A controversial, state-sponsored pro-fossil fuels Earth Day poster contest for children has triggered a heated and divisive debate about Utah's reliance on non-renewable energy resources.
The debate has revealed a much more complicated struggle -- fueled by politics, big business, and a concern for the environment -- that is now being waged to determine the future of Utah's energy resources and environmental health.
The contest was open to Utah students in grades K-6, and according to the informational pamphlet provided to principals and teachers, the first objective of the competition was to "improve students’ and the public’s awareness of the important role that oil, gas, and mining play in our everyday lives."
The deadline was March 20.
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Credit: Facebook/Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining
Jim Springer, the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining's Public Information Officer, told The Huffington Post that this was the second year the contest had been held.
Informational pamphlets for the contest were given out to all Utah schools, but it was then up to the discretion of the schools themselves as to whether or not they would participate, he said.
When asked if he thought the poster contest was in any way problematic, Springer said teaching children about fossil fuels is important because they're an indispensable part of modern life.
"Fossil fuels are not going to go away anytime soon. Alternative forms of energy are great and continue to be explored, but they're not going to be able to meet our [global] demand in the future," he said. "Even around Earth Day, we need to think about the responsible development of oil, natural gas [and other fossil fuels]. Without them, we don't have the economy, we don't have jobs, we don't have modern society."
While the poster contest has apparently remained under the radar since its inception, over the last few weeks, a wave of indignation has been swelling as parents, activists and concerned citizens alike have voiced their shock and outrage at the competition's premise.
Over the weekend, a parent of an elementary school student in Farmington, Utah, wrote a letter to the editor of the Salt Lake Tribune expressing his exasperation.
"I’m furious," wrote Colby Poulson, whose son was provided materials for the contest by his teachers. "Why is the state backing an "Earth Day" contest that celebrates fossil fuels, while completely ignoring the adverse effects that their use and extraction can too often have on our air quality, water quality, public lands and the other organisms we share the world with?"
After Poulson's letter was published, a movement against the poster competition began to rally. And now, pushing back against the original contest, the grassroots environmental advocacy group Utah Moms for Clean Air has organized an alternative competition of its own.
Also open to students in grades K-6, the counter-contest's theme is "Explore the Economic, Environmental and Health Costs of Fossil Fuels on Utah." The deadline for the contest is April 19.
"I was horrified and dumbfounded when I heard about the [Division of Oil, Gas and Mining's] contest," Cherise Udell, the group's founder, told The Huffington Post over the phone on Thursday. "So I took my outrage and turned it into a Jon Stewart-style skewering."
"Utah is a laughing stock of the nation, if not the world, for the absurdity of promoting a fossil fuel contest for Earth Day," she continued. "We need to show the world that not everyone in Utah is on board with this. We're getting back some of our dignity, dignity for our state."
In a follow-up conversation with Udell on Friday, she said that Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who endorsed the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining's poster contest last year, had refused to endorse the Utah Moms' competition.
"It's a blatant bias that's totally inappropriate," she said, adding that she feels let down by the state's leadership.
The poster contest has cast a spotlight on a pressing and continuing debate about energy resources in Utah -- a state that is heavily reliant on nonrenewable fossil fuels and that some environmental activists say is in the pocket of Big Coal and the fossil fuel industry.
"It's certainly safe to say that Utah is the most fossil fuel-dependent state in the nation," Matt Pacenza, Policy Director of HEAL Utah, an environmental organization that has for years pushed back against the state's nuclear energy program and that advocates for sustainable energy production and use, told HuffPost. "There is almost no renewable electricity made in Utah that's used in Utah."
Coal, petroleum and natural gas account for 98 percent of Utah’s energy consumption, according to a 2011 report about Utah's energy issues published in the Hinckley Journal of Politics. Coal itself, described as a "backbone" of Utah's economy, supplies almost half of the energy consumed in the state.
Utah's dependence on fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, has been a central factor in the state's worsening pollution problem.
As the New York Times reported in February, air pollution in and around the state's capital has become so bad in the last few months that it has "prompted warnings from local doctors, spawned protests at the State Capitol and [has] led to a variety of legislative proposals in the hopes of confronting the problem before it gets worse."
Fracking for natural gas (an industry that is fast becoming a "key sector Utah’s economy, valued at over 2.6 billion dollars in 2008") is also potentially a problem for the state, said author Caroline Gleich in her Hinckley Journal report.
"[T]he state is failing its residents, present and future," she wrote. "This failure is from a lack of preparation, planning, and oversight for future energy production and consumption, and overall ignorance of adverse environmental impacts from Utah’s current energy portfolio."
Environmentalists say that one of the most distressing things about the current energy situation in Utah is that the state actually has a huge potential for producing renewable energy, such as wind and solar power.
In fact, in a 2010 study commissioned by HEAL Utah, it was found that "careful development of Utah’s abundant renewable energy resources can provide a technically sound, economically feasible, and reliable long-term strategy to meet Utah’s growing energy needs through the middle of this century." The state's wind, solar, and geothermal resources could fulfill almost 100 percent of Utah's energy needs, the study concluded.
Terry Marasco of the Utah Clean Air Alliance said that, ultimately, the state-sponsored poster contest has revealed a deep-rooted imbalance in Utah -- an imbalance that has pitted the people who are pro-renewables and those who are pro-fossils against one another, rather than promoting dialogue and cooperation.
"Utah has such a huge reserve of gas, shale, coal, tar sand, etc. and it's become a 'let's burn, let's get the income' kind of state. [The state's leadership] is careful not to tread on the toes of the fossil industries -- huge amounts of income come from that," Marasco, who's also a member of Utah Moms for Clean Air, told HuffPost. "The thing is, it's not that we want [fossil fuel production] to stop altogether, it's more a question of how to make it cleaner and to mitigate it so that health risks and costs are reduced dramatically."
As for the poster contest, which Marasco called "insidious," he said the problem was not just that the competition was aimed at children who are "very vulnerable" and whose "belief systems are just beginning," but that it didn't provide a balanced perspective.
"It implants in children the idea that this stuff is okay. It doesn't include the down side of these things -- like, my grandmother might die two years sooner, or I might get asthma. That's the balance that's missing in Utah," he said. "We need to show the balance and what the real cost [of fossil fuels] is and then kids can make their own decisions."
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Top Renewable Energy Sources
Renewable energy made up 9 percent of all energy consumed in 2011, according to the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>, and that number is <a href="http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/er/pdf/0383er(2013).pdf">predicted to grow throughout the next decade</a>. Here's a breakdown of the top sources of renewable energy in the country, from wind to water and everything in between. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Solar Power - 2 Percent
Solar power and photovoltaic cells make up the smallest percentage of U.S. renewable energy production, but its future looks fairly promising. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/03/warren-buffett-solar-power_n_2398816.html">invested $2.5 billion in Calif. solar company SunPower</a> earlier this year. Also, unlike other sources of renewables, energy can also be generated by small-scale solar installations (like on the rooftop of a home or business), and<a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=8570"> declining costs</a> have made solar much more affordable. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Geothermal - 2 Percent
Geothermal power captures naturally occurring heat from the earth to turn it into power. The renewable source is geographically dependent, <a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=3970">but the Western half of the U.S.</a> has many promising locations for power plants, <a href="http://www.geysers.com/">like The Geysers in Calif.</a>, the largest geothermal power plant in the world. The U.S. is the largest producer of geothermal power on the planet, but growth hasn't kept up with wind or solar development in recent years. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Waste - 5 Percent
Believe it or not, burned garbage accounts for 5 percent of all renewable energy created in the U.S. each year. More than 29 million tons of municipal solid waste was burned in 2010 to create steam to spin turbines and generate power, <a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=7990"> and there are more than 75</a> waste-to-energy plants in the country. Emissions regulations have been in place at waste incineration plants since the 1960s, but the <a href="http://www.epa.gov/ncer/publications/research_results_needs/combustionEmmissionsReport.pdf">EPA warned in a 2006 report that the toxins released</a> during the process could pose a serious environmental risk if not strictly enforced. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Wind - 13 Percent
The amount of wind power has grown for each of the past three years throughout the U.S. and accounted for the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=9931">largest growth in capacity</a> of any energy resource in the country last year. Wind turbines now supply more than <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/19/us-utilities-windpower-usa-idUSBRE89I0TX20121019">50,000 megawatts a year,</a> enough to power 13 million homes, according to Reuters. Federal tax credits, which were set to expire at the end of 2012, have made wind farms an attractive form of renewable energy. Congress <a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/davelevitan/2013/01/02/wind-power-tax-credit-survives-fiscal-cliff-deal/">approved an extension of the credits</a> through the end of 2013. After production, wind turbines are net zero, meaning they require no energy and produce no emissions. The only problematic thing generated in some cases other than clean power has been <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/24/wind-power-noise-pollution-maine_n_866182.html">a whole lot of noise</a>. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Biofuel - 21 Percent
Biofuels, like ethanol, are created from organic matter like corn or soybeans. Gasoline in the U.S. contains 9 percent of the resource by federal mandate under the <a href="http://www.epa.gov/otaq/fuels/renewablefuels/index.htm">Renewable Fuel Standard program,</a> and more than <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/10/us-should-change-biofuel-_n_1764735.html">40 percent of the corn crop</a> last year was turned into biofuel. The resource is slightly more unstable than other renewables because it depends on the productivity of farms - <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/10/us-should-change-biofuel-_n_1764735.html">drought or other environmental problems</a> can significantly lower yields and increase prices. On average, <a href="http://www.afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/flexible_fuel_emissions.html">ethanol has 20 percent fewer emissions</a> than traditional gasoline but some types, like <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellulosic_ethanol">cellulosic ethanol,</a> cut greenhouse gas emissions more than 85 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Wood - 22 Percent
Timber accounts for nearly a quarter of all renewable energy created in the country. <a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2012/10/121022-wood-for-heating/">Rising energy costs </a>have led to an upswing in wood burning over the past decade, and nearly <a href="http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/steo/report/winterfuels.cfm">20 percent of New England homes </a>use wood for heating, according to a National Geographic report. Although it may be a cheaper alternative, wood burning stoves and fireplaces<a href="http://www.epa.gov/burnwise/energyefficiency.html"> release more emissions of fine particles </a> than other home heating methods, according to the EPA. Burning <a href="http://www.epa.gov/burnwise/bestburn.html">good wood in an efficient burner</a> lowers toxic emissions and lost energy. Oh, and always have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors handy. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Hydroelectric - 35 Percent
Almost all of the current hydroelectric power plants in the U.S. were <a href="http://www.eia.gov/energy_in_brief/article/hydropower.cfm">built before the mid-1970's</a>, but it's still the highest producing renewable energy source in the country. In 2011, 8 percent of all power created in the U.S. came from hydroelectric sources, but it's also one of the most geographically dependent sources of energy. The Pacific Northwest gets more than half of all power via hydroelectric due to prime geography. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
How To Really Go Renewable
Watch this TED talk on the missing link in the future of renewable energy.