Climate Corner: Why should we sacrifice for fossil fuels?
Oct 14, 2023
Advocates of the fossil-fuel industry often claim that the expeditious transition to renewable energy will involve sacrifice on the part of everyday Americans. What has truly involved sacrifice for most Americans, and, for those of us in Appalachia particularly, has been the sacrifices on behalf of fossil fuels. Critics of renewables have sometimes referred to the alleged extreme land use of solar arrays and wind farms. What they do not mention, of course, is the vast exclusive use of oil and gas on public lands. More than 23 million acres of federal lands were leased to oil and gas interests in 2022 according to the Bureau of Land Management. Private and public lands allotted for solar and wind projects may be put to multiple uses.
Residents of eastern Ohio know well about sacrifices made in the past and to be made in the future for the oil and gas industry. Under HB 507 passed by both houses of the state legislature and signed by the governor, oil and gas companies, most of which are from out of state, are allowed to conduct hydraulic fracturing, i.e., fracking, immediately adjacent to public lands including state parks, What the residents will be sacrificing for this “greater economic good” is the intrusion of access roads, air pollution, increased truck traffic, extraction of millions of gallons of fresh water, and resultant brine waste–most all for the benefit of companies outside of Ohio.
In her book, “Saving Us,” Katherine Hayhoe has cited the tax breaks and cash grants, i.e., sacrifices in our federal budget, awarded to fossil-fuel interests, such as subsidies for exploration, drilling cost reduction, percentage depletion, at $20 billion. With additional negative externalities of carbon emissions and health costs, those sacrifices amount to $5.3 trillion.
We have already sacrificed job creation to fossil fuels. According to the Ohio River Valley Institute, the shale gas region in Appalachia comprises about 22 counties in PA, OH, and WV; these counties produce about 90% of the gas of the region, yet the region trails the nation on key measures of economic prosperity.
Little of the profit from oil and gas has entered the local area; trained workers and service providers are generally from outside the area. The revenue from local natural resources is not returning to Mid-Ohio Valley. Many of the jobs in oil and gas, particularly in the shale-gas industry, are held by outsiders, which has been confirmed with the reports of workers at these sites driving vehicles with out-of-state license plates. Oil and gas companies should at least be contributing to the local economy through severance taxes, impact fees, and other revenue-generating opportunities that will stay here, benefiting our region and offsetting the health and environmental costs these industries exact upon our population, land, and waters.
In a study by the Ohio University Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs on the economic impact of utility-scale solar energy, it was reported (even at the lowest level of estimation) that over 18,000 construction jobs, 207 annual operator jobs, which would be 80% Ohio-based, and $3.2 billion of total economic impact would result from this investment in this form of renewable energy.
Another steep sacrifice we are making for fossil fuels is the cost to our health in Appalachia. The Ohio Department of Health has reported that combined cancer rates in Washington County are 494.5, as compared to 464.5 statewide. West Virginia’s combined cancer rate is 487.4, and nearby Wirt County has the highest rate in the state. In an October 3, 2023, edition of the New York Times reported that climate change is the biggest single health threat in the world. And it is the fossil-fuel industry that is contributing the most to human-caused climate change with its relentless emissions.
As climate disasters mount through more intense hurricanes, rising ocean levels that are flooding low-lying shorelines, and violent storms, there is a rapidly increasing cost of disaster relief. The Harvard Gazette has noted that in the last five years there have been 18 serious disaster events per year, 911 deaths, and $153 billion in recovery costs. These figures are twice the rate of the previous decade. FEMA Public Assistance grants account for a growing part of our federal budget, yet the root causes of this violent weather are not being addressed.
Fossil fuels, especially natural gas, will be an important source of energy for many years. However, these resources do not need more sacrifice and subsidy but more taxes/fees with the dividend going to the American public, as exemplified in the Energy Innovation Act, which was just introduced in the Congress.
George Banziger, Ph..D., was a faculty member at Marietta College and an academic dean at three other colleges. He is a member of the Green Sanctuary Committee of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta, Citizens Climate Lobby, and of the Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action team.