.

This flaring not only pollutes Earth’s atmosphere, but is a dreadful waste of a valuable fuel. Maybe the sun’s supply of energy seems inexhaustible – at least for a few billion more years – but Earth’s materials are finite. As a species, we cannot afford to squander Earth’s resources.

The Earth’s population for thousands of years remained steady, but quadrupled in the twentieth century.  The rate of increase is now slowing, but projections have the world population at 8 billion by 2024.  If the majority of those souls were to garner the West’s levels of consumption, humans would deplete planet earth beyond recognition.

We can encourage economic development; we can be global warming agnostics; we can revile the EPA’s imperious rules; but we cannot afford to squander Earth’s precious resources. This is partly why preeminent theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking says, “We won’t survive another 1000 years without escaping our fragile planet.” That fragility was foreshadowed in December, 1968.

Apollo 8 entered moon orbit and dared venture to the foreboding dark side. Beyond communication links with mission control and ensconced in the deafening silence of space, the astronauts must have briefly felt like Major Tom – adrift. What soon happened was a watershed moment for humanity.

As the magnificent space capsule emerged from the dark, the astronauts captured the most jaw-dropping image in the history of images – Earthrise. Described by a famed Nature photographer as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken,” an immaculate and resplendent blue orb floats in a most peculiar way in the desolation of space. Rare – in our solar system if not the entire Milky Way – Earth itself is a space oddity that thwarts the interstellar bombardment of cosmic rays and heroically repels treacherous coronal mass ejections.

But future Earthrises may be less inspiring unless we reduce pollution and achieve sustainable growth. Harnessing the power of natural gas rather than burning it off is a key component. This undertaking may seem daunting, but N. Dakota’s Industrial Commission is paving the way. On June 1 they implemented rules to require energy companies to submit a plan to capture any natural gas that could be released by a new well when filing for permits. Without a plan, applications for new wells will not be approved.

This was a locally derived policy under the auspices of a commission whose three members are all republicans, chaired by Governor John Dalryrmple. They co-opted the extravagant bureaucrats at the business-unfriendly EPA, finding a reasonable balance between growth and environmental protection. They know far better than some D.C.-based EPA bureaucrat how to “encourage and promote the wise and efficient use of energy, to promote environmentally sound exploration and production methods and technologies, to develop the state’s oil and gas resources,” as their charter stipulates.

In his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, Carl Sagan wrote: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark […] it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Protecting our pale blue dot is imperative for our survival, even to buy the 1000 years that Hawking gives us. Sagan continues: “The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.”

Even as their economic boom is dependent on fracking, North Dakota essentially said: if you frack it, cap it. The Peace Garden State has made a stand. We thank those Roughrider patriots for pursuing sustainable economic growth, and for providing energy while helping Earth remain a Space Oddity.

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