When all eyes turned to New Orleans, I thought, finally, things will change.
Some folks would have you believe that climate change is a hoax, a plot by greedy climatologists, environmental extremists, and one-world global government conspirators to take away Americans' freedom of choice and destroy the economy.
As paranoid and fantastical as that sounds, it has a surprising level of support in Washington DC. Politicians who collect campaign checks from fossil fuel corporations repeat these crackpot theories as though they were carved by flame on stone tablets. Lobbyists and think tanks whose luxury suites are paid for by Big Oil write the talking points that make up the climate denial gospel.
For a majority of Republicans, that global warming is a hoax is an article of faith. And, like so many zealots, climate change deniers are impervious to contrary facts, no matter how plainly they are laid out.
Last summer, the Sierra Nevada Mountains in central California bordering the spectacular national park at Yosemite were engulfed in flames. Burning 300 square miles and only 23 percent contained, causing air pollution in Reno, Nevada, more than 150 miles away, and creating a plume of smoke so large it's visible from space, the Rim Fire is one of the worst wildfires in California history.
Only one person, a fire truck driver, died in that fire. The same cannot be said for a June wildfire in Prescott, Arizona, that cost 19 firefighters their lives. Deadly, devastating fires were a frighteningly ever-present threat in the Western United States last summer as nearly 90 percent of the region suffered some level of drought, more than half of it "severe" or worse.
Wildfires and drought are nothing new in the US, as recent years have shown the full force of both. In fact, 2012 set a record with 7 million acres burned by wildfire, and devastated Midwestern farmlands with one of the worst droughts since the dust bowl of the 1930s. Researchers say it’s bound to get worse, with “megafires,” which burn more than 10,000 acres, becoming more common with dryer weather and longer fire seasons.
The phenomenon is not limited to the US, and in fact has wrought havoc on the other side of the planet. Australia in 2011 was every bit as bad, if not severely worse, as the American summer of 2012. Bushfires charred thousands of acres and sent evacuees running for cover as their homes were destroyed. The fires were fueled by brush left as tinder by a drought that lasted more than a decade, known as the Big Dry.
Huge Droughts and Enormous Storms
Climate deniers might note that the Big Dry was followed by record-setting floods. Which is true, as is the fact of widespread, disastrous floods in California, the Eastern Seaboard, and in the Midwest in recent years. There have also been unprecedented blizzards, like Snowpocalypse, Snowmageddon, and Snoverkill that battered the mid-Atlantic states over the course of a few weeks in 2010.
And do we even have to mention hurricanes? Seven of the 10 costliest hurricanes in US history have occurred since 2004, and they resulted in 2,404 deaths.
Those numbers don’t include Superstorm Sandy. While the total cannot yet be calculated, early estimates place cost of Sandy around $50 billion, with 147 people killed. The repercussions are still being felt more than a year later.
“They're just now [in late July 2013] restoring electricity throughout Staten Island,” says Kate Colarulli, associate director of the Sierra Club Beyond Oil campaign. “School systems were closed, schools were shifted and kids were going to school in gyms for the last six months, because we're seeing an increase in these extreme weather events.”
A casual observer could easily see that extreme weather is becoming more common. But environmental activist Hilton Kelley is no casual observer. He has spent more than a decade fighting the fossil fuel industry in his hometown of Port Arthur, Texas. Not only is it the heart of the oil refinery industry, and the proposed terminus of the KXL pipeline, its location on the Gulf Coast along the Texas-Louisiana border has put it in the path of hurricanes and tropical storms with stunning regularity recently.
“I was born in 1960, and the first hurricane ever had to evacuate from in the city of Port Arthur was Hurricane Rita when she hit [in 2005],” Kelley says. “Then Hurricane Ike [in 2008] and so on…. I have never seen so many hurricanes in my life within this community, and yet throughout this whole Gulf area we've had over five major hurricane warnings within the last six or seven years.”
While Mr. Kelly is not a meteorologist or a climatologist, scientists whose job it is to know these things back up his observation that something strange is going on with the weather. And they say it's probably going to get worse.
Droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, blizzards, floods, heat waves… It's all going to get worse. But don’t expect to hear about it on your TV news; a survey by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) found 96 percent of all network news coverage of extreme weather in the first three quarters of 2013 failed to mention climate change.
If the Tar Sands Are All Burned, It's "Game Over" for Climate
That's what former NASA scientist James Hansen meant when he wrote about tar sands development and the KXL project, "if Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate."
Hansen believes that developing the tar sands and releasing billions (with a B) of tons of carbon into the atmosphere will fundamentally change the climate in ways that could bring civilization as we know it to an end. A report Hansen co-authored found that continuing the current trajectory of fossil fuel production and use" would make much of the planet uninhabitable by humans, thus calling into question strategies that emphasize adaptation to climate change."
Canadian Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, whose brief involves pushing tar sands development and exportation for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, called Hansen's words "nonsense," and accused the renowned scientist of "crying wolf." Hansen, not to put too fine a point on it, described Harper’s Conservative government (think George W. Bush with better manners) as “Neanderthal,” stuck “in the hip pocket of the fossil fuel industry.”
"I think [Oliver’s] beginning to get worried because the secretary of state, John Kerry, is well-informed on the climate issue and he knows that his legacy and President Obama's is going to depend upon whether they open this spigot to these very dirty, unconventional fossil fuels," Hansen told the CBC. "We can't do that without guaranteeing disasters for young people and future generations."
Oliver appears to be using a common tactic in the lobbying industry. As notorious “Astroturf Kingpin” Rick Berman has said of his efforts to fight against drunk-driving laws and removing cancer-causing pesticides from corporate farms, his favored tactic is “to shoot the messenger.”
Unfortunately for Oliver and Harper, attacking Hansen will do them little good. While he may be among the highest profile critics of tar sands development in the KXL pipeline, he is in a large and growing community of scientists who oppose the project.
Arctic Ice Lost, But Oil Companies Are Investing in Rights to Explore the Unfrozen Earth
Stirring new evidence is making their calls for action still more urgent. By now, it's old news that the Arctic ice has retreated to unprecedented levels in recent years. Even the financial magazine, The Economist, has taken note, with a special series of reports that acknowledge the polar melt while documenting how many of the oil companies are scooping up new rights to "explore" newly unfrozen parts of the earth. All the while, many of these companies have been funding a cabal of climate deniers, as documented by Greenpeace. .
Meanwhile, a study by NASA finds that melting permafrost at the poles could be a time bomb waiting to go off, as long-sequestered pockets of methane (CH4) in the ice are released into the atmosphere, where their carbon causes 20 times the damage of carbon dioxide (CO2).
"As heat from Earth's surface penetrates into permafrost, it threatens to mobilize these organic carbon reservoirs and release them into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane, upsetting the Arctic's carbon balance and greatly exacerbating global warming," said Charles Miller, research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The Pentagon Takes Note of Climate Change and Plans for Chaos
NASA is not the only government agency that's looking at the Arctic ice with concern for the future. The Department of Defense has been looking at climate change as an agent of geopolitical instability and an aggravating factor in how the military will carry out its mission. A 2012 report by the Pentagon describes how military facilities and operations from the Arctic, to the desert, to tropical islands in the Pacific could be threatened by melting ice, droughts and rising oceans caused by global warming.
The Department of Homeland Security created its own report on adapting to climate change, finding that the phenomenon is a "’threat multiplier,’ aggravating stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, and social tensions, resulting in conditions that could enable terrorist activity, violence, and mass migration." It also found that increase in deadly storms threatens American lives and infrastructure, as well as the nation's borders, as refugees from natural disasters seek refuge in the U.S.
The report also quotes former Army Chief of Staff, General Gordon R. Sullivan. The general, who since his retirement from the Army in 1995 has served on the Military Advisory Board of the non-profit research institute CNA Corp., testified in 2007 before the House Committee on Science and Technology. He said he initially approached climate change with skepticism, but after hearing from the experts, his mind became very clear on the issue:
After listening to leaders of the scientific, business, and governmental communities both I and my colleagues came to agree that global climate change is and will be a significant threat to our national security and, in a larger sense, to life on earth as we know it to be.
The potential destabilizing impacts of climate change include: reduced access to fresh water; impaired food production, health catastrophes — especially from vector- and food-borne diseases; and land loss, flooding and the displacement of major populations.
What are the potential security consequences of these destabilizing effects? Overall, they increase the potential for failed states and the growth of terrorism; mass migrations will lead to greater regional and global tensions; and conflicts over resources are almost certain to escalate.
Other International Organizations Are Worried
Those concerns were echoed by United Nations officials who warned of food shortages and droughts as drivers of political instability. The question of how to feed billions of people when crops fail all over the planet due to rising temperatures and diminished precipitation is not one that accepts a facile answer.
The World Bank – just about the farthest thing from a hippie, tree-hugger organization – warned of an imminent threat of famine in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, each a locus of both high population density and intense, chronic poverty. “We have a moral imperative to protect the most vulnerable people, standing in the path of climate-driven hardship,” World Bank Vice President Isabel Guerrero said. “The report is a warning, and we have a duty to respond."
“It's clear that if were going to see parts of the world go through more severe droughts, and have greater difficulty in producing the food that we need to feed the population were going to see more conflicts. We're going to see greater political instability, particularly in emerging economies,” says Lorne Stockman, research director for Oil Change International. “This isn't an issue of, ‘Well, I'm fairly well off and I'll be able to afford food if food prices rise, and I'll be able to look after number one.’ Were going to see global instability.”
Meanwhile the Insurance Companies Are Planning Ahead
While professional naysayers may dismiss these warnings as Chicken Little alarmism, it's worth noting that an industry that thrives on uncertainty and always seems to make the right bet is betting against. Bloomberg.com characterized the insurance industry’s position as being at odds with their usually reliable allies in the Republican Party, as oil company profits do nothing to help insurance companies pay their claims.
“The industry is at great financial peril if it does not understand global and regional climate impacts, variability and developing scientific assessment of a changing climate,” Franklin Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, said in his testimony to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, entitled “Climate Change: It’s Happening Now.” “We are committed to work with you to address the exposure of citizens and their property to extreme weather risk.”
Those extreme weather risks have already cost the industry billions in payouts to help customers recover from natural disasters and crop failures. In the United Kingdom, the insurance industry is seeking to address the risks it bears by rewarding behavior that mitigates climate change and the damage that results from it, The Guardian reports.
When It's Hot, You're Hot Headed; But What about the Dirty Air?
A new study says human behavior itself may be a victim of climate change, as violence becomes more common with a rise in temperature. Researchers at Iowa State University found that in addition to the general crankiness hot temperatures breed in people, violence could also arise from fights over scarce resources like food and water, and poverty crowding caused by weather events. Study co-author Matt DeLisi told National Geographic that the spike in violence that occurred on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina could be magnified to a global scale, leading to war or genocide.
In Port Arthur, where summer temperatures routinely break 90 degrees and humidity averages 80 percent, the crime rate is very high, likely owing as much to the fact that one-fourth of the population lives in poverty. Kelley, however, wonders if there might be something more.
“You're breathing contaminants from crude oil, like volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, ammonia, all these chemicals mixed up into the air,” he says, rattling off the toxins he and his band of volunteer air-quality testers, known as the Bucket Brigade, track. “We know how benzene impact the body by itself, we know how to sulfur dioxide impact the body alone, but what about all of these chemicals mixed together? How does that impact the nervous system? How does that impact our way of thinking? Is it causing some kind of nervous disorder within the brain to where the level of violence is raised? Is it causing people do things they wouldn't ordinarily do if they weren't subjected to these toxic chemicals? There's been no cumulative impact study of all these toxic chemicals mixed together in our environment, going into our system.
“How does that impact us? No one knows.”
The Sea also Rises
What we do know, to a 95-percent certainty according to a draft report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”), is that human activity is causing the planet to heat up, and in doing so is fundamentally threatening the planet. The panel is made up of several hundred scientists who put out a joint report about every five years, offering the most current state of the science around climate change and its likely effects. (A separate study of 2,258 peer-reviewed articles on climate change found 9,135 out of 9,136, or 99.9890543%, of the researchers agree that climate change is happening.)
One possibility is that current emission levels continue, raising sea level by 21 inches by the end of this century, and possibly as much as 3 feet. Justin Gillis of The New York Times contemplated what that might mean:
Hundreds of millions of people live near sea level, and either figure would represent a challenge for humanity, scientists say. But a three-foot rise in particular would endanger many of the world’s great cities — among them New York; London; Shanghai; Venice; Sydney, Australia; Miami; and New Orleans.
It's important to note that the IPCC report presents this worst-case scenario as what could happen if current levels of emissions continue unabated. It does not consider how tar sands exploitation could exacerbate the problem.
“Climate scientists tell us that 80 percent of carbon reserves need to be kept in the ground to give us a reasonable chance of stopping runaway climate change,” says Jason Kowalski of 350.org. “There's so much carbon locked in the tar sands, by building the Keystone XL pipeline, by assuming we're going to dig up those tar sands and burn them, we lock ourselves into climate chaos.”
A Whole Lot of Carbon Going On
A heavily disputed preliminary report released by the State Department in March 2013 declared that KXL would generate annually the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as 626,000 passenger cars. As troubling is that number is, critics say that it woefully blunders on the result by ignoring important factors in reaching it. Though the State Department’s Final report — released January 31 of this year — has moderated some of the findings of the preliminary report and taken into account criticisms, its conclusions bear the same aversion to contrary facts.
“They don't take into account the climate implications of all the pet coke Keystone would generate; they don't take into effect the carbon issues that are happening when you destroy the boreal forest; they may even be underrepresenting how much carbon is in the carbon-intensive tar sands oil compared to conventional oil,” says Colarulli.
“The EPA tells us that tar sands is somewhere between 17- and 36 percent more carbon intensive than conventional oil. The State Department’s looking at the lower end of that and telling us ‘626,000 more cars.’ Imagine if they look at the higher end.”
Natural Resources Defense Council analyst Anthony Swift has looked at the high end, and what he found is deeply disturbing.
“Crude oil is carbon intensive, but replacing conventional crude oil with tar sands in the Gulf Coast would create an enormous amount of carbon emissions: 24 million metric tons a year,” he says. “That's over a billion metric tons over the 50-year lifespan of this project. That is the amount of carbon produced by over 200 coal-powered plants a year.”
Pembina Institute, a Canadian research organization, finds that on a per-barrel basis, extracting and upgrading tar sands oil generates 3.2 to 4.5 the amount of carbon dioxide as producing conventional crude oil. On a well-to-wheels lifecycle basis, from extraction to combustion, tar sands oil adds up to 37 percent more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than conventional oil. The extraction process is so carbon intensive that Alberta has higher per-capita greenhouse gas emissions than any company on Earth. None of which was included in the State Department’s analysis.
In fact, the State Department's conclusions were so suspect that the EPA sent a letter to State spelling out in great detail its “environmental objections" to the report, citing its "insufficient information." The Department of Interior issued a similar letter, calling State’s report "inaccurate" and warning that the pipeline's construction would have long-term, possibly permanent adverse impacts on wildlife along the route.
Echoing the EPA’s objections, Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) sent a scathing, in a politically genteel way, letter to the State Department, asking it to go back to the drawing board and reconsider the climate implications of carbon emissions that KXL would generate. The Waxman-Whitehouse letter was unyielding in its criticism, citing many “flaws” in State’s assessments on how KXL would “drive tar sands development” and release carbon that would otherwise remain buried.
KXL Is the "Linchpin" for Profit, and Disaster
And that truly is the crucial point for environmentalists and others who oppose the project. Without the Keystone XL pipeline, they argue, developing the tar sands would be simply economically impossible.
“Keystone is a linchpin for tar sands expansion,” says Colarulli. “Keystone is the defining decision on how fast and how much tar sands expansion happens over the next 10 years. That's the reason that the oil industry is putting so much money into lobbying – they know that the Keystone decision has enormous financial consequences on how much profit they are able to make from tar sands over the next decade.”
With Alberta oil producers worried about declining demand in the US, and refineries in the Midwest already glutted with oil from the tar sands and the Bakken shale, the oil producers need to find their outlet to a market that would give them top dollar for their goods.
Greater Supply for the International Market Means Higher Gas Prices Here
“Producers up in Alberta want to get to the Gulf Coast so they can expand their market and raise the price that they get,” says Lorne Stockman of OCI. “Right now they're taking a discount because they flooded all the markets they can reach in the Midwest. So this is pure and supply and demand going on – there's too much supply in the Midwest.”
That fact is one Stockman repeats often, but which gets less attention than it deserves. With U.S. oil production reaching record highs, and US oil consumption dropping to levels unseen this century, the law of supply and demand dictates that prices drop. And yet, oil companies rake in unfathomably large piles of cash.
“I don't know if anyone's noticed, but we've had a North American oil boom going on for the last three years. But throughout that entire time, gasoline prices have stayed at historically high levels,” Stockman says. “While the producers and the refiners are interested in the tar sands in order to make more money, the consumers are unaffected by this cheap supply of oil. They're still paying the price that's linked to the global market."
“Keystone XL will not reduce gasoline prices in United States,” noted Stockman.
While consumers are not likely to see any benefit, they are definitely on the hook for the “externalized” costs, as economists call them. Not merely by paying high prices at the gas pump, but also by the externalized costs of added carbon pollution in the atmosphere, and in cleaning up the mess if and when the pipeline fails.
"All Pipes Rupture"
“All pipes rupture. That's why we have plumbers,” says Colarulli. “I have dozens of stories of companies where a spill happens and they keep the pipe running, or they do a quick pat patch job just to get it running again. The oil companies don't have much invested in actually doing a good job. Their bottom-line profits don't come from spending 10 or 20 years in a community and ensuring that community is cleaned up.”
“Their costs to society, to the climate, and to the environment are never reflected in what they end up paying,” Slocum adds. “Society absorbs the social, environmental and economic costs of the harm that extracting, processing and transporting fossil fuels has. All of these industries, including the Canadian tar sands industry, enjoy a de facto subsidy just because the true cost of the product that they're making for profit is not reflected in the price that they sell to the American people and to the world at large.”
The costs may be entirely incalculable. Tabulating an oil spill clean-up can quantify the man-hours spent removing and disposing of contaminants, but can it put a price on the years or decades it takes to restore the habitat? The cost of rebuilding after a hurricane does not account for the lives disrupted or lost. Floods and droughts have costs that do not conveniently fit on any ledger.
“We are not factoring in those costs into decisions about energy infrastructure like Keystone,” Stockman says. “Until we factor in those costs, we're going to keep making these decisions that in the long run are going to cost this country billions and billions if not Trillions of dollars.”
Another cost that TransCanada is asking the U.S. public to take on is the opportunity cost of building a pipeline instead of investing in alternative energy. The billions of dollars that would be spent on building the pipeline, refitting refineries to handle tar sands crude, and cleaning up the inevitable spills might otherwise be spent on building out a clean, renewable energy infrastructure.
We Are at a "Crossroads" for Our Energy Future and the Future of Our Planet
“We’re absolutely out of crossroads when it comes to our energy future. The Keystone pipeline is one direction, which is to continue to pursue an in fact double down on the failed energy policies of the past that are bad for the environment, bad for the consumers, bad for the economy, and do nothing to get us off oil,” says Tiernan Sittenfeld of the League of Conservation Voters. “Or we could pursue a cleaner, safer, less expensive energy policy.”
While some proponents of the pipeline offer it as a temporary measure while we pursue sustainable energy policy and infrastructure, this is a short-sighted solution. As Slocum explains, once the pipeline and its concomitant infrastructure are built, the corporations that paid for them are going to do whatever it takes to squeeze every penny out of them.
“We are proposing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on new fossil fuel infrastructure that is going to last for another generation,” he says, “and once that infrastructure is built those companies are going to do everything they can to ensure that the full life of that infrastructure is used an exhausted. And that is going to set us back another generation.”
Instead of locking us into a death spiral with fossil fuels, making the planet less hospitable as their availability declines, investment in sustainable energy could help lift the country out of its economic doldrums.
“If you actually look at areas of job growth in the United States, the fastest-growing sector is the clean energy sector,” says NRDC's Swift. “The pipeline takes one or two years to build, and then there's very little effort needed to keep it operating. And that means very few jobs. If you look at green energy, whether it be biofuels, wind, or solar, these tend to be manufacturing jobs – exactly the sort of industries that create long-term manufacturing work that Americans can continue to innovate and develop.”
Green Jobs Would Mean More Jobs and for Longer
Green jobs creation doesn’t only help the workers earning middle-class wages in manufacturing. It also has a multiplying effect on the economy that petro-industry investment does not, according to the Political Economy Research Institute at University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
“If you invested a dollar in renewable project, you would create four times the amount of jobs than if you invested one dollar and a fossil fuel project,” says Colarulli. “If we want to grow our economy, we need to be looking at how to create a green sustainable economy. That's where the jobs are: in hybrids and electric vehicles, in building super storm-resistant bridges, fixing our infrastructure, expanding our country's ability to deal with this changing climate that we have. That's where the jobs going forward are.”
In places like Detroit and Port Arthur, where unemployment officially stands at 16 percent but the actual number is much higher, people are hungry for jobs. With billions of dollars being invested in new energy resources, even apportioning a small amount of that into renewable energy industries could pull entire communities out of poverty. However, it's going to take a commitment to put people to work, because they're waiting for the opportunity.
“Some of the nonprofit organizations are moving quicker than our government because they're already doing training around green jobs and construction,” says Rashida Tlaib, Michigan state representative for the Detroit area. “Almost 1,000 people have been trained in these green jobs industries, but the jobs are not there.”
Kelley has spent 13 years trying to get the oil companies that harm his community to step up and create jobs. They have thrown him a few bones, offering $200 annual vouchers for medical costs and building a $1 million community center, but those have done little to put people to work in Port Arthur. But in a company town, Kelley says the residents know they are over a barrel.
“If those industries were to leave, we need to have a plan in place to provide some type of economic stability to this community, and that hasn't been done yet,” he says. “It's imperative that we do more to look at renewable energy opportunities and commerce for areas like Port Arthur so we can start the engine to start turning in the right direction for the next generation.”
The Appeal of Solar and the Oil Industry's Fear of the Sun
Kelley says he is talking nonprofits about develop a solar farm in Jefferson County and is working with the EPA to hire locally to do environmental cleanup in the neighborhood, where rusted out, contaminated equipment and abandoned toxic waste sites dot the landscape. Unlike much of the work that residents of Port Arthur used to do, those jobs can’t be outsourced.
“The great thing about renewable energy like rooftop solar programs is that it's super local,” Slocum says. “This is stuff that’s being produced in your community, on a rooftop, in our backyard, and the jobs to install them and maintain them are going to be contracting jobs. The biggest cost for solar is installation, so those are very good paying jobs. Retrofitting existing structures, homes, businesses, commercial properties to make them more energy-efficient. There's tons of low hanging fruit there, huge opportunities that are locally based.”
If Kelly gets that solar farm idea beyond the talking stage, it could be a huge boon to the area. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Texas gets more energy from the sun in a month than all of the oil and gas the state has produced in its history. But he’s likely to run into resistance from the oil and energy companies. It's become a common occurrence that efforts to build sustainable infrastructure have faced harsh opposition from the entrenched fossil fuel industry.
“These are some of the largest corporations in the world and they are involved in extracting as much oil and gas out of the ground and selling it to the American people. They’ve got embedded infrastructure that they want to squeeze every last penny of profit out of, and they have no plans whatsoever to become solar producers because that's not their business model,” Slocum says.
“Until ExxonMobil has patent rights over sunshine or wind blowing, they're not interested, because all you can do if you’re Exxon is build a solar facility and then the fuel is free. They’re not interested in that,” he says. “They're interested in controlling a fuel supply so we have to buy their fuel.”
But that hasn’t stopped utilities like the city-owned Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (“DWP”) from creating an incentive program to get homeowners and business owners to put solar panels on their roofs by allowing them to sell back their power to the utility. Incentive programs have proven quite successful, resulting in 800 megawatts of rooftop photovoltaic power in California, or enough to power 600,000 single-family homes, between 2007 and 2011. This has also made California home to more than 3,500 solar energy companies with 25,000 employees, or about 20 percent of all such companies in America, according to a report by Environment California Research & Policy Center. The goal is to reach 3,000 megawatts of rooftop solar power by 2016.
That has inspired the for-profit energy companies to seek a new law that allows them to recoup their costs for grid maintenance from solar-powered homes that “are just using our system as [an energy] storage device,” as an industry spokesman put it.
Of course, the oil industry-backed American Legislative Exchange Council is in the middle of that fight. As noted in The Guardian in its report on documents revealing ALEC's finances and plans, ALEC has decided to make attacking solar energy part of its agenda for 2014, calling homeowners with solar panels that put energy back into the grid "freeriders" who should be taxed by the energy companies.
Among other things, the industry opposed Assembly Bill 1990, California’s 2012 “Solar for All” bill that would have required utilities to invest in solar facilities in low-income communities with the poorest air quality. That bill died in the state senate.
With that grinchy track record, it’s little wonder that utilities are inviting mockery. (It’s also little wonder they lawyered up in response to the mockery they invited.)
With even mega-capitalists like Wal-Mart are investing in rooftop solar to keep their costs down, and homeowners finding new ways – like leasing – to go solar without having to drop a lot of cash, it seems like renewable energies are proving themselves to be a reliable investment. As real estate developer Ted Lieser told Men’s Journal about his decision to go solar, "I tell people this is not a liberal or conservative issue. It's an economic one. Why wouldn't you want to save money?"
Even the Pentagon Is Looking for Alternatives to Oil
Frugal thinking of that sort has powerful friends, including many inside the Pentagon. The Defense Department has announced its plan to utilize biofuels, solar power and other renewable resources to cut their annual $4 billion energy bill, much to the chagrin of climate deniers in Congress, many of whom are natural allies of the military-industrial complex. After all, defense contractors stand to make a windfall if climate change leads to political instability.
It’s instability in the oil market that prompted the DoD to make a heavy commitment to renewables, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy Tom Hicks wrote on Wired.com:
Eight years ago, the cost of petroleum was just under $40 per barrel and the annual volatility was plus or minus 10 percent. Today, the price of petroleum has more than doubled and the annual volatility is more than 30 percent. It is impossible to accurately predict where prices will be eight years from now, but with ever-increasing global demand and continued political unrest in oil-producing countries, nearly all experts agree that oil prices will increase, and we have seen the price of biofuel drop.
And indeed, the price of biofuel has dropped since the military started buying it to power its vehicles. In addition, the increased demand has spurred an increase in the number of companies making biofuel.
Thrift enabled by market efficiency, responding to demand by increasing supply, by way of entrepreneurship. That, in a nutshell, is the conservative doctrine, and such small-C conservatism has inspired a lot of atypical solar enthusiasts, including members of the Tea Party. But even they are finding a hostile environment in the heart of the power companies whose unfettered, free-market rights they generally support.
The "Green Tea" Movement?
“I recently did a TV show with Chris Hayes on MSNBC with the head of the Georgia Tea Party,” Slocum says. “A lot of their wealthy members wanted to install solar panels, because in five to seven years they pay for themselves. So it's a great financial investment; they're not doing it necessarily to save the planet. The local utility company was blocking their efforts, so the tea party was fighting for more solar on economic grounds. So we kind of have a ‘Green Tea’ movement”
He is certainly no Tea Partier, but Hilton Kelley is willing to fight on their side to get the economy moving in the direction of renewable, sustainable, and clean energy. The economic and environmental devastation fossil fuels have dumped on his hometown gives him powerful incentive to carry on in the struggle for his neighbors against the industry that’s poisoning them.
“We know that solar panels work, we know that wind power works. We have to take those ideas and put them in the forefront and get big corporations out of the way. It's imperative that we do it,” he says.
“We should not wait until 'we're down to the last barrel of oil, and now everybody's for fighting for it'. The time to time to start investing in your alternative fuel is now,” he says. “The time to build a well it's not when you're thirsty, but long before you get thirsty.”
The technology is available, and it’s effective, and for investors, it holds the promise of a good return for years to come. And according to researchers at Stanford and U.C. Davis, if we fully implemented the renewable technologies we have today, we could fully power the planet in 20-40 years. And doing so could create jobs and rebuild the American middle class.
As President Obama said, “[T]alking about an oil pipeline coming down from Canada that’s estimated to create about 50 permanent jobs. That’s not a jobs plan.”
But building infrastructure that reduces costs to consumers, who then spend the savings on goods and services and goose the economy, while also create a manufacturing base that puts millions of Americans to work is a jobs plan, as well as a very good idea.
And that plan already exists. The Blue-Green Alliance, a coalition of unions and environmental groups, created Plan21, a multi-point plan that addresses vital infrastructure needs, revitalizes the manufacturing industry, promotes green energy, and cleans up the environment. And it’s no pie-in-the-sky scheme. It contains real-world ideas that can move forward with the right government policies and public/private investment.
And the BlueGreen Alliance has a track record of success. Its member organizations established a training program to teach manufacturing workers to use less energy and reduce waste, and its Industrial Energy Efficiency initiative has saved manufacturers millions of dollars through energy conservation.
It’s clear that a real investment in getting off the fossil fuel addiction is far more likely to produce long-term, high-paying jobs than building the Keystone XL pipeline. But that, ultimately, is beside the point. “There are no jobs on a dead planet,” the saying goes.
“We can argue about jobs with the Keystone XL pipeline. We can throw figures around about how many jobs will be created, how much money will going to the economy or will not going to the economy, depending on whose books you're looking at. We can argue about whether it's good for national security,” say Lorne Stockman of OCI. “We can debate those things and we can have different beliefs about economics and free-trade and those kind of issues."
“But the fundamental issue here is, do we really want to open up billions of barrels of high-carbon fuel in Alberta, and put in the infrastructure that will be here for 50 years to access that resource, and let it out into the global market?”
- by Dave Saldana, Director, Writer, and Producer of "Keystone PipeLIES Exposed," a new short film that is a production of the Center for Media and Democracy