Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Pernicious Argument of "Energy Independence"

Bloomberg News has an interesting article touting America's recovered "energy independence". The reason that America is approaching independence from foreign controlled fossil fuel? It's not greater energy efficiency in our vehicles or homes. It's not more responsible land uses that better balance housing and job locations and limit the necessity of driving. It's not the implementation of a carbon tax, or even the inferior cap and trade, that has pushed towards not being dependent on fossil fuels. No, the thing that will save us is cheap natural gas released from shale formations!! In other words, we're producing our own fossil fuels now. So, we have no reason to attack Iran or worry about Russia. In addition, domestic production of natural gas has the potential to help fuel (see what I did there?) an economic boom. Job growth estimations and overall potential economic impacts vary depending on who you cite, but it is undeniable that the price of natural gas has dropped precipitously thanks to the introduction of natural gas produced from shale. This has resulted in exports of natural gas increasing and limiting our own imports of the stuff, thus the touted "independence" that Bloomberg celebrates.

So, what's the problem? Climate change. The connection between greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide and methane, and climate change is well documented and accepted science. As an urban planner this worries me immensely. You don't have to be studying sustainability science to be worried about issues of sea level rise in coastal areas. This is especially true on the east coast from where I hail where you have many major cities that are on the coasts or lie in low-lying areas and floodplains. There are other grave issues that accompany climate change from increased risk of major storms like hurricanes, exacerbated drought conditions (look at Texas), or worse heat waves that sweep cities and could potentially harm vulnerable populations like senior citizens and children. These are issues that planners are intimately aware of and we are put in the unique position of trying to mitigate these issues, even in the face of popular opposition. Without getting into the deep well of the relationship of planners to the public and existing political institutions, I just wanted to point out that these issues are deep and planners are trying to address some systemic factors that contribute to our use of fossil fuels.

Before my more environmentally active colleagues attack me, I am aware that there ARE many problematic issues of shale gas exploitation, ranging from issues of water pollution (mentioned the Bloomberg article but never explored in depth), to questions of mineral rights, and land development. The process challenges a lot of conventions in the social, environmental, economic, and political spheres. None of which are adequately explored in this piece by Bloomberg.

And this is what makes this energy independence framing pernicious. It's put in a positive framing because we don't have to worry about being dependent upon foreign oil, it has the potential to fund thousands and jobs, and take us to a newer energy future. This is an INCREDIBLY powerful narrative. It's also largely indifferent to the issues I've brought up, and I've barely scratched the surface about what's problematic about the lionizing of natural gas exploitation. That being said, environmentally and socially conscious folk and policymakers (and this is not isolated on the traditional left, in many states there are legitimate issues regarding land ownership rights where opponents to fracking fall largely on a more conservative property rights spectrum) need to prepare strategies that attack this framing and recognize its strengths and adjust accordingly.

Attacking fracking as a dirty industry that pollutes water and befouls the land has been successful in some municipalities but we see in states like Pennsylvania that are pre-empting local municipalities from deciding whether or not they want fracking in their areas. So anti-fracking strategists need to be able to work and organize not only the county level but go to the state level and they need to be able to provide legitimate alternative visions. It's incredibly difficult for a state that suffers from a lack of tax revenue and high unemployment to not take advantage of a multi-billion dollar growth industry. We have to formulate arguments that say that there is a better way to develop without resorting to an environmentally destructive practice that encourages us to continue our dependence on fossil fuels.

Some approaches: attack the positive economic impact argument by fully integrating social and environmental costs into analysis and we need to talk more about the benefits of alternative strategies, like energy efficiency. Energy efficiency and weatherization can act not only as a series of strategies for saving energy but as drivers of economic development. We have millions of units of housing in this country that are relatively energy inefficient and the potential economic impact of ramping up weatherization and energy efficiency programs is great. Many cities are doing this on a small scale but partnering with banks, credit unions, workforce development groups, and government could allow us to leverage potentially billions of dollars into this growth field. In addition, we need to ramp up efforts to push for alternative and renewable energy sources (including nuclear, in my opinion) and tie investment in those industries to other forms of innovations and jobs. We lost our monopoly on the production of solar panels and wind turbines to China. Investing heavily in solar, wind, tidal, and nuclear energy offers potential positive impacts not only environmentally, but you can see positive results in the manufacturing and construction sectors, two HUGE drivers of economic strength in this country. This takes the energy independence message and flips it on its head. It says that we can be energy independent AND we can benefit economically without having to depend on this fracking and the continued exploitation of fossil fuels.

None of what I'm writing about here is new but as this electoral season continues to heat up interest groups need to be formulating their strategies NOW in order to head off potential messages. And believe you me, this is going to be a DOMINANT message in the upcoming elections. If we cannot cogently address the multiple arguments presented, then we can continue to watch out country go down a path of increased fossil fuel dependence. But at least it will be our own fuel.

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