Everyone knows by now that if Iraq's primary resource were pine nuts or rutabagas, we would not have plunged into an eight-year, $3 trillion dollar, failed war, which left that country broken. Ever since President Roosevelt signed an oil agreement with Saudi Arabia in 1945, our fraught relationships in the Middle East have been driven by our militarized dependency on their oil.
Thus, the swing in national energy politics toward energy independence.
The Obama administration has taken the position that our independent energy future is a mix of "cleaner" and "safer" fossil fuel and nuclear energy, biofuels, efficiency and renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind. Mitt Romney's position is a similar potpourri, sans "cleaner" and "safer."
What precisely is meant by cleaner and safer is the crux of the energy independence issue.
Fiction: Natural gas, whose blue flame is branded "the new green," has emerged as the poster child of cleaner because it generates fewer carbon dioxide emissions than coal and oil. Meanwhile, a blind eye is turned toward the hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) boom that is injecting pressurized sand, "trade secret" chemicals and vast amounts of water into shale formations to release pockets of gas and oil. Thirty percent (and growing) of the natural gas supply is derived from fracking - a boon for energy independence, but a boondoggle for safer and cleaner.
Fact: The environmental risks of fracking are legion: groundwater and drinking water contamination, local air pollution, release of methane to the atmosphere, intensive local water use, no on-site hazardous waste and storage disposal facilities, increase of earthquakes and 5 percent leakage rate of hydrocarbons. Moreover, ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and other fossil fuel giants have drafted bills protecting against disclosure of fracking chemicals for the American Legal Exchange Council, an organization that writes and stewards "model" laws on behalf of its conservative legislators and corporate backers,
Fact: The natural gas industry is lobbying members of Congress and the White House to block a green building rule that would require all new and renovated federal buildings to be fossil fuel-free buildings, that is, no use of coal, oil or natural gas - by 2030. The green federal building initiative, an outcome of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, would save the government more than $7 billion per year. More crucial, it would serve as a stellar model of energy conservation for the building industry, given that buildings consume 40 percent of US energy.
Fact: Drilling for oil in the Arctic is another reckless foray for the sake of energy independence. The White House has fast-tracked permits for Shell Oil's deepwater drilling in the Arctic's Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, without an environmental impact statement and thorough public process and despite the fact that no infrastructure exists to respond to a spill. The Alaskan Wilderness League has submitted more than one million comments opposing Shell's Arctic drilling.
Fiction: Nuclear energy is clean energy that can be made safer. Nuclear energy is a wolf in zero carbon clothing, of which the adverse impacts on environmental health, international security and the economy far outweigh its energy benefits. In its full life cycle, nuclear power generates radioactive tailings at mining and milling sites; produces depleted uranium (DU), now used in weapons and warfare; and creates long-lived and highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel, with no disposal solution. Nuclear power plants routinely release small amounts of radioactive isotopes during operation and they can release extreme amounts during accidents. (The ongoing radioactive crisis at Fukushima is the world's worst industrial accident.) Every exposure to radiation carries a health risk: safer is not safe enough.
Fact: Solar and wind are under attack. Twenty-nine states, including Massachusetts, have set renewable energy standards, the highest being California (33 percent by 2020) and Iowa (30 percent by 2020) with the goals of cleaner air, economic development and a more resilient grid. Major fossil fuel companies and the Koch Industries claim that setting renewable energy standards raises rates on ratepayers who then spend less, causing state economies to suffer. However, research shows that there are at least 13 factors that contribute to rate changes, and further, that there is no consistent pattern among the 29 states with renewable energy standards of rate increases higher than those of states without the renewable energy standards.
Fact: The American Legal Exchange Council is preparing legislation for state lawmakers to repeal or weaken their renewable energy standards.
Fiction: Residential solar energy is elitist. In the leading renewable energy state of California, the Koch brothers, power companies and "clean coal" industry have painted local clean energy such as residential PV panels as "elitist" and as being subsidized by low-income Californians and people of color. In fact, a 2011 poll found that the ethnic and minority populations in California are the largest (by percent) supporters of a clean energy agenda in the state. Moreover, the "elitist" stereotype is contrived: nearly two-thirds of home solar installations in the years 2009, 2010 and 2011 were in areas of median household income.
Fact: The hidden and externalized costs of fossil fuels, as compared with wind and solar energy, are immense; and they are not built into energy prices. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that the burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal and oil, causes 20,000 premature deaths per year, mainly from lung damage, and an estimated $120 billion in health costs. The study did not include environmental damages from coal mining, oil and gas drilling, oil spills or climate change impacts. By comparison wind and solar energy have very low health and environmental impacts, which can be reduced and eliminated by proper siting.
The National Academy of Sciences study of hidden fossil fuel costs was conducted prior to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster along the Gulf Coast. A recent full cost assessment of the health, economic and environmental damages, using fines and penalties specified in pertinent US laws, yields a total of $192 billion in damages. The Department of Justice is reportedly seeking between $20 billion to $25 billion, while British Petroleum is hoping to agree on $15 billion to settle all criminal and civil penalties.
As for the allegation that wind power threatens bird populations, the National Research Council concluded in a 2007 report that existing wind facilities are not causing changes in bird populations in the US. Moreover, a comprehensive study on avian mortality from energy sources found that "Fossil-fueled facilities are 17 times more dangerous to birds on a per GWh [gigawatt hour] basis than wind power."
Fact: Americans overwhelmingly support renewables. The 2012 ORC International survey of Americans' energy preferences found that there is agreement among Americans across political parties on clean energy policy questions. Two of three Americans "agree that the term 'clean energy standard' should not be used to describe any energy plan that involves nuclear energy, coal-fired and natural gas that comes from hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking.'" Seventy-seven percent "agree that the energy industry's efforts in public relations and lobbying are an impediment for changing our current energy policies." "Nearly three-fourths think federal spending on energy should focus on energy sources of the future such as wind and solar."
Fact: We have enough resource capacity to power the United States with solar and wind. Wind energy in the Great Plains and solar energy in the Southwest could meet current electrical energy needs more than a dozen times over and this estimate does not include the capacity of offshore wind. Critically acclaimed studies, among them one conducted by researchers Jacobson of Stanford and Delucchi of University of California, Davis, have laid out a roadmap for energy policy in the next two to four decades, using solely a mix of energy efficiency, wind, water and solar technologies.
* * *
As a country and a world, we face extremes of climate - semi-permanent drought in some regions, unprecedented flooding, coastal sea rise, extreme temperatures, all with grim consequences for human life, food supply and economy, as James Hansen director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and dean of climate change wrote recently in The New York Times.
It's time to give renewable energy systems market priority - which fossil fuels and nuclear have enjoyed for decades - using all the mechanisms of public policy: investment in research and development, tax credits, green job training, technical assistance to businesses, standards for new building and renovations and public-sector conversion of buildings and vehicles to renewables. The climate crisis demands it. Citizens across the political spectrum want it. We have the capacity in energy resources and technical talent. And, we owe it - as an environmental justice obligation - to future generations.