Energy 104: The Politics of Energy

Fossil fuels or renewables? Is energy access a right or a privilege? Is it a service or a commodity? Is the sourcing, development and distribution of energy a social justice issue? Do we celebrate if we’re old, and apologize to youth because we’ve screwed them? Who really is in charge and who’s paying attention? Who cares because the bottomline is how much is it going to cost? And what, exactly, do we mean by cost? 

Mind-bending but true, in our contemplation of energy, we need, too, to consider politics and economics. Because, however much we wring our hands and moan “what is to be done?”, the only relevant question in our capitalistic society is this: Is it cost effective to save the world? 

The answer is complicated. 

For example, some of us might wonder why coal remains the dirtiest-energy-but-onward-we-go. Historically, coal has been a primary form of electricity generation in the U.S. of A.⁠1. Only recently (2008) has natural gas surpassed it. Still, coal generates 30% of our electric power supply in the U.S.. It might be steadily heading down the path of obsolescence but, if it’s so terrible, why is it taking so long to go away? 

I’d like to say it’s compassion for all the people whose lives depend on that industry. Coal mining is their livelihood and has been for generations, if only because the corporations have set up a mono-culture and semi-servitude for the people who work those twelve hours shifts of backbreaking work deep in the bowels of the earth, mining coal so that thee and me can turn on our lights.⁠2 It might be polluting the air, soil and water, ravaging the earth’s contours, increasing carbon emissions, and causing major health issues (from cancers to pulmonary diseases to asthma, to death by accidents) but our coalminers need jobs. They need food. They need a roof over their heads. And, in a perfect world, health care, education and the ability to pursue their personal definition of happiness. If we kibosh the coal industry, what happens to all our coalminers, their families, their pension and retirement funds? Thus, prior to closing the mines, and leaving entire towns decimated, we are moving slowly, retraining our coalminers, providing them with alternative job options so they can support their families.

. . . No, we aren’t. We aren’t doing that. It’s not compassion. The reason coal is still in any way feasible, and therefore not going away, is because our tax dollars are subsidizing coal companies, some of which are publicly owned. It is incumbent on publicly owned companies to put their shareholders’ best interests (profits) ahead of things like the health and the best interests of their employees and/or the environment. More money, money, money. Not people. It’s the law.⁠3

Too, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is selling leases to tracts of publicly owned land to companies like Peabody and Arch Coal. Because coal is being supplanted in the U.S. by “cleaner” fuels, like fracked natural gas, the coal is to be shipped overseas to developing countries. When all that mineable coal is mined—destroying swathes of nature’s infrastructure—and then burned, it will contribute 3.9 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. In other words, U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing coal companies who (sic) are profiting by mining publicly owned lands, degrading the environment and further accelerating climate change.⁠4 And we Americans don’t get the coal, nor its profits. And now that coal mining is “uneconomic”, those companies are asking for respite from their loan debts (royalty fees). And our government is giving it to them.⁠5 And, in the deal, taxpayers will be losing revenue, too, because this is public land.

And then there’s the infrastructure. The mines. The railroads. The retirement funds. It’s already there, dirty or not. We, taxpayers, helped to build it over the course of decades. It’s an integral part of our current energy infrastructure. Imagine the cost of starting over, basing our future on who knows what form of energy. We have to keep going on the path we are on because it’s too expensive to do otherwise. Right?

Energy, its production and distribution is complicated because it involves the environment, economics, politics and human lives. News these days simplifies things down to “them” and “us”. But remember the web—not www. but of life? We’re all us and all them. It is time to start understanding the true cost of our fossil-fueled path, include all the costs, in order to make an informed decision on our future. And we have to do this rather quickly. And. please, let’s not leave the coalminers behind. They, too, need to see a light at the end of this tunnel.

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1 https://www.eesi.org/topics/fossil-fuels/description

2 Please take the time to read through this blog: https://thethoughtfulcoalminer.com

3 B Corps, on the other hand, “are a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. This is a community of leaders, driving a global movement of people using business as a force for good.” www.bcorporation.net

4 https://grist.org/coal/why-are-u-s-taxpayers-subsidizing-coal-mining/

5 http://www.digitaljournal.com/business/utah-coal-company-seeks-relief-from-federal-lease-payments/article/516932

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