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August 4, 2012

The deck is stacked against renewable energy

Dick Downey in his latest guest editorial quotes a recent remark I made at an Otsego County Gas Advisory Committee meeting that "a dollar spent on natural gas is one less dollar spent on renewables."

He seems puzzled by what that might mean, and speculates that "it's probably about subsidies." He complains that in spite of a long list of financial incentives renewables just can't compete with cheap gas in the "real world" of "free markets."

It would be nice if we had "free markets," but we don't. They don't exist.

What we have is socialism, but it's socialism for the corporations, not the people. The truth is that everybody in our broken system is out for subsidies and preferential treatment.

That's the name of the game, and the oil and gas industry is at the top of the heap. With the possible exception of the financial industry, it is the largest, most heavily subsidized, most favored, most feared, and least regulated of any industry in the country.

Because the oil and gas industry is able to inject massive amounts of money into political campaigns and lobbyists it gets to write the laws it wants.

Just look at the Halliburton loophole on the federal level, or the DEC's SGEIS on fracking in NYS written by industry consultants. As a result of countless backroom deals like these, oil and gas are able to skim off huge profits, take your property (compulsory integration), and push the enormous costs of their activites onto society and the environment.

In that rigged game, renewables hardly stand a chance.

Economists call such passed-on costs "externalities." They do not appear on industry balance sheets, but they do on ours. We're the ones who pay those costs in countless ways: through higher taxes, lower property values, loss of "clean" industries, a stressed infrastructure, polluted air and water, a degraded environment, and global warming now on the verge of spinning out of control.

What kind of prosperity is that?

Oil and gas have been cheap not because of any supposed free market, but because, until recently, it was relatively easy to get them out of the ground and burn them up. But now we're starting to run out of the stuff; what's left is harder and harder to extract and more and more destructive of the environment. The party's over and we'd better get over our addiction before it kills us.

Renewables so far don't give us as big a bang for our buck as oil and gas have, it is true, but neither do they destroy our communities and our environment. That's a pretty high if not a fatal price to pay for what used to be cheap energy.

Making renewables more efficient just may make the difference as to whether we're going to survive on this planet or not. And that's why, in a tight economy with fewer and fewer dollars to invest, every dollar dedicated to oil and gas is a dollar taken away from desperately needed investment in renewables, leaving us further in the hole when we can least afford it.

Downey mocks "renewable purists" who he says can buy a mule, card wool, or walk to town. The fact is that we're all addicted to fossil fuels. We're all in the same sinking boat and the question is whether or not we're serious about doing something about it. I'd rather not ride a mule any more than Downey, but as things are going we may both end up on one.

We have a choice. We can pretend that oil and gas are cheap and harmless and that there are free markets which justly allocate resources, automatically balancing benefits and costs. Or we can recognize that in the real world of the twenty-first century we can no longer afford what an out-of-control oil and gas industry is doing to us. And we can recognize as well that there is no reliable market mechanism to compensate for the harms being done by the industry. Recognizing a problem doesn't mean that you can solve it; but ignoring it guarantees that you won't.

Adrian Kuzminski is the moderator of Sustainable Otsego.

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