Fossil Fuels, Renewables, and a Dangerous Double Standard

To me, stories of disease, health problems, and community disruption in Richmond and other East Bay communities located near oil refineries are sad, but also not surprising. Fossil fuel processes from beginning to end have dangerous side effects that pose public major health hazards. Whether it’s oil mining in South Los Angeles or coal mining in the Peruvian Andes, fossil fuel extraction damages whole communities and pollutes the environment. Transporting fossil fuels can lead to disastrous accidents, as seen in Porter Ranch (and I hope that the City of Benicia will say no to oil-transporting trains for their own safety). And of course, burning fossil fuels is extremely destructive for the environment at all scales, but has very negative impacts for communities near power plants and freeways, who are usually low-income and minority.

I experienced a small glimpse into the immense danger fossil fuels pose to communities in 2008, when the ash-retention pond used by a massive coal power plant in Tennessee burst open during a storm. The toxic grey sludge surged into Watts Bar Lake and sent huge floods of slurry across the low-lying surrounding area, destroying 42 houses, including the homes of my grandparents and my aunt and uncle. Thankfully nobody was killed, but these many families were forced to relocate and abandon their community, and the poisons released into the lake have severely decreased fish and wildlife populations. While this part of Appalachian East Tennessee is largely white, it is also very poor and uneducated, and most residents had no idea of the risks of the power plant nearby, nor were they given adequate compensation after the accident.

Keeping in mind all of these stories, I am always saddened at how little input communities have in what kinds of fossil-fuel facilities move into their areas and at how opaque these companies are about the dangers they pose. I am also reminded at the incredible promise of renewable energy, which offers a solution to our energy needs while posing essentially zero health consequences or risk to the larger world. Surely people of all classes and backgrounds would be proud to have these beacons of a brighter future in their yard, rather than burdening others with such dangerous, global-warming-inducing archaic options?

A rendering of how an offshore wind farm would appear from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Photo from Cape Wind Associates.

Unfortunately, it appears that some of the most privileged people in the world have such little empathy for others and such short-sightedness that they are spurning renewable energy for the most trivial of reasons. Ocean-side residents around the world, from Cape Cod to the Netherlands to Long Island to Ontario are protesting the construction of clean, dependable offshore wind farms because of perceived damage to their ocean views, and in many cases, these protests have helped to delay or cancel projects that would have greatly reduced the need for fossil fuel power plants in those areas. Perhaps greater education about the risks of fossil fuel power are needed, or perhaps the government needs to have a stronger hand when it comes to such important issues. However, it is clear that we cannot let such trivial objections stand in the way of solving the world’s greatest environmental justice issue.

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