Energy + Climate Change
There are several major energy sources throughout the Bay watershed, and each have various infrastructure needs and pollution impacts. Natural gas hydrofracking and pipelines, hydroelectric dams, coal mining, coal-fired power plants, coal ash, and, finally, solar energy are all energy sources that affect the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
Natural Gas Hydraulic Fracturing and Pipelines
The largest deposit of Marcellus shale in the United States overlaps significant portion of the upper Chesapeake Bay watershed. Hydraulic fracturing (Hydrofracking) and the associated pipeline infrastructure can pose risks to national forests and important rivers within the Bay watershed.
Fracking occurs when millions of gallons of fresh water mixed with millions of pounds of sand and chemical-based additives are pumped into the shale to fracture the rock to release the gas. These chemical additives are toxic to humans and wildlife. As a result of this process, groundwater, may be impacted. The used fracturing fluids used in this process pose waste management challenges. Additionally, large numbers of grouped well sites and associated access roads can result in loss of forestland and habitat disruption.
Natural gas pipelines are planned to span over a thousand miles, leaving a major environmental footprint. The pipeline construction process may contribute a significant amount of new sediment pollution to local waters through runoff and erosion. Gas pipelines will also require clearing of thousands of acres of forest, and cross hundreds of streams, wetlands, and other wildlife areas.
Coal has dirty and dangerous impacts to human health and the environment in the Chesapeake Bay watershed beyond the air pollution coming out of coal burning powerplants. Coal production and negatively impacts air, water, and climate. Coal ash pits are often created to store spent coal. Many of the coal ash pits are located in wetlands close to rivers or the Bay, threatening water bodies with heavy metals. Public health concerns related to coal ash include cancer, lung disease, respiratory distress, and neurological damage. Acid drainage from active and abandoned coal mines in Appalachia impacts the upper portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Additionally, coal mined in Appalachia is increasingly being exported to Asia and Europe through the ports of Baltimore and Norfolk, causing additional pollution from railroad transport and activities at the export ports.
Solar and Wind Energy
Solar and wind energy are renewable sources of energy that can help us create a cleaner and healthier future in the Bay watershed. Some states have set renewable energy portfolio standards to work towards incorporating more renewable energy sources into the state energy structure. The District of Columbia, Maryland, and New York have fairly ambitious standards. While renewable energy production is an important step to reducing dirtier sources of energy like coal and natural gas – there are still challenges facing implementing solar and wind infrastructure which must be carefully addressed.
The Chesapeake Bay is particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change including warming temperatures, waterbody acidification, more extreme weather, and rising sea levels due to melting ice caps. Warmer waters are not able to hold oxygen as well as cooler waters, leading to an increase in dead zones, suffocating marine life and impacting underwater grasses. Changes in water temperature also affect the reproductive behavior of fish, crabs, and oysters. Waterbody acidification occurs when the waterbody absorbs carbon dioxide from the air. Higher acidity levels make it difficult for oyster reefs to survive.
Evidence suggests that increases in extreme weather, including droughts and flooding, can shock the Bay’s ecosystem and cause significant impacts on agriculture, food security, and human health.Due to the rising sea and a naturally subsiding coast, the Bay has seen a one-foot rise in sea level over the past 100 years, and it could see a rise of an additional three to four feet by the end of this century. This inundation of the Bay’s 11,600 miles of coastline will cause land and property loss and impact the economy of the Bay dramatically. Rising sea levels will envelop wetlands that serve as habitat for numerous species and as natural pollutant filtering systems. Additionally, nuisance flooding is occurring more often, placing city infrastructure, buildings, and ports at risk to damage.
Bay communities can protect themselves from climate impacts through climate adaptation, or climate resilience. These protective measures include updating zoning and building codes, adjusting natural resources management, agricultural innovations, and planning for more extreme weather conditions.