Good plans to move from fossil fuels are out there

The Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Oct. 22, 2021

Eric Engle

In the Oct. 21 edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Rebecca McPhail, president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, wrote a rather condescending op-ed discussing how vital fossil fuels are to manufacturing and how largely unrealistic the demands of climate and environmental activists are nationwide.

I’m not surprised that the president of a trade association and lobbying group that often lobbies on behalf of fossil fuels interests in the state Legislature would write a piece like this, but let’s clear some things up.

McPhail stressed that “we need to hear a real plan” for a transition away from fossil fuels in the United States. There’s no shortage of detailed plans.

One such plan I highly recommend is by Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and senior fellow of the Precourt Institute for Energy and Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Jacobson had a book published last year by Cambridge University Press titled “100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything.” The book is a 450-page study with a tremendous amount of information on exactly how our energy and manufacturing transition can work that is anything but pie in the sky.

Another great read on this is the book “Power after Carbon: Building a Clean, Resilient Grid,” by Peter Fox-Penner, director of Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy and professor in BU’s Questrom School of Business. The book was released last year by Harvard University Press.

Taken together, these books represent 1,000 or more pages of reading, so I’ll end my reading recommendations there, but, suffice it to say, the details are readily available.

McPhail specifically targeted protesters with the People vs. Fossil Fuels movement who were in Washington, D.C., last week, stating, “Aside from the obvious questions about how the protesters got to D.C., probably with fuels, vehicles and on roads derived from coal, oil and gas, wearing clothes made from fossil fuel derivatives and eating food raised and transported in similar fashion, one wonders whether they understand what they are asking.”

This is a very popular trope used to silence those who oppose any kind of status quo. If you don’t like the existing systems and institutions, the so-called logic goes, you’d better reject them in their entirety immediately. “Love it or leave it!”

It’s nonsense. You can advocate for change while being beholden to the way things currently are and go.

McPhail asks, “Does the government intend to subsidize the construction of the [solar] panels, and the power they produce?” Let’s look at subsidies, shall we?

According to an analysis by the International Monetary Fund, the fossil fuel industry benefits from subsidies of $11 million every minute. To quote from an article in The Guardian, “The IMF found the production and burning of coal, oil and gas was subsidized by $5.9 trillion in 2020, with not a single country pricing all its fuels sufficiently to reflect their full supply and environmental costs.”

Should governments fund and subsidize renewable energy, energy efficiency, sustainable agriculture and development, and conservation? Yes. And governments should do so at the same time as they end fossil fuels subsidies.

That’s not just a climate activist’s perspective, either. The same Guardian piece quoted above states, “More than 600 global companies in the We Mean Business coalition, including Unilever, Ikea, Aviva, Siemens and Volvo cars, recently urged G20 leaders to end fossil fuels subsidies by 2025.”

Climate activists like myself fully understand that fossil fuels aren’t going away overnight. We fully understand that the transition away from them won’t be easy for many.

That’s why we have advocated, and continue to advocate, through initiatives and organizations like Reimagine Appalachia, for strong wage and salary, health, retirement and alternative career supports for coal communities, for example.

That’s why we support the Build Back Better reconciliation legislation that our state’s senior U.S. senator is hellbent on watering down and possibly even blocking.

That’s why we work tirelessly every legislative session against a Republican supermajority in this state that McPhail and others at the Manufacturers Association helped elect, which is fully committed to maintaining a dirty, uneconomical present, instead of investing in and developing a cleaner, more affordable future.

Eric Engle, of Parkersburg, is chairman of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action and a board member for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.