Reinforcing unintended consequences

I heard a story on NPR last week about how the oil industry is changing in Alaska. Specifically, it is adapting to climate change. You see, as air temperatures warm, the permafrost becomes less perma- and less -frost. This presents challenges for energy extraction operations.

Of course, entrepreneurs have stepped in with solutions to help. Not to mitigate the effects of climate change, but to allow the industry to better cope with it. For example, one company deploys sensors to determine when construction of ice roads can begin. These roads made out of literal frozen water are an important part of getting materiel to and from drill sites.

But what really struck me was the company that’s helping oil sites keep buildings cold. Thawing permafrost means the buildings shift. This leads to cracks in walls and ceiling, stuck doors, etc. So what is their solution? Pipes filled with coolant extract heat from the ground and release it into the air. This, of course, requires the input of additional energy (probably derived from fossil fuels).

I get it. Energy is a complicated problem with no easy solutions. A sudden stop to petroleum usage, while good for carbon dioxide levels, is ruinous to Alaska’s economy. But it’s an important reminder that we sometimes deal with unintended consequences by reinforcing them. And that is not sustainable.

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