Why America Needs A National Clean Energy Policy

“America needs a national energy policy to transition us from polluting fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.

by Ralph Scharnau

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama offered a vision of both clean energy from wind and solar and more drilling for dirty fossil fuels like oil and gas.  He called for a clean energy standard that encourages domestic investment in renewables and efficiency. But he also wants to open up 75 percent of our potential offshore gas and oil reserves.

One of the most contentious issues involves the Canadian tar sands oil.  Keystone XL, a $7 billion pipeline project proposed by TransCanada, stretches 1,700 miles from the oil sands formations in Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries.  Last November Obama delayed a decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline until 2013, citing the need for more time to properly consider questions about the pipeline’s public health and safety, environmental, and economic impacts.

Natural gas has been touted as the cleanest and cheapest of the fossil fuels, but controversy surrounds the extraction process.  Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves pumping enormous amounts of fluid, a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals, underground to crack the shale and drive the gas to the surface.  Fracking presents real risks to the air, water, and land including the release of greenhouse gas emissions, contamination of water supplies, and earthquake activity.

Renewable energy comes from natural sources that are constantly and sustainably replenished.  Wind energy costs about the same as electricity from new coal and gas fired power plants. And it’s pollution free. Inexhaustible and cheaper than ever, solar energy now powers everything from portable radios to homes, stores, and neighborhoods.

Energy efficiency represents our fastest, cheapest, and cleanest energy resource.  We can increase energy efficiency standards applied to building design and construction, lighting, heating and cooling, appliances, computer applications, and electric motors.  Energy efficiency saves consumers and businesses money on their energy bills, reduces global warming pollution, and keeps American energy dollars here.

Compared to outer continental shelf drilling for oil and gas, retrofitting our homes and commercial buildings to 50% savings would save 2 billion barrels of oil by 2030, practically offsetting the amount of oil we could get by offshore drilling.  We can create jobs too.  One study concludes that building retrofits create 11.9 direct and indirect jobs per million dollars of output as compared to 3.9 per million, for the oil and gas industry.

The Obama administration has a mixed record on clean energy.  During the last six months of 2011, the Obama administration announced three measures that will result in cleaner power plants and vehicles, more breathable air, and fewer greenhouse gases.
Regulations reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide and mercury enhance public health.  Doubling car and truck fuel efficiency standards to an astonishing 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 means greater fuel economy and higher employment.  More efficient gasoline engines and transmissions combined with advanced batteries for plug-in hybrids and electric cars will bring increased production of high mileage vehicles and an estimated net gain of 190,000 jobs by 2020.

Yet in September, 2011, the President rejected the EPA’s proposed stricter health standards for smog.  He also blocked new regulations for power plant produced coal ash, a toxic waste if not carefully regulated and monitored.

House Republicans have played a role by their united opposition to environmental regulation.  They have voted to rollback clean air and water laws while blocking efforts to limit global warming, protect public lands, and guard against future oil spills.

All energy and power systems exact a toll.  But America needs a national energy policy to transition us from polluting fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.  Renewable energy promotes public health, protects the environment, addresses climate change, creates jobs, and provides technological leadership.

Ralph Scharnau teaches U. S. history at Northeast Iowa Community College, Peosta.  He holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University.  His publications include articles on labor history in Iowa and Dubuque.  Scharnau, a peace and justice activist, writes monthly op-ed columns for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.


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