Straining Through the Smoke, Looking for a Clean Energy Future

The smoke outside was so thick one could not see the mountains that rise sharply on the other side of the valley. Inside, I sat amongst 400 community members who anxiously awaited updates from the incident command team that recently set up a nearby base camp with almost 600 personnel to fight a complex of forest fires that started in July from a lightning storm. Various evacuations are taking place all over the state.

In southern Oregon, we live amongst a forest that has always known fire. Yet, people were understandably nervous about the immediate threats to their properties, livestock, families and lungs. While I had confidence in the plan that the incident command team had devised, we were repeatedly told that resources were stretched extremely thin. Emergency response teams are deployed all over the West fighting fires and of course also in Texas helping people weather the impacts of unprecedented Hurricane Harvey.

As I sat listening to the elaborate and resource-intensive plans for protecting our forests and communities from these fires, I wondered how we will be able to afford the massive efforts necessary to respond to hurricanes, flooding, fires and other disasters that are exacerbated by a more chaotic climate.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science released a report in 2014 stating that the link between humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions and impacts to our climate is as demonstrably clear as the link between smoking tobacco and the risk of getting cancer.

It is clear from data, modeling, and our own experience that natural disasters are becoming, well, more disastrous. Yet, a tiny scientific minority being propped up by the dirty energy industry is stopping us from adequately preparing for and transitioning to a new climate reality. From urban planning to federal energy policy, our leaders seem stuck in slow motion incremental change when the extreme weather events outside our window demand swifter and bolder action.

One example of a lost opportunity to shepherd us toward a cleaner, safer energy future is Senate Bill 1460, the Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017. Although the energy section of the nearly 900-page bill would accomplish some important conservation measures, like reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund and increasing efficiency for buildings, manufacturing, vehicles and housing, as a whole, S.1460 would lock us into a devastating fossil fuel future for at least the next half century.

In particular, the subsection on energy “supply” is hugely disappointing. The Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017 is an energy bill that has a paltry renewable energy “plan,” if you could call it that. While oil, gas, fossil fuels and nuclear each get their own section under “supply,” the “renewables” subsection completely ignores solar and wind. The bill also eases regulations for oil and gas, streamlines approval for gas exports, rubber-stamps gas projects and invests more taxpayer dollars into fossil fuel research, including coal. The bill contains a gift for nearly every polluting fossil fuel industry while containing absolutely no reference to “rooftop solar.” This is a wasted opportunity and completely undercuts the purpose of an energy bill that should be advancing the new renewable energy technologies already offering significant economic and environmental benefits across the United States.

Let’s be real — it is not surprising that our elected officials are committed to burning more fossil fuels given that most of them happily accept campaign contributions from the oil, gas and coal industries. They are not thinking of future Americans that will have to deal with the increased and hugely destructive super-storms, epic flooding, painful droughts, and threatening wildfires that result from our addiction to a carbon-based economy.

Another significant problem with Senate Bill 1460 is the bad hydropower provisions that are tucked into the tome. Despite our increased understanding of the harms dams cause to rivers, communities and climate, this bill would fast-track dam project approvals and construction by centralizing power with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and setting an aggressive licensing schedule that would further tighten already limited opportunities for public involvement and input. The bill’s streamlining provisions would severely constrain the ability of state, federal and tribal agencies to exercise their authorities under the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts to protect fish, wildlife and water quality from the impacts of hydropower projects. Taken together, these provisions constitute a massive assault on our nation’s rivers and the people and wildlife that depend on them. Water is arguably our most precious resource — taking away the ability of state, federal and tribal agencies, as well as local communities, to protect that resource is not in the public interest.

While the bipartisan sponsors of this bill claim it will “create jobs and protect the environment,” the bill’s painful incremental steps are pacing us with snails rather than cheetahs. The science is clear that we must act quickly to stave off the impacts of a fossil fuel economy. We need our elected officials to reject the Trump administration’s denial of climate change and to stand up to dirty energy. We need courageous and visionary leaders to stop deepening our dependence on dirty fossil fuels and forestalling the rapid transition to a clean and safe energy economy.

It is this push to squeeze out as much carbon energy as possible that fuels tar sands exploration on the Colorado plateau, export pipelines through Oregon’s salmon-bearing rivers, dangerous coal trains through our communities, and fracking across much of country — all of which are destructive to people and place. Solar and wind now meet a growing portion of our energy needs and have the potential to meet even more in the near future. We need leaders to fully champion the clean energy transition rather than peddle for the dinosaur energy industry. Transitions are difficult, but inevitable and necessary — leaders need to step up to this task.

Hurricane Harvey is setting dangerous precedent for future storms, and the scale and scope of forest fires in the West continue to strain emergency response resources. Storms, floods, fires and drought will continue to get more intense, harmful and expensive. We cannot afford to move like snails as we work to address the root causes of these extreme weather events. We need elected officials to have the foresight and courage to reject all bills that would entrench us further in a fossil fuel economy and instead propose a national plan that fulfills the needs of our nation and secures a just transition to a clean energy economy.

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