July 24, 2010

Turn the clean energy switch to “OFF”

Clean energy legislation again eludes us.

It now looks like substantive clean energy bill may not emerge from Congress this year. Too bad, because our utilities will not have to derive a significant percentage of their power from renewable sources, nor cap emissions from power plants. Next-generation technologies may indeed come from our grandchildren.

A “light switch tax” was the catchy phrase that Senator Lisa Murkowski (R: Alaska) used to oppose the proposed clean energy legislation that would focus on power companies. She was afraid that electric utilities would retaliate by jacking up our prices—at a time when a lot of Americans are struggling financially. There was bipartisan opposition too. Jay Rockefeller (D: W VA) said, “I don’t want EPA turning out the lights on America. . . You can’t run this country without coal. I am for all alternative fuels … but you add them all up, nobody can make the point you can do any of this without coal.”

Unfortunately, coal will be a part of the necessary energy mix in America’s future, and I can understand these concerns. But there’s too little focus on the role of subsidies for fossil fuels. They enjoy a vast array of $550 billion worth of tax breaks and subsidies worldwide. That’s “price control” but in the wrong direction—when we are, at the same time, asked to conserve. Even the true cost of a gallon of gasoline is nowhere near the price at the pump, but from $6 to $15 more when you add subsidies.

The coal industry has never loudly proclaimed to the public that they have received, and continue to receive, hefty subsidies and tax credits to produce and burn coal—subsidies that reduce our true electricity costs. They do nothing to encourage us to slow down our electric meters that are spinning out of control in this super hot weather along the East Coast. What incentive do most folks have to set that AC thermostat at 78 degrees and turn on the ceiling fans when electricity costs are kept artificially low?

The only subsidies most Americans heard about recently are the stimulus funds targeted to wind and solar energy. So these folks falsely argue that renewable industries are growing (however slowly) based on costs to taxpayers. In reality, the over-investment in oil and gas drilling has been at the expense of other parts of the economy—especially renewable energy industries and clean-energy jobs. We have been padding the bank accounts of oil, gas, and coal company CEOs, while encouraging the continued use of fossil fuels.

In the current political climate of partisan bickering, we’re not getting much help for our environment. 2010 brought us the 29 deaths from the Massey coal mine disaster in West Virginia and 2 more in Kentucky; 7 deaths at an oil refinery explosion in Washington state; a Chinese coal freighter crashing into the Great Barrier Reef and another oil spill in China; and BP’s continuing saga in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a sobering website from the U.S. Mine Rescue Association at http://www.usmra.com/accidents.htm  that lists miners’ deaths from mine fires, explosions, cave-ins, asphyxiation, etc. Now that’s a different sort of “light bulb tax”—on lives.

The real bottom line is that we can’t keep blowing up mountain tops, fracturing our planet, opening up too many unspoiled ecosystems, or burning “dirty coal” to keep our lights on or run our cars. When the emerging wind and solar energy industries receive the long-lasting subsidies that the fossil fuel industry have received, we’ll finally enjoy renewable energy.