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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

CMU paper: Renewable subsidies should vary across the nation

I was driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near the town of Somerset recently when I was perplexed by a billboard that declared ominously, "Your tax dollars subsidize wind power."

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University will publish a paper this week in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that argues for focusing renewable energy subsidies in those areas of the nation that will yield the greatest health and climate benefits - such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Those that argue against government subsidies for wind such as former US Rep. Phil Gramm, tend to use per watt figures to make their case that wind is not a good investment, instead of overall federal and state spending that shows government subsidies have historically favored black and not green energy sources.  The per watt figures that detractors use tend to ignore life cycle costs associated with subsidizing fossil fuels. For example, Gramm's figures do not account for the total cost to society of choosing coal over wind, such as the billions that will be needed to treat abandoned post-mining acid discharges, the lost recreational revenue because 5,000 miles of streams have been polluted by mining throughout the mid-Atlantic region, and the numerous health care costs of dirtying the air that our children breathe. The detractors also fail to account for the major economic benefits that would result from drastically reducing CO2 emissions by eliminating fossil fuel subsidies worldwide.

The researchers at Carnegie Mellon point out that wind and solar provide identifiable health benefits that should be considered and maximized by targeting government subsidies for renewables in areas of the country where clean energy would yield the greatest benefit to society.

This blog previously argued for a "health revenue" policy in Pennsylvania that recognizes the disparate effects of carbon-based fuels and renewables. That would allow a more descriptive billboard to read, "Your tax dollars subsidize less asthma attacks for your children and less heart attacks for your grandparents."

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Build the Bridge between Natural Gas and Renewables

Jared L. Cohon, president of Carnegie Mellon University, wrote a thoughtful op-ed on his big-picture perspective of shale gas development in Pennsylvania. Among other things, Cohon explains why he joined the Board of Directors of the Center for Sustainable Shale Gas Development.

Towards the end of his piece, Dr. Cohon addresses the argument that we should not be fracking for natural gas because it will delay the development of renewable energy. His response is straightforward - the country will be dependent on fossil fuels for a long time, so we should minimize the environmental and social impacts of burning dirtier fuel in the interim while we "aggressively develop" non-carbon alternatives.

Ahhhh! And therein lies the rub - those that doubt that shale gas will be a bridge to a clean energy future fear that this cheap and plentiful fuel will take the pressure off of a nation only capable of making significant policy shifts in the face of imminent crisis. Eliminate the crisis and you eliminate the impetus for investment in renewables.

Dr. Cohon describes this argument as "strange" - but it is not clear what he considers odd - the basic concern about cheap gas delaying the development of renewables, or the conclusion that because of this concern we should ban fracking.

As to the first, the underlying concern is legitimate. To achieve the goal of "aggressively promoting" renewables, the nation will need a significant shift in energy policy - and that will not be easy. Moving from coal, oil and gas to renewables will affect many vested and well-funded interests. The champions of solar, wind and geothermal cannot compete with multi-nationals that have poured millions into campaign coffers over the years, and now can do so anonymously.  Additionally, this Congress has demonstrated a unique ability to disagree on just about anything - not to mention a bold policy shift that would financially disadvantage deep-rooted and well-funded interests on Capitol Hill.

The "ban fracking" portion of the argument could be viewed as cutting off our nose to spite our face - depending on methane leakage rates - but it could also be mooted by policies that directly link carbon fuels to renewables. This could be done on a national scale through a carbon tax, or through individual state policies that would generate "health revenue" from the development of coal, oil and gas in order to promote energy sources that do not inflict increased heart and asthma attacks on Pennsylvanians, and put mercury in our food chain.

Pennsylvania's energy policy fosters cynicism amongst the "ban fracking" advocates because it does not do what Dr. Cohon promotes - it does not build a bridge between natural gas and the aggressive promotion of renewable energy. Pennsylvania's Act 13 directs state revenue from natural gas development to road repair and other "local impacts." It does not promote strategic statewide policies such as renewable energy and early childhood education. That is but one of the failures of a state policy that does not impose a reasonable tax on the development of Pennsylvania's shale gas.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Choose Clean Water

For the past two days the Choose Clean Water Coalition has been holding its fourth annual conference in Baltimore, Maryland -- home of the National Aquarium, the last baseball team to field four twenty-game winners (there have been only two), Attman's corned beef and, of course, Chesapeake Bay blue crabs.

The Coalition is a collection of non-profits that have united together to advocate for cleaning up streams and rivers that flow to the Chesapeake Bay.  PennFuture is a member of the CCWC Steering Committee and as state lead, we coordinate the work of various non-profits in Pennsylvania whose individual missions and work  contributes to cleaning waters in the Bay watershed.

The Bay has long been polluted - its water quality fails to be good enough to provide the aquatic uses protected under the federal Clean Water Act.  As a result, the six states that makeup the Bay watershed are under a legal obligation to put in place a complex program of cleanup plans designed to clean up the Bay. Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River watershed contributes fifty percent of fresh water that enters the Bay - so Pennsylvanians will play a critical role in achieving the goals of the Clean Water Act.

The goal of Bay cleanup will have local benefits to Pennsylvania. The Susquehanna River itself has shown signs that its health is in serious trouble. By cleaning up the Susquehanna River, Pennsylvanians will benefit the local economy while benefitting the larger Bay watershed.

The pollutants that need to be removed from the bay are nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment.  Not surprisingly, farmlands account for 43% of nitrogen, 45% of phosphorous and 60% of sediment pollution in the Bay. But in addition to farmlands, recent concerns have been raised about nutrient and sediment contributions being made from deforested areas associated with shale gas development in the northern tier counties of Pennsylvania that drain to the Susquehanna River.

One of the primary goals of the Choose Clean Water Coalition is to share information and coordinate strategies among citizen non-profits in order to ensure that the federal and state governments that are responsible for implementing these cleanup plans do so successfully and on time.