A recent column featured on The Mountaineer website brought important issues before the public. It contained a strong opinion regarding everything from electric cars to solar energy and called for our society to remain dependent on burning fossil fuels. I would like to explore a few of the points made.
Many of the ideas in the article can be found in a 2020 report from the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Among this group’s largest sources of funding are oil giant Exxon-Mobil, and oil billionaire Charles Koch’s ‘dark money’ propaganda tool, the Knowledge and Progress Fund.
A detailed refutation of this report and its campaign to discredit electric vehicles and other clean energy efforts can be found here: https://www.desmogblog.com/2020/11/17/climate-competitive-enterprise-institute-electric-vehicles-report
The column raises concerns about campaign contributions made by alternative “green” energy companies to certain politicians, totaling over $1 million. The column quotes figures provided by the Center for Responsive Politics, a highly respected watchdog of money influence in Washington.
But to put those contributions in perspective a recent report by that same Center notes that between 2009 and 2019 the oil industry spent an average of $150 million per year lobbying in Washington to undermine any efforts to control the fossil fuel industry’s continued damage to our planet’s health.
The column states what I must assume is a misprint — that the U.S. taxpayer “lost approximately $2.5 trillion” from the Department of Energy program to loan money to gGreen energy start-ups. This may be off by a factor of 1,000 times. But even a figure of $2 billion would be a distortion of the facts.
This program was signed by Republican President George Bush to encourage new and innovative technologies that would enable the U.S. alternative energy industry to compete worldwide, especially with China, which was (and still is) aggressively attempting to capture the solar and electric vehicle markets.
Three of the 32 companies that received a total of $32 billion in loan guarantees went bankrupt. One, Solyndra, became a major scandal, as it left the taxpayers with a $570 million bill. The recent article talks a lot about this company.
Solyndra was trying to utilize a new technology — non silicon based solar panels. The world price of silicon, which had been an expensive component of solar panels, collapsed due to a silicon mining boom in China. Solyndra’s new technology became unnecessary, and the company collapsed.
However, the other 29 companies in the program succeeded. According to Business Week, by 2014 $3.5 billion of the Energy Department’s loan program had been repaid, and it was estimated that we taxpayers who funded it would come out $5 billion ahead. The Energy Department program has created 20,000 jobs and that ultimately could be 60,000.
The article mentions the failures of communism and socialism. This seemed irrelevant to this conversation. No one that I know is talking about government ownership of the energy industry. Interesting though, a November 2019 article in Forbes — hardly a far-left propaganda tool — points out that in 2013 the oil industry world-wide made $500 billion in profits but still received $700 billion in government subsidies. Some would call that socialism for the rich.
The author of The Mountaineer column raises the very important issue of the human exploitation involved in the mining of many of the materials involved in ‘green energy.’ He is right and deserves thanks for raising this issue. Whether it's lithium strip mining in Bolivia or Chile, cocoa beans picked by child laborers in the Ivory Coast, Bangladeshi slave laborers in Saudi oil fields or impoverished farmers picking our bananas in Central America, we all have a moral responsibility to understand where things we consume come from, who suffers and who benefits.
Because, after all, how many wars have been fought for oil? And how many for windmills?
Smedley Butler, former Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, and the most highly decorated Marine in U.S. history, wrote in his memoir “War is a Racket” how the U.S. invaded Mexico to “make Tampico safe for the oil companies.”
How many of our service men and women died or suffer TBIs in Iraq, so we could “just take the oil,” in the words of our recent president. How many in Kuwait were exposed to radioactive uranium-tipped weapons?
Petro-dollars have contaminated our planet and our politics. Volume Two of Robert Caro’s bio of Lyndon Johnson documents the complete corruption of Texas politics starting back in the 1930s with oil money. Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything” documents the campaign to disguise the industry’s role in undermining climate science and buying influence. It’s 500 plus pages and 100 pages of footnotes document every claim she makes.
It reminded me of the tobacco industry spending hundreds of millions to make sure the public understood that “smoking did not” cause lung cancer.
No question there are enormous challenges ahead. But we must make our needed energy sources less of a threat to our home planet’s livability than the burning of coal, oil and gas have done.
Jobs, retraining, and ending as much environmental destruction as possible, whether its in the mountains of West Virginia, the plains of Wyoming or the oxygen-rich Amazon rain forest, are all critical.
Finally, the recent Mountaineer column offers no way forward other than to just keep doing what we have been doing — and given where that is leading our planet, it would be charitable to call that dead wrong.
Something to keep you up at night: “The Uninhabitable Earth, Annotated Edition”:
Stephen Wall, MD, is a member of the WNC Climate Action Coalition.