No Easy Answers to Sustainability Challenges
To the Editors:
The 10/1 Council meeting was packed with people concerned about the city of Oberlin’s dependence on Coal-fired energy production. Oberlin’s energy supplier, AMP Ohio -- a consortium of municipal utilities – is in the process of building a new, coal-fired generation plant to replace the old, extremely dirty plant they now use. The new plant will supply almost five times the power of the old with significantly lower emissions per unit of coal. The big issue for those against the new plant was that it will produce harmful amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), an acknowledged greenhouse gas, and that the technologies to keep CO2 from being released into the atmosphere are not yet identified. They cheered on impassioned pleas from David Orr, a famous environmental studies professor at Oberlin College, who claimed that abundant, sustainable energy sources are close at hand. He urged Council to embrace these rather than buy into old, non-renewable sources that are injurious to the environment. The big question, of course, is how quickly can these new technologies be realized, and how will we deal with the CO2 that some of them -- like bio-mass – also produce? These questions and many akin to them were asked at the meeting, but one I did not hear and one I find particularly significant is this.
Can we really expect technology to bail us out of our energy woes without committing ourselves to significant lifestyle change? For one, people have short memories and don’t learn from bad situations and mistakes. I can still picture the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 – a response to America’s support of Israel during the Yom Kippur wars – and remember the panic and incredibly long lines at gas stations as people worried about gas for their cars and fuel oil for their furnaces. In response, the government mandated CAFE standards (minimum mileage requirements for cars sold in America), conservation was preached, and the plea of “No more dependence on foreign oil” was our energy mantra. By the eighties, this was pretty much forgotten as oil corporations and government soon deemed certain OPEC nations as “dependable”; and America deferred to its passion for big cars and cheap energy once again.
In the nineties, there was a glimmer of hope as Bill Clinton and Al Gore tried to get Americans to use less oil (fossil fuels in general) by talking about a carbon tax. Their idea, plain and simple: if what you did produced CO2, you had to pay for it. Guess what? Bill and Al caved in to the special interest groups that fought their plan tooth and nail. The “Cap and trade” system they came up with was complicated, full of loopholes, and did not encourage investment in new technologies. To make matters worse, the digital revolution kicked in, the economy prospered like crazy, and environmentalists -- myself included -- watched in awe as our IRA’s grew and alternative fuel development did almost nothing. So much for government led investment in alternative fuels.
So, until the alternatives to energy production appear, I suggest we all do things to consume less energy. If nothing else, the pollution factor that surrounds fossil fuel extraction and use should compel us to do so. Mountain tops are being blown off for coal and water sheds polluted with the associated waste. NASA satellites now detect oil on all the ocean surfaces of the world that has spread from the many disasters that oil production causes. Smog and ozone pollution has become so commonplace in our cities that we routinely advise people who are especially sensitive to stay inside on “bad” days.
What can we as citizens of Oberlin do? For one, when I went to the 10/1 meeting, I saw full parking spaces in front of city hall and in the side parking lot. We live in a town two miles long by one mile wide. If you didn’t walk, ride a bike or, at the very least, car pool to get to the meeting to express your concerns about coal-fired production, you’re not serious about it.
Resource Recovery Board Member, City of Oberlin