War on coal? Really?

Am I blogging about the election if I write about an issue no one’s willing to talk about?  I like and respect people who root for a variety of political teams, and I don’t like to say much unless I feel like I can say something substantive.  I hate that our elections are starting to resemble the worst sort of college football rivalry.  But as an advocate for energy efficiency, I can’t help it.  I have to wade in.  Where’s energy efficiency?  Is some vague rhetoric about a “war on coal” really the depth of conversation that we’re going to have about energy and the environment?

It’s obvious that energy matters, if for no other reason that it’s accounted for an average of 8% of GDP over the last 40 years.  None of us have figured out how to live without breathing air and drinking water, so those things matter too.

It’s distressing that someone decided that the inherent uncertainty that exists in science could be exploited to create a “wedge issue” around climate change.  The climate has been changing, and with a powerful storm bearing down on the Northeast US this week, we’re about to get another up close and personal look at what that means.  I’m not naive enough to believe that my blog will change anyone’s mind on this, but I do think it needs to be said in a reasonable tone of voice as often as possible.  When a critical mass of climate scientists say that humans are causing damage that will have expensive and unhealthy consequences , the sensible reaction is to consider whether something could be done to avert (or at least mitigate) this outcome.  Science is by nature never 100% sure about anything, but that doesn’t justify betting against it when the stakes are this high.  And even for those willing to take that bet, clean air and water are still nice to have.

Energy efficiency has always seemed like something we could all agree on.  Thus my confusion that it’s been left out of the conversation altogether.  The Romney energy plan actually fails to list energy efficiency as even a piece of their strategy.  Have we really gotten to a place where a major party candidate feels that it’s OK to deny that there is any benefit to not wasting energy?  Before my Democrat friends get too excited, the Obama “All of the Above” plan includes energy efficiency only as applied to mpg improvements for cars and light trucks.  It does include renewable energy, which has the same benefits as efficiency, although its price tag can be higher.

Really?  We’re so desperate for cheap energy that we need to rethink regulations that protect our environment, drilling in sensitive areas, public lands.  We’re getting worried that coal is under attack.  The emergency is that dire, but no one’s come up with the idea that maybe we ought to get the more benefit out of the energy we’re already using?

Few things have genuinely creeped me out as much as hearing crowds chant “Drill baby, drill.”  I like flipping a switch and having power as much as the next person.  And I’m enough of a realist to know that we live in a world right now where coal, gas and oil are necessary to make the life I live happen.  But I also know those things come with huge environmental costs, damaging the water and air and human health.  There’s an incredible amount of waste, and there are plenty of opportunities to do things better.  I can understand recognizing that fossil fuel exploration and use might be currently necessary but I really can’t grasp why anyone would be excited about it.

The fact that energy is a big part of the economy in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania is not helping.  But the issue for people in these communities is complicated.  Their relationship with coal (and now gas) can’t be boiled down into a sound bite.

I grew up in Western Pennsylvania.  My grandfather died from black lung disease that he got working in a coal mine.  It’s not something you want to see a family member go through.  The people in these communities know that this work is dangerous, and it weighs on them pretty heavily.  Most of them wouldn’t do the work if they felt like they had any other options.  We couldn’t drink the water at my house for about 10 years after the coal companies rolled through town.  There were cracks in our house from the blasting.  If you want to really understand all the good and bad things that coal means in mining communities, watch Morgan Spurlock’s “30 Days” episode about coal.  He’s famous for eating at McDonald’s, but he’s also a native West Virginian who does some of the best objective reporting on coal that I’ve ever seen.

What I remember about coal in Pennsylvania is that the coal companies came through town and everybody had a new truck for a couple of years.  People got really excited about the industry creating jobs that were really needed.  The coal trucks tore up the roads, leveled the mountains, the streams ran a rusty red, and in the end the companies all went bankrupt to avoid replanting and restoring the land to the minimal conditions required by the Department of Environmental Resources.  And once again, nobody had a decent job.  But hey, I was just a kid.  So maybe I missed some of the really awesome parts.

Now natural gas is rolling through with the same promises.  And they’re getting local support because in the beginning, it can seem like a worthwhile trade.  These companies bring jobs with them, so let’s not put too many regulatory obstacles in their way.  Maybe it will bring prosperity that lasts, and maybe we’ll still be able to drink the water.  Based on experience, I remain skeptical.

Instead, it seems like they’re drilling and drilling, even though the price of gas has fallen dramatically.  The demand, we are told, will rise up to meet us.  We’ll convert other energy usage to gas.  We’ll build a pipeline and ship it somewhere.  Maybe.  You know, back in 2007, people were building a lot of houses.  But that was OK because there were a lot of new homebuyers.  Maybe people in these different industries should talk more, because something feels a bit like a bubble to me here.

There are benefits to using gas.  The gas boom has lowered carbon emissions in the short-term.  Maybe we need to drill for it eventually, and it would be great if people who live in Pennsylvania and Ohio could really benefit from it economically.  Hopefully they can still drink the water when we’re done.  But I really can’t get that excited about it.  Low-flow showerheads and attic insulation are looking better and better to me.

Copyright 2012 Amy Musser