In the controversy over the extraction of petroleum resources from shale, people who oppose this energy industry expansion have been called hypocrites. Claims have been made that practically every dollar diverted from petroleum development defaults to coal, and those who try to promote renewable energy resources wind up assisting that default. I am writing, not to dispute these allegations, but to lament them.
We are hopelessly addicted to cheap energy. Any action that might drive up the cost of driving to work, heating the house, growing food or manufacturing wares is out of the question. We’ve never really regulated the energy industry, and we aren’t going to start now, all empty promises aside. If we make coal, oil and gas companies bear the costs to clean up their messes and make full restitution to people they’ve harmed, then coal, oil and gas will become a lot more expensive.
We’ve seen it before. When we made tobacco companies take more responsibility for the lives their products helped to ruin, the days of cheap cigarettes went up in smoke. When we got serious about removing lead from household surfaces, the cost of renovations went through the roof. We got hosed by alcoholic beverages when we clamped down on drinking and driving.
But to do that with energy is unthinkable. We may not all believe in God, but we believe in sacrificial lambs. To make someone else suffer the consequences of our decisions: that’s the kind of people we are.
I lived for eight years in the coal patch of West Virginia, and I hiked along many streams flowing red-brown and yellow from acid mine drainage. I gaped at the stupendous damages wreaked by mountaintop removal, choked on the smell of tailings lagoons, and rolled my eyes at the lies which rolled from the lips of politicians and coal company representatives about “responsible development.” I could see what they were responsible for. Everyone I knew had a “black lunger” or two in the family. But we didn’t talk too much about it in that society; we had to suck it up to keep the trucks running.