The Political Debate over Our Energy Future

By October 14, 2020 No Comments

By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist

Much is on the line on November 3rd. This Presidential election is about our energy future as much as it is about containing the runaway pandemic, rebuilding a more just society, and protecting our democracy. The Trump-Pence ticket would like us to believe our energy future is in fracking. The Biden-Harris ticket promises to create five million new jobs while making a two trillion-dollar investment in a new energy economy. The Biden energy platform is a populist economic vision with a tagline “Build Back Better” to address Trump’s K-shaped recession where the rich got more wealth and the poor lost their jobs and are struggling today.

The ubiquitous “Trump digs Coal” signs that once dotted Pennsylvania’s coal country roadways in 2016 are absent in 2020. At a West Virginia miners’ rally in 2016 while wearing a miner’s helmet, Trump promised, “If I win, we’re going to bring those miners back to work – you’re going to be so proud of your president and your country. You’re going to be back to better than ever before, and that means all kinds of energy.” Ignoring the dangers of climate change, mercury, and other toxic coal pollution, Trump promised to relax environmental regulations.

A surge in cheap renewable energy that started during the Obama administration has inflicted a devastating blow to Trump’s promise. In 2014, coal supplied 38.6%of the nation’s energy. More than 50 coal companies have gone bankrupt in recent years, leaving a legacy of mine scars and water pollution. Over 100 gigawatts of coal capacity has been retired or has announced plans to retire. Despite Trump’s empty promises, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that coal has dropped to 19% in 2020, while renewable energy produced 20% of our electricity this year. Wind, solar, combined with batteries are now far cheaper than coal and are dominating it for the first time. 

So Trump’s promises to move back to coal generation by gutting environmental protections have failed have any impact on the rapid decline of coal. His promise to coalminers like so many promises he has made failed to materialize. While metallurgical coal will still be mined for coke production to support the steel industry, the end of steam coal is in sight. 

In Pennsylvania, the dying coal industry leaves behind a sad legacy for Pennsylvania taxpayers to clean up. Surface mining laid waste to over three hundred thousand acres of stripped lands. Sixteen hundred culm banks full of abandoned wastes and many continue to pollute waterways decades later. Numerous boreholes and drift entrances discharge water from deep mines loaded with iron, aluminum, and sulfuric acid. Pennsylvania had about 4,000 miles of orange rivers and streams at the peak when the Commonwealth and watershed organizations began the lengthy and costly cleanup. Homes lost drinking water while others buckled, cracked, and collapsed under the stress of mine subsidence. Miners got black lung, disabled, and poverty-stricken from lung disease or suffered crushed bodies from roof falls. Others lost limbs from all-too-frequent mine accidents. With the end of coal in sight, black lung relief and mine reclamation are stranded liabilities. We face about ten billion dollars in abandoned mine scars.

In their respective debates against Biden and Harris, both Trump and Pence attempted to make fracking an issue to gain Pennsylvania voters’ support by accusing Biden of wanting to ban all fracking. We should not be surprised by Vice President Pence’s vigorous defense of fossil fuels during the debate. Pence had cashed in when his family bankrupted their “Midwestern empire of more than 200 gas stations” that provided Pence with an upbringing as he claims to be on the “front row of the American dream.” The Pence family got rich while leaving the Kiel Bros. Oil Co. bankrupt in 2004. They walked away, leaving a string of liabilities in Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois. The state governments are “on the hook for millions of dollars to clean up more than 85 contaminated sites across the three states, including underground tanks that leaked toxic chemicals into soil, streams, and wells. Indiana alone has spent at least $21 million on the cleanup thus far, or an average of about $500,000 per site.

Both Biden and Harris have made it clear that they do not intend to ban fracking. However, during CNN’s primary Climate Townhall in September 2019, former Vice President Biden promised to end any more fracking on public lands, saying, “I would not allow any more [fracking]. I’ve argued against any more oil drilling or gas drilling on federal lands.” He also promised to re-examine existing wells on public lands. When asked about the future of coal and fracking in July 2019, Biden vowed to end fossil fuel subsidies. “We would make sure it’s eliminated and no more subsidies for either one of those, either — any fossil fuel.” Since the oil and gas reserves under the Allegheny National Forests are privately owned, this proposed ban on Federal lands would not impact Pennsylvania’s fracking industry. 

Heavily subsidized by taxpayers, Pennsylvania’s fracking is widespread in the Marcellus shale formation covering over half of the state. Pennsylvania laws have long tilted towards boom-bust fossil fuels, including coal, oil, and now frack-gas. By enacting weak environmental laws, underfunding enforcement, and massive tax subsidies amounting to over 2.2 billion dollars for gas-powered plastic and fertilizer plants, the legislature has tilted the playing field in the direction of fracking, with privatized profits and socialized liabilities—that destroy communities with inadequate protections. 

Past oil and gas exploitations have saddled Pennsylvanians with more than $7 billion to secure and seal somewhere between 475,000 to 700,000 orphan and abandoned wells to reduce groundwater contamination and methane emissions. Abandoned wells add an estimated 50,000 tons of methane per year (Methane molecules are 84 times as potent as carbon dioxide molecules accounting for 5 to 8 percent of our greenhouse emissions.) 

The Biden/Harris climate platform focuses on advancing clean energy through new investments, not on outlawing fracking. However, clean energy will eventually wean us off fracking for electric power generation by changing free market forces. Biden’s climate plan calls for an emissions-free electric grid in 15 years, and a goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions across the entire economy by 2050.

In a piece entitled, “Clean energy is catching up to natural gas: The natural gas “bridge” to sustainability may be shorter than expected,” David Roberts suggests: “Natural gas’s value proposition is no longer taken for granted. Gas’s purported dominance was based on necessity — it is cheaper and cleaner than coal but able to do things renewables can’t. That sense of necessity is crumbling. There are now emerging alternatives, packages of clean energy resources that can do all the same things, at competitive costs, with no greenhouse gas emissions.” Clean energy is now cheaper than frack-gas in many places. It will soon overtake gas as the most cost-effective energy solution and gas-fired powerplants will be stranded assets. With the rapidly declining costs of wind, solar and batteries, the future of clean energy is unstoppable.

As was the case with the COVID-19 crisis, Trump has once again ignored the world’s leading scientists. Every major science organization has repeatedly warned that all nations must accelerate its carbon reduction ambitions to avoid climate calamity. The Biden-Harris plan would speed the move to clean energy in the U.S. By rejoining the Paris Accord, the U.S. can advocate for all nations to expedite their transition to clean energy to avoid a more deadly climate crisis with increased fires, floods, extreme heat, and sustained droughts. 

We should embrace the move to clean energy and build a powerful clean energy industry that can spawn 25 million jobs while marketing advanced American technologies to the rest of the world. The net-zero energy future can be ours if we move fast and tap into American ingenuity.

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