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Engaging Minorities in Our Nation's Energy Future

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I recently had the honor of participating in a congressional forum highlighting the Minorities in Energy Initiative hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy. This initiative seeks to connect diverse stakeholders -- businesses, communities, schools, and individuals -- to address challenges and opportunities for minority engagement in the energy sector. The spirited discussion included many panels on energy issues important to the future of our country and the increasing role that communities of color are playing on energy policy issues -- from their growing involvement in a thriving energy sector to their increased concerns regarding the impact that choices about our energy future have on their communities.

As one of the fastest growing and largest minority groups in America, the Hispanic community will play an essential role in the direction of this great nation. The future of our nation rests, in large part, on how we address our energy needs and how that will impact the next generation. One aspect that is of great concern and importance to minority communities, and the Hispanic community in particular, is the impact of climate change and how we address this growing challenge. Climate change has a significant impact on communities of color, especially communities in the West. In my home state of New Mexico, we have seen more intense wildfires, extreme drought conditions, and record rainfall that have caused severe floods.

The message from these extreme conditions is clear -- climate change is here and the policies we implement to address climate change will change the way we live our lives, from consuming energy to the way we build our homes and businesses.

A recent poll shows 74 percent of Latinos, compared to 65 percent of all American adults, believe climate change is a serious or very serious issue, and 86 percent of Latinos support the President taking action to reduce carbon pollution. If we address climate change with commonsense solutions we can not only have healthier communities, but we can also build a stronger economy -- one that is not impacted so severely by droughts, super storms, floods and pollution. And while addressing climate change poses significant challenges, it also poses economic opportunities for minority communities that can be a part of the solution. In many Western communities with large Hispanic populations, plentiful wind and solar resources have the potential to power our economy and unleash a new wave of innovation that creates new jobs while also benefiting our environment.

One prevailing assumption that continues to prevent us from taking bold steps to fully address climate change is the notion that addressing climate change will devastate our economy and put people out of work. But again, the overwhelming evidence from our own recent history shows us that we can address climate change while creating economic benefits. In fact, addressing the impacts of pollution is not new to American determination and ingenuity.

Take, as an example, the debate about acid rain caused by sulfur dioxide (SOX) and Nitrogen Dioxide (NOX) emissions from coal-fired power plants. NOX and SOX were causing rain and snow to turn acidic, and that acid rain was killing aquatic life and damaging forests. The discovery sparked a heated debate over how to reduce sulfur emissions. Opponents of addressing the effects of acid rain said it would cost too much money, impede innovation and ruin our energy economy. But quite the opposite happened.

The 1990 Clean Air Act required that sulfur emissions be cut in half, but let each utility company decide how to do it. Power plants cut their pollution more than required and could sell those extra allowances on the market -- and a new commodities market was born. Power plants actually exceeded their reduction of SOX because it was good for their bottom line. This example shows that when we work together to achieve common goals we can create a structure that cleans up our environment, creates human health benefits, addresses climate change and allows industry to play a role in those solutions.

As we engage more communities of color in the effort to combat climate change I see reasons for optimism and opportunity. In my travels meeting with younger generations, it's clear that they get it. They are interested in our energy future. They understand the importance of energy conservation, renewable energy, and an energy policy that acknowledges commonsense solutions to address climate change. And they are calling on their leaders to take action.

I believe the Minorities in Energy Initiative by the Department of Energy will prove valuable in creating a continuous dialogue between the Department of Energy and the diverse perspective of stakeholders within our energy economy. By working together we can continue to engage communities of color, and as we do so, we will see a greater involvement in our energy future that can help lead the way toward a stronger economy and healthier communities.

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