THE BLOG
08/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Increase in Renewables Aids Human Rights


In recent years the legion of supporters of renewable energy has expanded to include labor unions concerned about jobs, as well as national security and energy independence experts such as George Schultz and James Woolsey.

These advocates of domestic and clean energy production strongly consider the geopolitical implications when dollars leave the country to potentially embolden individuals in unstable and unfriendly regions. While renewable energy depletes resources that could be used against U.S. citizens, it also can reduce the amount of money going to foreign governments that often have poor records in human rights.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act, would establish a National Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) provision, requiring investor owned utilities to purchase a minimum of 15% of their energy from renewable sources. This domestic energy production, combined with energy efficiency initiatives, will to a degree reduce the consumption of foreign petroleum. This will come in the form of the expansion of biofuels as a transportation and home heating fuel, as well as electricity from wind and solar to power the upcoming plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles that will slash the use of gasoline.

Since 2002, U.S. energy companies (along with the government) have increasingly looked to nations in Africa for crude oil as an alternative to Mid-East oil. While African nations pose less of an international threat, many of the governments of the leading oil exporting nations have a poor record in sharing the oil wealth and in respect for human rights.

The "curse of oil," which says that national per capita income often goes down after oil is discovered in a nation, is well documented in cases around the globe. Many nations in Africa, which have seen a boom in oil exploration during the past 5 years, simultaneously experience a decline in both human rights and financial equality as "strongmen" leaders have used the oil wealth for personal gain, and limited civil rights to remain in power.

Numerous examples of this, as documented in the book Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil by John Ghazvinian, include Angola Equatorial Guinea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria. Recently Shell paid $15.5 million to settle an action brought by the Ogani people who alleged that the company looked the other way as civil rights were being violated, culminating in the death of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

In these unstable regions, energy companies negotiate with powerful leaders and sometimes make undesirable concessions in order to extract oil. This creates a windfall that even in "democratic" nations often hurts rather than helps the indigenous people.

This misuse of fossil fuel revenue is yet another incentive for using renewable energy both here and aboard. Renewable energy is almost always a local and distributed resource that does not concentrate wealth. Instead of the potential to prop up tyrants, it creates jobs and encourages innovation by small businesses.

John Gartner is Editor in Chief of Matter Network and an Industry Analyst for Pike Research