America is facing a crisis of leadership. We need and deserve a vision and strategy to meet the energy and economic challenges facing the United States.
The latest budget proposal for 2013 illustrates this over and over again. The President summarizes it best as “all of the above” and is a vote for a lot of business as usual and a little clean technology. The problem of course, is that this one size fits all approach to powering the nation is a recipe for disaster. By throwing money at “clean coal” technology, nuclear power and fracked natural gas, we waste time, money and risk losing a share in the global market for clean energy technologies.
As an example, even after the recent Japanese nuclear tragedy the conventional wisdom in Washington is that we should invest 770 million dollars researching “advanced small nuclear reactors.”
Each of these reactors will require perfect attention to detail, perfect mechanical functionality, perfect maintenance, and optimal operating conditions, 100 percent of the time, for decades. At the same time budgets pressures dictate less and less people to run these plants. What could go wrong with that plan? Why proliferate the dangers and the security risks if there are alternatives?
The prevailing sentiment in Washington is that in addition to nuclear power we need natural gas. Natural gas solution is a fossil fuel that requires injecting toxic chemicals and millions of gallons of water into rock formations near water supplies. Injection wells for waste water have been proven to contribute to earthquake dangers. This process called “fracking” has a host of negative side-effects, and if Washington gets its way, communities throughout numerous states will host drilling rigs and spend their water budget on fracking natural gas.
Residents in Colorado, Texas, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania are reporting negative health effects from the fracking operations already underway in those states.
The situation is so bad in one Pennsylvania town that a special pipeline had to be built to bring in drinking water after fracking ruined the local water supply. The 2013 budget has 12 million dollars assigned to try and research a way to do the fracking process without poisoning Americans in the process, inherently acknowledging the problems with the process.
Unfortunately, energy companies will have unprecedented new access, as the president proposed in his last State of the Union address: “Over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration. And tonight, I’m directing my administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.” Pennsylvania is in the midst of passing legislation to preempt the authority of towns and municipalities to control or deny drilling in their communities.
The health and safety of these communities is offered as potential sacrifice zones to the same industry that caused the BP oil disaster in the gulf and allowed the oil spill in Yellowstone national park, with over 1,500 barrels spilled and only 1 percent of the spill ever recovered. The same industry that projects 11 major spills along the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route has already had 14 spills during the first year of operation for the original pipeline.
To try to mitigate this risk the proposed federal budget includes spending 386 million dollars to expand the Department of Interior to help oversee this hugely expanded offshore oil and natural gas development process. Remember, oversight did nothing to prevent the gulf oil disaster as BP just ignored existing regulations anyway.
Even worse, after the accident BP was put in charge of the clean up. They had the power to control media access to the area, to control the message on the damage caused, and to control our discourse on the safety for deep water drilling. So how effective is spending a third of a billion dollars to monitor an industry that we know will break the rules anyway and then won’t be held to account after it catastrophically fails?
When it comes to safety and new ideas on our energy future both Congress and the Administration are dead wrong. Instead they should be massively investing in efficiency and renewable sources. The current federal budget allocates only 8 percent of the entire Department of Energy submission to work on energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. By comparison almost 28 percent of the Energy budget goes to weapons activities, even though the President’s plan already gives 613 billion dollars to the Department of Defense.
We have other options. For example a recent report by Synapse Energy Economics Inc. shows that moving to renewable and clean energy sources would not only power our society safely but is a job creator for the United States and will result in net savings for consumers over the life of the study period.
They calculated that transitioning to renewable techs would create 42,700 construction jobs. The initial 42k jobs are just the tip of the iceberg, as the construction efforts would stimulate building suppliers, manufacturers, and related areas to create even more jobs. The report estimated 352k jobs would be created in total.
Plus this is power without the threat of oil spills or toxic chemicals in our water supply. Power that doesn’t require an additional third of a billion dollars just to monitor compliance with existing safety laws.
Washington’s “all of the above” consensus is a failed strategy and a continuation of a status quo that just doesn’t work anymore. Leadership at the state and local level outpaces Washington. Communities around the country will continue to call on the President and Congress to articulate a vision of the future that looks more like 2050 instead of 1950.
Pam Solo is president and founder of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute and a contributor to the American Forum.