Earth Day In The Cumberlands: 2009 Posted: April 27, 2009
“Valuing Kentucky’s Natural Resources”
A Conversation On Sustainability
I am honored and pleased to be back here speaking at EKU on Earth Day. I do not know of another University that devotes as much thought and energy into making Earth Day a month-long happening, exploring the many facets of living mindfully on earth.
I always like to begin with full disclosure of my background so that you may appropriately discount all that will follow. I direct the Kentucky Resources Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization providing legal and technical assistance without charge to low-income individuals, to community organizations, and to local governments on air, waste, water, land use and resource extraction issues. My perspective has been forged by thirty-one years of representing those who live downhill, downwind and downstream of mining operations. In that time, I have buried one friend and client who was crushed to death by slurry from a coal waste dam collapse, and I have seen the lives and peace of mind of countless others subject to avoidable injury and damage.
If the field of environmental protection can be characterized in gross terms as the adjustment of the rights and responsibilities as among those upwind and downwind, the uphill and downhill, and those upstream and downstream, KRC represents those who live downhill, downstream and downwind, and who have borne disproportionately the adverse health and quality of life impacts of our economic and political decision-making. These are impacts that should be internalized but which are instead shifted off-budget and are paid, at dear cost, by those least able to bear them. No one ever calls KRC because they are having a good day – they call because they are in crisis – because those things most precious to them – home, health, family - have been placed in jeopardy.
The costs come from our thoughtless, careless, indifferent expenditure of our natural capital – the building blocks of life, as if they were interest. They are costs borne disproportionately by disadvantaged people, by people without means and lacking political power. So with my disclosure statement of my significantly limited perspective, let’s turn to our topic for today.
Kentucky is blessed with natural resources that are the envy of other states – more flowing stream miles than any other state save Alaska; a mixed mesophytic forest in Appalachia that is among the most diverse ecosystem on the globe, mineral and biological resources that are the envy of other states. Yet our toxic cocktail of ignorance and avarice has placed these assets at risk.
Unquestionably, during the intervening 39 years since the first Earth Day, we have improved in stewardship of our natural resources. The level of responsibility for management of wastes, for air pollution, for water discharges has been raised from the era when strip miners indiscriminately bulldozed cemeteries over the outslopes of east Kentucky's mountains, and hazardous wastes were dumped into ravines at the Valley of the Drums. We no longer dig trenches and shoot drums of waste to dispose of them, as did the M&T Chemical Plant in Carrolton. Our major rivers do not catch fire as did Ohio's Cuyahoga. Releases of pollutants into our air, land and water resources occur under controls contained in permits issued by state or federal agencies. Our tolerance for the most obvious abuses of the environment is less than in the past, and even the largest polluting industries seek to spin a "green" image. Yet we have filed to fully “cost”, fully “price” fully account for the cost of our cheap energy, and that bill is coming due.
This is a time of great crisis and great opportunity. We have reached an important point in Kentucky’s energy and utility policies, standing with one foot in the past where adding value for the coal industry was the preeminent political concern, and the other at the threshold of a carbon-constrained future in which a dramatic shift in how we produce and consume energy is needed to avoid catastrophic social, environmental, and economic consequences.
It is a future that demands that we account more honestly for the costs of our energy choices, that we reevaluate our production and wasteful utilization of energy and that we invest in energy strategies and choices less damaging to the land, air and water of our Commonwealth, and more capable of sustaining an economy and quality of life over the long term.
There is general consensus within the scientific community that emissions of greenhouse gases should be reduced by 60-80% by mid-century to minimize irreversible effects of climate change. There is also general scientific consensus that we have a relatively brief period in which to restructure the manner in which we produce and consume energy, before the exigencies of climate change will impose even more dramatic costs on our communities and our economy and narrow our options to mitigate, rather than adapt to, climate change.
We in Kentucky are “ground zero” on climate change. As a state that both produces a significant amount of coal and which is 98% dependent on coal and other fossil fuels for electricity, and as the 46th poorest state in the Nation, the implications for Kentucky of the coming national carbon mandate, such as that proposed in the Waxman-Markey bill or several others now pending before Congress, will be significant. Kentucky ratepayers will see significant increases in electric rates as utilities seek to recover costs associated with reduction in carbon emissions or internalization of carbon costs. The sticker shock, and the potential adverse effects on the most vulnerable ratepayers who are clinging by their fingertips to homes and rental units and spending up to 23% of their income just to provide warmth in the winter, and on our major manufacturers, many of whom are significant energy users and who are very price sensitive to utility costs, if we fail to plan now and to invest now in a strategy to reduce carbon emissions from the combustion of coal for electricity, will be staggering. With an aging fleet of coal-fired power plants, the cost of retrofitting or replacing that power to meet carbon targets is a daunting task indeed.
Just as the overwhelming weight of the scientific community acknowledges climate change as a phenomenon, there is growing consensus in the business community and in local governments, as well as Congress, on the need to reduce greenhouse gases. The debate is no longer whether we should slow, stop and then reverse loading of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but is how quickly we should move and how the costs should be allocated. We don’t have until 2020 to take action, for as the Climate Action Partnership noted in its “Call to Action”:
each year we delay action to control emissions increases the risk of
unavoidable consequences that could necessitate even steeper reductions in the future, at potentially greater economic cost and social disruption. Action sooner rather than later preserves valuable response options, narrows the uncertainties associated with changes to the climate, and should lower the costs of mitigation and adaptation.
The General Assembly as a body has begun to understand and acknowledge that there will be a national policy response to climate change and specifically, towards a mandatory program of controls on emissions of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel utilization. In the 2007 Special Session and the 2008 Regular Session, the General Assembly took several very important steps towards a rational energy future, commissioning a report on carbon emissions, research and strategies; creating a center for renewable energy and energy efficiency; requesting a study on reform in utility regulatory policy; enacting a set of incentives for renewable energy and energy efficiency; and using the financial clout of the state to set the bar much higher on the performance of state-funded buildings. EKU’s own Harry Moberly played a key role in securing enactment of HB 2, now a national model bill for states.
The Beshear Administration has engaged on the issues of energy and the environment, producing a thoughtful strategic plan and actively recruiting partners in academia and industry to help build the new energy economy for Kentucky.
We have some basic needs, and this university, as well as the community colleges and technical schools, are well-positioned to help address those needs.
First, and foremost, we need honesty and transparency. Honesty in how we measure the value and costs of our energy choices and transparency in how we account for those costs.
We are, as I mentioned, 93% dependent on coal, and 98% dependent on fossil fuels, for our electricity. Within the narrow bandwidth that has been defined as “low-cost, high reliability,” the state Public Service Commission has performed well the function assigned it by the General Assembly.
Yet it is increasingly apparent that the manner in which we have defined “cost” and accounted for, or failed to account for, elements of that cost has had dramatically negative consequences, and the bill is coming due for the failure to have fully costed our energy choices. What will happen under a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system is that carbon will be “monetized” and Kentucky will be in the marketplace competing with states far less dependent on coal-fired power.
All energy choices have a footprint and need to be viewed comprehensively on a life-cycle basis, considering such issues as the potential conflicts between food and fuel, and energy production and other land uses. In order to bring honesty to energy choices, our utility policies must include health, environmental and social costs from consideration in pricing energy. We need to provide additional meaning and depth to resource planning, in order to more fully value efficiency and pollution in our choices for energy.%