By Michael Shank and US Congressman Lloyd Doggett
Editor’s note: This commentary is by Michael Shank and U.S. Rep Lloyd Doggett. Shank, of Brandon, is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. Doggett, a Democrat, represents Texas communities from San Antonio to Austin and serves on the House Ways & Means Committee.
When it comes to choosing the right energy to power America’s communities and economies, it’s safe to say that most Americans, if given the option, would choose an energy source much like they might choose a neighborhood in which to buy a home. Cleanliness becomes a factor, as does the overall health of the neighborhood, but so too the sustainability of the community: Will it thrive, and will the local housing market be healthy enough to profitably sell at some point?
Especially in the wake of the new, dire climate report from the IPCC, this is exactly how we should be thinking of energy: Are our energy sources clean enough and healthy enough for Americans and will they be able to sustain America, economically and environmentally, long into the future? The renewability and sustainability of any energy source must be front and center in any policy decision, whether it’s finite fossil fuels or infinite solar and wind energy.
These questions are front and center in American minds now as President Donald Trump’s latest environmental rollback, announced recently, would allow coal-fired power plants to emit more mercury, moving the energy industry in a dirtier and unhealthier direction.
In clear contrast, former President Barack Obama tried to ensure our power plants contributed constructively to the physical health of our citizens and the health of our economy. This is part and parcel of what policymakers must consider when protecting this country and ensuring its long-term survival. We cannot now let big polluters and President Donald Trump, who recently presented a significantly watered down replacement to Obama’s Clean Power Plan (and which is open for public comment until Oct. 30), stand in the way of improving clean air standards that safeguard the health of American families. This proposal could lead to an estimated 1,400 premature deaths a year by 2030. Climate change is already happening across America. We must ratchet up our response, not water it down.
First and foremost, we must do what’s right for the health of America’s citizens. We know that America’s existing coal-fired power plants presently come with a higher risk of heart attacks, lung cancer, asthma, and other health problems via the pollutants that contribute to soot, acid rain and ozone. Trump’s new mercury rollback will only make this worse. America was going to be much healthier, under the previous administration’s plan, with up to one quarter less sulfur dioxide, mercury, and nitrogen oxide in the air. But now these safety measures are being dismissed or dismantled under the current administration to appease coal industry special interests.
The Trump administration’s unwillingness to protect Americans’ health, by allowing the energy industry to pollute and emit more, is especially harmful to communities of color. As one example, nationwide roughly 40 percent of Hispanics live within 30 miles of a power plant, which means they are highly vulnerable to the negative impacts of a power plant’s toxic pollutants and particle soot. Furthermore, nearly 1 in 2 Hispanics reside in counties that are in frequent violation of ozone standards, making Hispanics three times more likely to die from asthma than any other ethnic group. That we allow this egregious form of environmental racism to continue is unconscionable.
Second, we must do what’s right for the health of America’s economy. We know that the employment and economic opportunities available to Americans, when we decide to clean up coal-fired power plants, far outweigh any adverse effects that come with reforming business as usual. With cleaner power plants, one study showed that American households and business customers would be able to save up to $37.4 billion on their electric bills in 2020 and it’d create more than 274,000 jobs. Another study went further, suggesting that 300,000 new high-skill and high-pay jobs would be created for engineers, project managers, electricians, boilermakers, pipefitters, and ironworkers.
Healthier American workers – ones not lost to or disabled by heart attack, lung cancer, asthma, or other health problems – are going to be able to contribute more effectively to our country’s economic productivity than a sick or dying workforce made worse by increasing power plant pollutants. Cleaner energy means less cleanup and upkeep, as there are fewer toxins eroding physical and human capital.
The imperative is clear, then, to clean up our air and clean up our energy, irrespective of any debate over our warming planet and climbing carbon emissions. If it’s doable, let’s do it. It makes economic sense, which is why Texas is already reaping the benefits of a clean energy economy as the first in the nation in installed wind capacity. Solar power is next, as Texas is among the highest in the nation for resource potential.
Americans should have another interest in seeing less carbon in the air. Beyond better health and a cleaner and greener economy, with fewer greenhouse gas emissions means fewer natural disasters. The relationship between emissions and extreme weather is one that our nation knows all too well. The greatest weapon against a Category 5 hurricane or devastating drought is for America to cut its carbon footprint in a meaningful way.
That is why the White House’s unwillingness to keep our energy clean needs your comment now, before Oct. 30. It’s about saving our communities from impending natural disasters, saving our citizens from poisonous pollutants, and saving our economy from energy that’s unsustainable and nonrenewable. The choice going forward is clear: Keep it clean.