- Key Facts
- The U.S. uses primarily crude oil, natural gas and coal to meet our energy needs, in that order.
- Solar energy faces hurdles in becoming a reliable energy source because we lack the ability to store solar energy for later use and it requires extensive updates to the electric grid.
- The federal government is the largest domestic consumer of energy. (EIA, NYTimes)
- In 2014, the U.S. consumed 18% of world total primary energy consumption. (EIA)
- The energy “industry” is a major employer: the “Traditional Energy” and “Energy Efficiency” sectors today employ approximately 6.4 million Americans. (U.S. Dept of Energy 2017)
- Efforts to abandon fossil fuels disproportionately impact the poor. (Bjorn Lomborg, NYTimes)
- Examples of life without fossil fuels: a “chilly one-gallon bucket shower” with “little artificial light, no aspirin, and little clean water to wash it down.” (Global Energy Institute)
“Reliable, Affordable and Clean”
Energy expert Karen Harbert notes that most consumers, when considering their environment and energy choices, “want energy that is reliable, affordable and clean.”
And here is why:
Reliable. We want power when we need it. From every time we flip on a light switch to newborns surviving on ventilators in the NICU, we require uninterrupted access to power.
Affordable. No one should be living in the dark. All who want access to electricity should have it for their homes and businesses and energy prices shouldn’t stymie business- and job-creating opportunities.
Clean. Studies show that we all want to be good stewards of our environments. We want our energy sources to be clean, or at least as clean as possible.
But can you really achieve all three simultaneously when it comes to energy policy and the environment? What is the current situation and how did we get here? And what energy policy best balances these goals in meeting our energy needs while being responsible stewards of the world’s resources?
Debates around energy resources and the impact on our physical environment are as old as the day is long. History and politics have long influenced how we view energy and the environment.
Let’s take a look at our energy situation and examine:
- What is our energy mix?
- What is important to consumers?
- How do technology and innovation drive change?
- What is the global energy situation?
- What is at the heart of energy and environment discussions?
As we look at these five components, it is helpful to view them in the context of the United States’ energy independence.
“As recently as 2005, the U.S. relied on imports to meet 65% of daily oil demand, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That figure shrank to 55% in 2010, and to as low as 28% [in 2015], as surging domestic oil production hit a 43-year high. By 2020, Raymond James believes the U.S. will import just 11% of its daily oil needs. At that point, net imports could be met entirely by supply from Canada and Mexico. ‘This would be North American oil independence, with no reliance on imports from outside the continent,’ Raymond James analysts wrote.” CNN Money
This scenario only considers oil resources. The United States also produces abundant quantities of natural gas, which is a cleaner energy resource that reduces the need for dirtier sources of energy, such as coal, and more expensive sources of energy, such as nuclear and renewable sources.
Less reliance on foreign sources of energy means more flexibility in meeting our energy needs, resulting in strategic advantages for our country in terms of national security and our economy.
Framing the Issue
What Is Our Energy Mix?
The United States’ energy mix includes the following, ranked in order of what we consume as a nation:
Crude oil (37%) is a fossil fuel, occurring naturally on the planet as a byproduct of decomposed matter, and “is typically obtained through oil drilling, where it is usually found alongside other resources, such as natural gas (which is lighter, and therefore sits above the crude oil) and saline water (which is denser, and sinks below). It is then refined and processed into a variety of forms, such as gasoline, kerosene, and asphalt, and sold to consumers. Distillation, the process by which oil is heated and separated in different components, is the first stage in refining.” (Investopedia)
“Although fossil fuels like coal have been harvested in one way or another for centuries, crude oil was first discovered and developed during the Industrial Revolution, and its industrial uses were first developed in the 19th century. Today, the world’s economy is largely dependent on fossil fuels such as crude oil, and the demand for these resources often sparks political unrest, since a small number of countries control the largest reservoirs. The United States, Saudi Arabia, and Russia are the leading producers of oil in the world.” (Investopedia)
Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) (29%) is a fossil fuel and “consists mostly of methane and is cooled to approximately -256 degrees Fahrenheit so that it can be transported… In its liquefied state, natural gas takes up 1/600th of the space, making it much easier to ship and store when pipeline transport is not feasible. As world energy consumption increases, experts anticipate that the LNG trade will grow in importance. Despite having one of the world’s largest reserves of natural gas, the United States imports a small percentage of its natural gas as LNG from Trinidad and Tobago, Egypt, Norway, Qatar, and Nigeria.” (Investopedia)
Coal (15%), another fossil fuel, is a main source of U.S. electricity and not much is expected to change for decades. Preliminary data for 2016 shows natural gas edging out coal as the main supplier of U.S. electricity. Still, eliminating coal could ‘disrupt and destabilize the electric grid.’ “Internationally it, again, is the number one source for electricity, responsible for around 50% of the world’s electricity generation.” Coal is still forecasted to supply 26% of America’s electricity in 2040. Abroad, coal consumption is expected to increase by 15% around the world over the same time period. The most common way to transport it is by train, followed by trucks and barges.” “Of the 50 states, 26 states mine[d] coal as of 2010.” (Clearpath, Investopedia) According to an NPR report on Monday, June 26th, coal production in the US had increased by 19% from 2016 to June of 2017.
When it comes to renewables (10%), hydro electric power is the largest source. “Hydroelectric energy is energy derived from the movement of water. Water has mass. It falls and flows downward due to gravity. When it moves, it has kinetic energy which can be harnessed. Kinetic energy is the energy of motion….People have been using the flow and the power of water to drive machines for many centuries.” Water power is generated through aqueducts, water wheels and dams. (Lehigh University Environment Initiative)
Wind is a close second in the basket of renewable sources of energy. According to the Wind Energy Foundation, “Wind energy technologies use the energy in wind for practical purposes, such as generating electricity, charging batteries, pumping water, and grinding grain. Mechanical or electrical power is created through the kinetic energy of the wind….The turbine’s blades are similar to the propeller blades on an airplane. The hub of the turbine is rotated as the rotor blades generate lift from the passing wind. This rotating action then turns a generator, which creates electricity.”
“Wind energy is now the second fastest-growing source of electricity in the world, with a global installed capacity of 432,883 megawatts (MW) at the end of 2015. There are over 75,000 MW of wind capacity operational in the U.S., as of August 2016. (You can see U.S. wind farm locations on the U.S. Geological Survey’s interactive map.)”
Solar only contributes a small percent to what we consume from the renewable sources of energy. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), ‘Solar energy offers a clean, climate-friendly, abundant and inexhaustible energy resource to mankind, relatively well-spread over the globe. Its availability is greater in warm and sunny countries, which will experience most of the world’s population and economic growth in coming decades.’
“The costs of solar energy have been falling rapidly and are entering new areas of competitiveness. Solar thermal electricity (STE) and solar photovoltaic electricity (PV) are competitive against oil-fuelled electricity generation in sunny countries, usually to cover demand peaks, and in many islands. In most markets, however, solar electricity is not yet able to compete without specific incentives.”
Nuclear power (9%) is a man-made source of energy which is the product of atomic energy (splitting heavy atoms or joining light atoms). It “is attractive as an energy source because, when operated safely, it is able to generate significant amounts of energy with little to no toxic emissions. A variety of studies conclude that the total carbon footprint of nuclear power is comparable to wind, solar and hydro power.”
But nuclear power has high upfront costs. “The large capital investment required to build a nuclear plant can be difficult to obtain…in all cases it costs several billion dollars to build a new nuclear plant. Construction also takes several years, leading to a substantial period of uncertainty before the power plant is able to begin generating revenue. The other main operating cost of nuclear power is properly disposing of nuclear waste and spent fuel rods… [which] is relatively low. A variety of techniques exist to reprocess spent fuel and compact remaining waste so that the need for more costly long term storage is minimized.” Yet, concerns about radioactive waste management and the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons remain.
“The United States leads the world in terms of the Megawatt capacity of its nuclear generating stations. The U.S. is followed by France, Japan, Russia and Germany. As a percentage of the amount of electricity generated, France leads the way, utilizing nuclear power for over 75.2% of its electricity needs.” (Investopedia)
For a clear picture of the challenges of nuclear power, see this article on Germany’s effort to phase-out nuclear energy. The US is also shuttering some nuclear facilities, which just can’t compete with the cheaper energy sources, particularly natural gas.
How does the Power Grid work? “Ever wonder how electricity gets to your home? It’s delivered through the grid — a complex network of power plants and transformers connected by more than 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines. The basic process: Electric power is generated at power plants and then moved by transmission lines to substations. A local distribution system of smaller, lower-voltage transmission lines moves power from substations to you, the customer. Watch an animated video on how the grid works.” (Energy.gov)
Subsidies. Note that all energy industries receive some level of subsidy, whether direct or indirect. The Institute for Energy Research and the University of Texas calculated the subsidies per unit of energy produced (or cents per kWh) and found solar subsidies to be much higher than wind subsidies. In straight numbers, wind received more money in subsidies, yet, it produced much more energy than solar. So, wind received less subsidies per unit of energy produced than solar. “Between 2010 and 2016, subsidies for solar were between 10¢ and 88¢ per kWh and subsidies for wind were between 1.3¢ and 5.7¢ per kWh.”
“Subsidies for coal, natural gas and nuclear are all between 0.05¢ and 0.2¢ per kWh over all years, and…subsidies for nuclear and fossil fuels are indirect subsidies like decommissioning and insurance assistance, leasing of federal lands, and other externalities, unlike the subsidies for renewables which are directly for the production of electricity and directly affect cost and pricing.” (James Conca, Forbes)
What is Important to Consumers?
When it comes to energy, people care about local access and rates.
Cheap and Clean. In their book, Cheap and Clean, “Stephen Ansolabehere and David Konisky show that Americans are more pragmatic than ideological in their opinions about energy alternatives, more unified than divided about their main concerns, and more local than global in their approach to energy.” (mitpress.mit.edu)
The authors point out that, “Despite more than two decades of efforts by scientists and advocates to link our personal energy choices to global climate change, most Americans don’t make a strong connection.”
“It also suggests that people can change how they feel about different energy sources—so as technological advances diminish environmental harms from some dirtier fuels, or reduce costs for newer and cleaner ones, each could become more competitive in the economic marketplace, more acceptable to the public, and more palatable in the political realm.”
Jobs. Your elected officials know that you care about jobs, as well as reliable, affordable and clean energy. IHS consulting firm produced a study in 2013 that found: “…domestic energy production now supports 1.2 million jobs, directly or indirectly… That number will grow to 3.3 million by 2020, and new energy’s contribution to U.S. families’ disposable incomes will hit $2,000 per household per year by 2015.” This is the traditional energy portion of the 6.4 million jobs referenced above. The additional jobs come in the form of transmission, distribution, and storage as well as design, installation, and manufacture of Energy Efficiency products and services. (USAToday)
The energy industry creates high-paying jobs for scientists, engineers and others, while also supporting development in communities.
In a real-world example, ExxonMobil announced in March of 2017 that “the company will be investing $20 billion to build or expand 11 different facilities—creating 45,000 new American jobs.” Read more about why energy companies are investing in manufacturing in this U.S. Chamber article.
How do Technology and Innovation Drive Change?
According to this timeline, domestic oil production was assumed to have ‘peaked’ in 1971, giving credence to the prediction that oil production would decline after 1970.
Around that time, politics and the fear of energy shortages intersected when OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) placed an embargo on oil exports to the U.S. and other nations due to their support of Israel. The United States later banned crude oil exports, in the mid to late 70’s, in an effort to keep domestic resources at home and protect U.S. national security interests. The policy was not particularly successful because oil is a fungible commodity whose price is impacted by global supply.
In the late 1990s, technological advancements in oil extraction changed everything. The newly discovered extraction methods of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing unleashed vast supplies of oil and natural gas from shale rock in the United States. As production ramped up, the price per barrel of gasoline plummeted. The huge influx of natural gas that is also found in shale rock dropped the price of this clean energy source.
According to the Institute for Energy Research, “hydraulic fracturing pumps water and sand into rock (shale and reservoir rock) to break it allowing the oil and gas to be captured. Its use has almost doubled U.S. production of oil and natural gas between 2008 and 2015, making the United States the largest natural gas producer in the world and one of the top three oil producers.”
The revolutionary advancements in “fracking”, a shorthand term for hydraulic fracturing, along with horizontal drilling has rapidly transformed the United States from an energy poor into an energy-rich nation. A drastic change from our previous, energy-poor status in less than 10 years.
From Energy Poor to Energy Rich
Generally speaking, the U.S. no longer thinks and acts as a country in crisis mode, worrying that we’ll run out of energy resources. In his first complete budget request, President Trump proposed selling off half of the U.S. strategic oil reserve (Bloomberg). The head of OMB (Office of Management and Budget) explained that, “risk [of depleting energy resources] goes down dramatically when we have increased domestic production like we have today.” In light of our abundant resources, Congress recently overturned the ban on crude oil exports, which serves as another boon to our economy.
One of the ways consumers benefit from the free-market outcome of the U.S.’s newfound energy abundance is in lower gas prices; however, this same drop in prices has hurt the bottom line of oil and gas companies, forcing them to innovate with energy extraction techniques.
“‘The industry has taken this as a wake-up call to get more efficient or get out.’ Using new fiber-optic sensors thousands of feet below the ground, operators are receiving streams of data allowing them to analyze rocks in real time to make quick decisions.” (NYTimes, 2015)
Consumers, taxpayers and voters prefer clean AND affordable energy options, so innovation and technology must continue. However, there are some challenges.
Reducing emissions through carbon capture, an effort that has bipartisan support and one that would result in clean coal, also requires technological advancements. Read more in this MIT Technology Review article, Clean Coal’s Flagship Project Has Failed: A plan to slash emissions from coal burning by 65 percent has proved too problematic at the beleaguered Kemper power plant.
Renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, will not be broadly viable options until technology and innovation create ways for around the clock energy use. Some solar energy challenges include:
- Storage: the timing of peak energy-use does not match peak energy production time from sun and we do not yet have energy storage technology (to store solar energy to use at a later time) to match need.
- Inefficient solar panels: the best solar panels are currently about 30-35% efficient.
- Older electrical grids: in the U.S. and elsewhere need extensive capital investment in infrastructure upgrades to be compatible with large-scale solar energy. In the meantime, with fewer people paying the utilities (because they are producing energy during the non-peak time) there is less income to maintain the utilities that are still needed for those without solar panels, and to provide energy during the non-peak times.
See this video: “How do solar panels work” from TEDed:
And this, which discusses the bright future for solar, while also outlining some of the factors that are restraining wide-use today:
The Global Energy Situation
Because oil is traded on the global market, prices are impacted by global supplies. So, what happens around the world matters to us at home. In a prime example, in late August 2017, the United States exported its first shipment of natural gas to a former Soviet republic, facing headwinds from Russia who has enjoyed its energy dominance in the region.
The “Oil Curse”. Why are oil rich countries so poor? “There are twenty-three countries in the world that derive at least 60 percent of their exports from oil and gas and not a single one is a real democracy,” according to Larry Diamond of Stanford University in 2008. He points out that having easy access to energy-related revenues can “eliminate a critical link of accountability between government citizens,” and “facilitate corruption and patronage networks,” which can “consolidate the power of entrenched elites… sharpening income inequality and stifling political reform.” (The Atlantic)
Who uses which energy sources? Click here to access the “World Map of Energy Use” (pictured below). When you click the link, you’ll be taken to an interactive version of the map which shows what resources are used in which country.
And below are the top ten countries, in order, with the most natural resources. Often, the amount of natural resources a country possesses, particularly in terms of energy sources, influences how they consume energy.
- United States
- Saudi Arabia
Countries use energy sources in completely different ways — case in point, Saudi Arabia. “Saudi Arabia produces much of its electricity by burning oil, a practice that most countries abandoned long ago, reasoning that they could use coal and natural gas instead and save oil for transportation, an application for which there is no mainstream alternative. Most of Saudi Arabia’s power plants are colossally inefficient, as are its air conditioners, which consumed 70 percent of the kingdom’s electricity in 2013. Although the kingdom has just 30 million people, it is the world’s sixth-largest consumer of oil.” (The Atlantic)
Understanding the practices of these large consumers is important when thinking about the global climate.
Energy vs. Environment: The Great Debate
An ongoing debate, one often eliciting strong emotions, is balancing energy needs with the impact on the environment. Below are seven areas to consider:
- Human Activity
- Name Calling
- Paris Climate Accord
- Carbon Tax
- Cap and Trade
- Blocking Fossil Fuel Extraction
- Antiquities Act
Human Activity: Climate expert Patrick Michaels provides an historical snapshot of pre- and post-human influence:
“Since the beginning of reliable global temperature records in the late 19th century, there have been two periods of significant warming that are statistically indistinguishable in magnitude. The first period ran from 1910 through about 1945, with a temperature increase of around 0.5 degrees Celsius. There could only be minimal human influence on this period, simply because humans had not emitted very much carbon dioxide.
“After a slight cooling, the second one began sometime around 1976 and ended with the big 1998 El Nino. This period was likely in part due to a greenhouse effect.
“Interestingly, when the lower atmospheric warming paused after 1998, the stratosphere also stopped cooling. What’s happening now is quite unclear as surface temperatures are constantly being readjusted.
“So, after allowing for a small bit of other influence on the second warming, we’re left with the notion that the maximum warming caused by humans is somewhere between 0.4 and 0.5 degrees Celsius — half of the total since the Industrial Revolution.
“Thanks to the huge thermal inertia of the ocean, current models show there’s between 0.4 degrees and 0.6 degrees of warming on the way, even if emissions were capped at 2000 levels.” (The Hill)
Name calling: “Climate science and politics too often reverts into name calling and bullying, which can get in the way of real work. That was the only thing House Science Committee members, three scientists who often clash with mainstream science and a prominent climate scientist could agree to at a contentious hearing Wednesday. They couldn’t agree on who was doing the name calling, though.” (AP)
Paris Climate Accord: You have likely heard or read about this agreement widely covered in the news, both when it was originally signed by executive order by President Obama and when President Trump rescinded it. Signed by 196 countries, “The agreement…sets a global target to keep the rise in the average temperature to no higher than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. And it calls for some $100 billion a year in funding from developed countries toward developing countries to support green energy sources.” (NPR) As a point of reference, global temperatures have already risen 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
The agreement included some areas of controversy, including the following:
- The agreement does not have an enforcement mechanism. “The Paris accord was reached in 2015 after lengthy negotiations. The deal relies on voluntary cuts in emissions by all member nations.” (NPR)
- The agreement was not submitted to the U.S. Senate for ratification. In a Washington Post article, law expert explained, “…the United States never properly joined the accord: It is a treaty that requires the advice and consent of the Senate. Instead, President Barack Obama choose to “adopt” it with an executive order last September.”
See the video below for Prager U’s take on the climate accord:
Carbon Tax: A carbon tax is a tax on activity rather than consumption. It “is also referred to as a form of carbon pricing on greenhouse gas emissions where a fixed price is set by the government for carbon emissions in certain sectors. The price is passed through from businesses to consumers. By increasing the cost of greenhouse emissions, governments hope to curb consumption, reduce the demand for fossil fuels and push more companies toward creating environmentally friendly substitutes. A carbon tax is a way for a state to exert some control over carbon emissions without resorting to the levers of a command economy, by which the state could control the means of production and manually halt carbon emissions. (Investopedia)
ExxonMobil gained attention recently when it came out in support of a carbon tax. It was part of “the Climate Leadership Council’s plan [which] sets an initial tax of $40 per ton of carbon dioxide produced, which would add 36 cents to the cost of each gallon of gasoline sold. The group estimates the tax would raise more than $200 billion a year, and the rate would rise over time, dampening demand for fossil fuels. The average family of four would receive approximately $2,000 in the first year as a carbon dividend.
“A tax-and-dividend plan would cut American carbon pollution even as the Trump administration withdraws from the Paris climate accord, the group says.” (New York Times 6/20/17)
While some bipartisan voices have lent support to this effort, others are staunchly opposed. Opponents generally believe that a carbon tax is the first step toward decimating the energy industry, because the power to tax is the power to destroy.
Cap and Trade: Cap and trade policies set a cap on overall emissions for the country, and then allow businesses to buy and sell credits underneath that cap in order to meet their production needs. “There are different versions of emission trading programs around the world. The program proposed by President Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency in 2009 relies on the government to set a total limit on annual emissions of greenhouse gases. This is the ‘cap.’ The cap is designed to shrink each year.
“After the cap has been determined, allowances for portions of the total limit are allocated. Such allocations, or permits, are either handed out to businesses that have relationships with the federal government, or else auctioned off to the highest bidder. Companies are taxed if they produce a higher level of total emissions than their permits allow, but they can also sell off any unused allowance to other producers. This is the ‘trade.’” (Investopedia)
See state-level debates over California’s cap-and-trade system, here.
Efforts to block extraction of fossil fuels: In the example of the concerted effort to block the Keystone XL pipeline, the overarching goal is to stop Canada from extracting oil from the Canadian oil sands. The problem with blocking a pipeline in an effort to block extraction of that oil source is that there will always be another party ready to access the source. If the U.S. is unable to develop the infrastructure needed to purchase the oil, Canada could sign an agreement with China instead.
There is also an economic component related to blocking access to energy resources. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that by 2022, [a] ban [on fracking] would cost the country 14.8 million jobs, almost double gasoline and electricity prices, and increase the cost of living by almost $4,000. (Institute for Energy Research)
See the story of Dakota Pipeline (DAPL) lawsuit against Greenpeace. See the impact of NY’s effort to block fracking, while also blocking natural gas access, which is increasing energy prices. Creating a “blockade could instigate an energy crisis in the Northeast.”
Antiquities Act: The goal of the Antiquities Act of 1906 was to protect archeological sites on public lands. One can debate whether such activity is the intended role of the federal government, but the intention was pure. One section, however, gives the President of the United States unilateral power to establish national monuments. As a result, with a stroke of a pen, the president can set aside half of the west as a national monument. This power has expansive reaches into communities, such as ranchers being pushed off the range. The effort to reform the Antiquities Act, with theTrump Administration having completed its review of national monuments and the next step being federal legislation to clarify how the Antiquities Act should be utilized going forward, this allows an opportunity engaging elected officials on this topic.
Role of Government
“Federal environmental regulation arguably represents the most expansive assertion of federal authority. Even where federal environmental programs are cooperative in nature, environmental regulation calls upon the federal government to affect, influence, and regulate a wider range of behavior – economic and otherwise – than any other area of federal concern.” (Jonathan H. Adler testimony)
As with all areas of policy, we look first to the Constitution for principles to guide policy making with respect to energy and the environment. According to Article I, section 8, “The most important source of federal power to regulate in the environmental field is found in the commerce clause. The clause, especially as it pertains to congressional authority to regulate activities affecting commerce, has been so expansively applied by the federal courts as to justify federal control of virtually any problem of environmental pollution.” (encyclopedia.com)
Additionally, “the property clause of Article IV, section 3 gives Congress the power to ‘make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting’ the property of the United States.” “It seems clear that under the property clause Congress may regulate the use of its own lands, and perhaps adjacent lands as well, to protect environmental conditions and promote ecological balance on government property.” (encyclopedia.com)
See other ways the Federal Government has exerted federal influence over the environment at encyclopedia.com.
State-level officials and state guidelines are impacted by federal-level statutes that impacts what the states can and cannot do. The Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Endangered Species Act are a few of the federal statutes that determine local activity. Congress has the ability to direct, by changing language in current laws, how expansively the federal government can exert its influence.
Who influences energy policy at the federal-level?
Departments and Agencies
- Environmental Protection Agency: “The mission of EPA is to protect human health and the environment.”
- Department of Energy: The mission is “to ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions.”
- Department of the Interior: “protects and manages the Nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage; provides scientific and other information about those resources; and honors its trust responsibilities or special commitments to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and affiliated island communities.”
- House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and related agencies
- Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and Water and Wildlife Subcommittee
- House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment
Who in government influences policy at the state level?
State-level government officials have a lot of power and expertise, while federal level statutes have reach into all of the states and impact local activity.
Each state has its own State Environmental Commission. Here is what it looks like in Nevada. All fifty states have a similar commission, composed of environmental experts. The State Environmental Commission in Nevada is described as “an eleven member board that holds public hearings to establish environmental standards, responds to regulatory needs,” and more.
Additionally, the Environmental Council of the States is a “national nonprofit, nonpartisan association of state and territorial environmental agency leaders…with the purpose to improve the capability of state environmental agencies and their leaders to protect and improve human health and the environment of the United States of America.” The group believes that “state government agencies are the keys to delivering environmental protection afforded by both federal and state law.” (ecos.org)
Also, check out the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) energy principles, here.
Principles of Reform
Control belongs closest to the people. State and local officials are best equipped to protect their local environment. One example is the quality of state managed parks versus federally managed parks and privately operated parks. Check out the PERC Case Study, A Tale of Two Parks. Another example is the Gold King Mine spill, when EPA involvement led to a 3-million-gallon heavy-metal spill that polluted three states and provoked national outrage.
The federal government: what should they be doing (or not doing)?
Provide back-up systems to protect against national security threats. Read more in this 2017 Washington Post opinion editorial titled, The looming national security threat everyone keeps ignoring.
Provide subsidies for energy development. This is an area of heated debate. The “anti” side: “Getting rid of all subsidies for every form of energy—oil, natural gas, wind, solar, everything. Let’s get government out of the business of picking winners and losers in the marketplace. In the end, you’ll get a better energy product for Americans. But you’ll also lessen the cronyism that we too often see coming out of Congress, whether it’s Solyndra, where the money you get, frankly, is based on how good your lobbyist is and how well-connected to some member of an administration he or she is.” (WSJ)
The “pro” side: A Yale Insights report outlines the history and benefits of energy subsidies, saying: “We found…that growing supplies of new energy sources have been key to the continuous expansion of the American economy over time. Now, others have documented this relationship between energy supplies and economic growth before, but what we uncovered is the fact that these new energy sources did not simply emerge as the result of free-market forces. Rather, the government heavily subsidized each new energy source, often at both the federal and state level. In our study, we looked at those subsidies in their historical context, in order to compare the relative levels of federal support for each new energy source—something that, as far as we know, no one had ever attempted. On an inflation-adjusted basis, we learned, the subsidies for “traditional” energy sources in their early growth days—coal, oil, gas, and nuclear—were many, many times what we are spending on renewables today.”
Establish a permanent nuclear waste storage facility. Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 obligating the federal government – through the Department of Energy – to “dispose of the spent nuclear fuel in a permanent geologic repository beginning on January 31, 1998.” (Boston College) The federal government has failed to meet this obligation. You can research more about the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site to understand the difficulty of the issue.
Strike a balance in regulations. Environmental regulations are important, because without them, companies might not have the incentive to respect the environment. For example, without adverse incentives, a company may decide to open a plant and leave a mess behind for the government to clean up at taxpayers’ expense. Yet, with everything, government regulations must strike a balance. See this article written by a Mercatus Center fellow, entitled: Eliminate Regulations That Don’t Actually Help the Environment. Also check out The Policy Circle brief on Government Regulations.
See this announcement from The Environmental Council of States about a series of government-sponsored town hall meetings to give residents chance to weigh on clean water efforts.
“Minnesota Hosts Town Halls on Clean Water”
July 21, 2017
“As part of the state’s ongoing 25by25 water campaign, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton and members of his Cabinet will begin hosting Town Halls later this summer to discuss with citizens ways to accelerate clean water efforts in the state. Ten Town Halls in different regions of the state will give many citizens the opportunity to be part of the strategy.
Minnesota is also providing online resources to enable Minnesotans to host their own community water meetings. The materials include discussion guides and information packets, and notes from the discussions can be uploaded via an online survey tool afterwards.” (The Environmental Council of States)
What You Can Do
- Turn to peer-reviewed research and robust debate. See the list below of “Thought Leaders and Additional Resources” for some ideas.
- Look up activity in your state here through the Environmental Council of the States website.
- Look up who your State Attorney General is, here. Follow the link to their website to see what they’re working on.
- Pick an energy topic and
- Research it to find out everything you possibly can about the topic.
- Write a letter to your representatives at every level – and cc your state think tank.
- Follow the issue so you know when there is a public comment period – and submit that letter to the public comments. Get your friends and colleagues to do the same.
- Write a letter to the editor in your local newspaper.
- Get a thought leader in your community to write an Opinion Editorial in your local newspaper – and make sure all of your elected officials receive a copy of that op-ed.
- Reach out to your state policy organization if they cover energy and ask how you can be a voice to engage local leaders and state legislators. They are looking for your perspectives and stories.
Thought Leaders and Additional Resources
- Karen Harbert at the U.S. Chamber, Global Energy Institute
- Bjorn Lomborg, Get the Facts Straight
- The Council of State Governments, Energy & Environment
- States Attorneys General, Energy and Environment Committee
- PERC, Property and Environment Research Council – dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets
- Intellegence2Debates, Energy & Environment
- Antiquities Act (link to background article from Law360)
- Council of State Governments “The Public Lands Debate—A Lot Happening on Private Land that’s not Happening on Federal Land” (2014)
- Popular Mechanics: 10 fracking claims and myths
- Improving the Use of Science in Regulation Podcast – Federalist Society with Regulatory expert Susan Dudley
- PragerU, Environmental Science
Questions for Discussion
- How has your energy consumption changed over the past 20 years (or not)?
- What is the energy/environment discussion taking place in your state?
- What officials are taking the lead on the discussion?
- Is there a public hearing or opportunity for public comment?
- Do you think government should subsidize energy development? Why or why not?
- If you could choose your energy mix, what would it be?
- What should the role of government be in regulating energy in our daily lives? In what ways does government already play a role?