It is at this point that politicians come on the scene promising to deliver clean, renewable energy that will make us “energy independent,” whatever that means. (I’m not sure how it can be argued that protectionism has ever produced salutary results.) But many of the plans offered by these political saviors would kill the very environment they purport to be fighting to save, while simultaneously harming the economy. Hey, it takes talent to pull off a feat like that.
Some that tout the incredible marvel of expensive electric automobiles (that still need a secondary energy source to go more than a few miles, require long hours of recharging between uses, and would produce masses of solid toxic pollution upon disposal) seem blissfully oblivious to the fact that vast quantities of our electricity comes from coal fired plants. It’s “clean coal,” of course. But even the cleanest coal exacts serious environmental costs. Apparently, moving environmental impacts to more remote locations (out of sight and out of mind) is a saving grace.
Yet another marvelous plan is to achieve ‘energy independence’ by forcing a shift from petroleum to natural gas in many applications. After all, natural gas “burns clean,” as the story goes. Oddly, many of the eco worshippers seem unperturbed about the fact that natural gas is, as Wikipedia puts it, “a potent greenhouse gas.” Can you imagine who is spending money to try to make this coercive shift happen and where that money is going?
It’s very reminiscent of the law passed in 2007 to ban incandescent light bulbs by 2012. Never mind that this will produce inadequate lighting for many situations and introduce a lot of mercury into homes and the environment, while significantly raising costs for consumers. Many industry giants, like GE, heavily lobbied for this top-down solution that is supposed to save the environment while killing it at the same time. One might question the purity of their motives.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) complains in this WSJ op-ed that the Obama administration’s solar power initiatives would cover over a thousand square miles of this nation with solar panels that require vast amounts of water (in locations where water is scarce) for monthly cleaning. The administration’s wind power plans would build “186,000 50-story wind turbines that would cover an area the size of West Virginia.” All of this would require “19,000 new miles of high-voltage transmission lines.”
And guess who will be doing the environmental impact statements on all this environmentally messy expansion? Ah yes, the classic example of the fox guarding the henhouse. What a wonderful system of checks and balances we have.
Land is also a scarce commodity. We all rely on it. Indeed, it is a vital habitat for a significant portion of this planet’s flora and fauna. Yet (except for where it is reclaimed from the sea) it does not vary with population. So, land must also be considered when discussing energy sources.
Alexander lays out the amount of land needed to produce one million megawatt-hours per year from different sources. Some might quibble with Alexander’s numbers, but they are quite interesting.
- Nuclear: 1 sq mi
- Geothermal: 3 sq mi
- Coal: 4 sq mi
- Solar thermal: 6 sq mi
- Natural gas: 8 sq mi
- Petroleum: 18 sq mi
- Wind farms: 30 sq mi
- Biofuels: up to 500 sq mi
There is a one-size-fits-all political solution to all energy issues: more government intervention. While that interference may come in the form of subsidies, regulation, prevention, protectionism, mandates, etc, the answer is always more government. This is true regardless of party persuasion. I mean, what else are politicians for if not to insinuate more political ‘solutions’ into the fabric of daily American life?
Many are quick to say that such intervention is necessary to break into the market currently dominated by petroleum. Few even consider the possibility of getting rid of the subsidies and regulations that kill opportunities to compete with petroleum. Why, that would be unthinkable! Perhaps we should change the wording on our coinage to read, “In politicians we trust”?
Many studies have been produced that show that most of our public policy aimed at improving the environment actually harms the environment. Indeed, the only examples of where public environmental policy has not caused harm are where we have merely codified what has already been freely implemented.
It has repeatedly been shown that environmental improvements occur naturally as the standard of living improves. The inverse of this is also true. But the enviro-political class does a mighty fine job of spreading propaganda that makes people feel good about policies that create the appearance of helping the environment. It plays very well for the religion of environment crowd.
I hear people on both the left and the right whine about a lack of a coherent national energy policy. It was the combination of people like that on the left and right that brought the wonders of centralized planning to the USSR and to Germany in the 1930s-40s. Given how centralized planning works in real life, the best national energy policy would be for the politicians to admit that they aren’t as smart as the combined knowledge of millions of people working freely in their own spheres.
GMU economist Don Boudreaux has a series of blog posts titled Cleaned by Capitalism that tout a number of environmental improvements brought about by the free market. He deliberately focuses on smaller matters that have actual impact on our individual lives rather than on big celebrity causes. He argues that these factors combined have improved the environment infinitely more than the big causes that receive a lot of political attention.
Part of me wants people like Boudreaux to keep quiet. The politicians have already figured out how to regulate our toilets, light bulbs, and air conditioners. We don’t want to give them any more ideas.