[Updated below with a response from the McCrory administration]
For creationists, fossil fuels tend to pose a tricky dilemma. On the one hand, they want to believe the Earth is between 6,000 and 10,000 years old. On the other hand, fossil fuels are millions of years old. You see the problem.
To solve the riddle, some on the far-right fringe have come up with some pretty creative theories. World Net Daily’s Jerome Corsi, for example, has argued that Nazis discovered that oil is an infinite natural resource; the Soviet Union learned this; but some nefarious officials in the U.S. hid the truth from the public.
Now, there’s nothing especially surprising about fringe people adopting fringe ideas. In fact, it’s largely inconsequential – World Net Daily occasionally influences politicians like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), but in general, most sensible folks have some rudimentary understanding of where oil comes from. Weird extremists have a very limited ability to influence public policy.
But consider this recent exchange between WRAL’s Laura Leslie in North Carolina and John Skvarla:
LESLIE: I’m thinking about what you’re saying about natural gas and that’s true. You know, obviously, it’s very cheap right now. You know, on the flip side, it’s a finite resource and fossil resource. I mean, is there –SKVARLA: There are some people who disagree with you. The Russians, for instance, have always drilled oil as if it’s a renewable resource. So far, they haven’t been proven wrong. There’s a lot of different scientific opinion on that.
And who, exactly, is John Skvarla? He’s the guy North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) chose to lead the Department of Environment & Natural Resources.
In other words, John Skvarla thinks fossil fuels may be an infinite natural resource, and North Carolina’s Republican governor put him in charge of environmental policy in the state.
Rachel’s segment on this last night is well worth your time – really, watch it – and it’s worth emphasizing that we called Skvarla’s office in the hopes that he could shed some light on his rather creative views. So far, we haven’t heard back. [Update: see below.]
While we wait, note that Skvarla isn’t just fuzzy on fossil fuels; North Carolina’s top environmental official also isn’t sure climate change is real. Gov. McCrory is apparently equally unsure.
Why does it matter that North Carolina’s top environmental official doesn’t seem to fully understand the basics of what a fossil fuel is? Because the state is experiencing a rather serious issue right now involving coal-ash spills polluting local rivers, and it’s important that state officials rely on sound thinking so that North Carolina gets the science right.
And right now, the McCrory administration isn’t getting the science right.
Skvarla’s position is that it’s irresponsible to move coal ash pits that are leaking toxins. The scientific consensus says the opposite. Rachel, citing a WRAL report, explained last night:
“WRAL asked the agency, Mr. Skvarla’s agency for a citation or source for the alleged concerns about environmental risks of cleaning up and moving these coal ash ponds. The agency was unable to provide any citation.“A renowned national expert on coal ash ponds at Duke University says that’s because there isn’t one. Dr. Avner Vengosh of Duke University has published multiple studies on coal ash skills and contamination. Told about John Skvarla’s comments, the scientist tells WRAL, ‘There’s no published study that casts any doubt on whether moving coal ash out of leaky landfills is the best move for the environment.’“The exact quote from the scientist is this, ‘What are they talking about? Of course not. If there’s evidence of groundwater contamination and surface water contamination at the coal ash pond, then leaving it as is obviously isn’t an option if the environment is something you care about. You don’t need to be Joe chemist to figure that out.’”
Update: We heard back from Skvarla’s office this morning, which said his “overall point was that science should drive policy, not the other way around.” His office added, “When the reporter spoke of fossil fuels as a finite resource, which I think most of us believe it is, he took the opportunity to point out that there are those around the world, even in the scientific community, who take different positions. In other words, there is a diversity of opinion that the reporter was not acknowledging. He was not agreeing with the Russian position on the matter, just pointing out positions of which she was not aware.”
Here is the original interview, aired in January 2013. It’s worth noting that within the scientific mainstream, there is no diversity of opinion on whether fossil fuels are finite or infinite.