Feds pass climate ball to locals, find pass interference
Over the last two years, President Joe Biden and Congress have made it official: America’s weapons against climate change will be carrots rather than sticks. It has been more than 30 years, six presidents and 17 sessions of Congress since the United States signed the first international climate agreement, but the federal government hasn’t been able to keep the commitments in that or the 2015 Paris climate accord.
So, Biden and narrow majorities in Congress have passed the buck — trillions of bucks, in fact — to state and local governments, businesses and households. Significant portions of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, the $2.4 trillion inflation Reduction Act of 2022, as well as the $2.3 trillion COVID-19 relief package of 2020 provide incentives for the American people to drive the nation’s transition to clean energy.
Unfortunately, an organized movement is reportedly spreading disinformation to keep that from happening. From 2015 to 2021, nearly 300 local governments reportedly banned or limited wind and solar development in their jurisdictions. Unfortunately, they based many of their decisions on half-truths fed to them by unreliable sources.
An enterprising independent journalist, Michael Thomas, took a deep dive into this. Thomas identified and followed about 40 groups.Writer and podcaster David Roberts summed up what Thomas found, that“across the country and the internet, there are hundreds of conservative think tanks, groups and individuals working to stir up community opposition to renewable energy with misinformation and lies. With virtually no public scrutiny, they have secured state-level policies restricting renewable energy siting in dozens of states.”
Among the most common half-truths and fabrications are that wind and solar technologies cause cancer (they don’t), significantly lower nearby property values (not true), take land out of food production (not necessarily), waste good pasture (check out this map and these sheep), and kill birds (a half-truth. Collisions with wind turbines account for only 0.01 percent of bird fatalities due to human causes. Domestic cats kill 72 percent).
Utility-scale solar and wind installations must be located where wind and sunlight are ample and where there is room. That usually means rural areas. Farmers can earn up to $8,000 per turbine annually by leasing land for wind projects. The turbines provide a guaranteed income for decades without labor, pesticides, fertilizer, fuel, equipment cost or vicissitudes in crop prices. One study found that Texas’s utility-scale wind, solar and energy storage projects will generate as much as $8.8 billion in local tax revenues over their lifetimes and up to $22 billion for landowners.
Most rural areas can use the stimulus. Rural poverty has been consistently higher than urban poverty in America since the government began tracking it the 1960s. And despite the inexplicable angst conservative groups seem to feel about green energy, red states lead wind and solar power production in the United States.
The real problem with energy production today is the “forever legacy” of fossil fuels. In addition to climate change, it includes:
Lung diseases: 40 percent of Americans — more than 137 million Americans — live in places where power plants and vehicle pollution creates unhealthy levels of pollution — and this pollution causes cancer and other lung diseases. More than 17 million Americans live within a half-mile “threat radius” of carcinogenic emissions from oil and gas facilities. There were nearly 2,600 incidents of significant gas leaks in the U.S. between 2010 and 2021.
Water contamination: 90 percent of the 240 active coal-fired power plants in the U.S. store ash wastes in landfills that can contaminate groundwater with arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium and other metals. Runoff containing oil from streets and vehicles is the principal source of oil pollution in North American ocean waters. The problem is up to 20 times greater than 20 years ago.
Threats to public safety: Gas pipelines exploded 680 times from 2010 to 2021. They killed 260 people, hospitalized 1,100 and caused more than $11 billion in damages. Gas explosions in populated areas have wiped entire neighborhoods off the map.
Price volatility: The average gas price in the U.S. broke the $5 barrier last June because of the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 epidemic, proving how vulnerable our oil-based economy is to events we don’t control.
Above the law: The oil industry has not only avoided punishment; the government rewards it every year with more than $20 billion in taxpayer subsidies. With cover-ups and disinformation, the industry has kept enriching itself with products that cause irreversible worldwide damage to the climate, human health and civilization’s future.
Now, it seems the industry is employing the same tactics at the local level. Among its many other benefits, renewable energy will liberate us from doing business with the carbon cartel.
On our present course, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “petroleum and natural gas (will) remain the most-consumed source of energy in the United States,” and America’s oil production will reach record highs in 2050, the year in which the U.S. economy must decarbonize.
So, how can local officials and residents be sure the oil industry doesn’t sandbag them? They can talk to experienced wind and solar farmers or get information from credible experts like those at the U.S. Department of Energy. Wind and solar developers can reduce community opposition by involving local people early in planning. And local folks won’t suspect carpetbagging if developers give them opportunities to invest in and share revenues from wind and solar farms.
Do wind and solar development present challenges? Sure. Every major economic transition and new technology does. But they are nothing compared to the consequences of global climate change. And as anyone who has lived in rural America knows, farmers are very good at figuring things out, especially when it comes to working with nature.
William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.
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