"Money On My Mind" is a monthly column by Jay Mandle. The views expressed here are those of the author, (not necessarily those of Democracy Matters or Common Cause), and are meant to stimulate discussion.
By Jay Mandle
Here is a statistic that might help to place in perspective both the desperate struggle of the Japanese to regain control of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station and the equally desperate effort by the people of the Arab world to gain control of their governments. According to the International Energy Agency, between the years 2000 and 2009 in the United States research and development expenditures on fossil fuels came to $8.3 billion; on nuclear energy $6.6 billion; and on renewable energy sources $4.2 billion. That is, only about one-fifth of all funds devoted to energy research were allocated to the only realistic hope that could bring us energy that 1) is inexpensive, 2) does not involve the risk of devastating consequences if something goes wrong, 3) protects the environment, and 4) can break the ties between the United States and repressive Middle Eastern governments.
The most reasonable explanation for the underfunding of research on renewable energy is that in the world of politics, policy – in this case energy research policy – responds to political donations. The reality is that the amount of money people associated with the fossil fuel industry contribute to political campaigns dwarfs the political contributions coming from people associated with renewables. During the 2009-10 election cycle alone, $1.8 million in political contributions were made by people associated with alternative energy, but $28.0 million came from oil and gas, and another $7.4 million from coal (The Center for Responsive Politics).
The political power of big energy donors threatens the future in two ways. They have used their political influence to claim far too large a share of government research and development funds. This has come at the expense of developing renewable energy technologies. And at the same time the continued use of fossil fuels, especially petroleum, continues to prop up regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere that are barriers to the spread of democracy.
Fossil fuels provide the power used by modern economies, but only at the expense of the environment. Coal and petroleum emit high levels of greenhouse gases. Even natural gas, often touted as an environmentally friendly alternative, represents a threat at least to the extent that it is secured through hydrofraking. That process releases carcinogens that put the water supply at risk.
If ever it were in doubt, in the aftermath of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami it is now clear that the energy future cannot be nuclear. The cost of constructing a new nuclear facility was already prohibitively expensive before the earthquake despite the fact that the US industry benefits from both direct government tax benefits and loan guarantees. That cost inevitably will rise even more as the lessons learned from the Japanese experience are absorbed and new safety controls are required. But even more important than costs is the fact that the risks associated with this energy source are simply unacceptable. The real lesson to be learned from Japan is that this technology is too dangerous to use.
Further, the best thing we can do to support the cause of democracy in the Arab world would be to execute a transition from fossil fuels and especially petroleum to renewables. Regimes on the Arab Peninsula survive only because they produce the energy source of last resort. Because of our dependence on petroleum the United States continues to prop up autocratic regimes (with the exception of the special case of Libya) such as the one that exists in Saudi Arabia, turning a blind eye when that government sent its army to mow down demonstrators in Bahrain. If a realistic alternative to petroleum were available, the power of regional tyrannical governments would be undermined, as would any justification for this country to ally itself with governments whose values are so antithetical to our own.
The sad fact is however, that at the moment it is not possible to make the needed transition to renewables. Our “pay to play” political system is responsible for the fact that the technologies associated with solar, wind, biothermal and other innovative energy sources have not yet been developed to levels where they can produce power in the amounts and costs that are needed. Our campaign funding system is the reason that government policies have starved renewable energy research. The tragedy both for our environment and the democrats in the Middle East is that, even with the relatively enlightened Obama Administration, the political power of the fossil fuel industries continues to prevail. In 2009, the last year for which data are available, the pattern of past allocations of research and development funds continued, though the amounts involved greatly increased. Research on renewables lagged not only behind fossil fuels but nuclear energy as well, amounting to only 17.9 percent of Government investment.
More democracy in this country – electing politicians accountable to the American people not to a small group of wealthy funders - might mean not only saving the planet but encouraging global democracy as well.