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Romney's Dirtier, Deadlier Energy Future: Is There Another Way?

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The oil-dependent economy Romney supports is a step toward an unstable, costly future. Renewables and energy efficiency offer a stronger economy and a stable climate.

Mitt Romney's new energy platform calls for more fossil fuel production and less regulation. It's a vision of an energy future that is dirtier and deadlier than an economy founded on a transition to renewable energy sources. And, despite the devastating droughts and massive wildfires of the last few months, it's a plan that ignores the climate dangers associated with a drill-and-burn policy.

Romney's plan centers on the argument that unleashing corporations to extract more oil and gas will create jobs and grow the economy. But will dirty energy really create more jobs?

More Jobs Come from Investment in Renewables

Investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency upgrades generate far more jobs than similar investments in fossil fuel extraction. According to a report by the Center for American Progress and the University of Massachusetts, $150 billion invested in renewables would generate 1.7 million more jobs than if the same amount was spent on fossil fuel extraction.

But the economic argument goes deeper. A fossil fuel-dependent economy costs us billions beyond what we pay at the pump, and it's a cost the oil companies shift to ordinary people, taxpayers, and future generations, while they keep the billions in profits.

Just one aspect of this: The burning of fossil fuels is making us sick at a time when an ever-increasing proportion of the nation's income is spent on health care and health insurance. The National Research Council estimates the hidden costs of burning fossil fuels for transportation and electricity generation to be about $120 billion a year, primarily relating to its effect on human health.

That figure does not include the climate impacts, harm to ecosystems, and harm caused by mercury and other pollutants associated with fossil fuel burning. As Bill McKibben says in his recent article in Rolling Stone magazine, "Alone among businesses, the fossil-fuel industry is allowed to dump its main waste, carbon dioxide, for free. Nobody else gets that break."

The High Cost of Dirty Energy

Then there are the billions that accidents like BP's Deepwater Horizon oil disaster cost. BP is liable for $192 billion in damages, according to one expert estimate -- but how much will the rest of us wind up covering? And how long will the health of the people of the Gulf and the local environment suffer? Then there's Enbridge's recent 1 million-gallon spill of tar sands oil, which still coats the bottom of the Kalamazoo River and caused an estimated $800 million in damages. (The National Transportation Safety Board says lax regulation was largely to blame for the spill, which came from a pipeline of the same type that is proposed to carry Alberta's tar sands oil to Texas, across the fragile Oglalla Aquifer. Yet Romney is calling for laxer regulation.)

But there's a more systemic reason why fossil fuel dependence is bad for the economy and bad for jobs. A recent analysis by research firm Oxford Economics, commissioned by Britain's Department of Energy and Climate Change, shows that moving away from reliance on fossil fuels could cut in half the economic damage that occurs when fossil fuel prices spike.

Some analysts believe the 2008 oil price spike that raised prices to over $140 a barrel helped trigger the global economic collapse. Global oil extraction is no longer growing faster than population, and demand in China and India is growing especially fast. Here's why that matters: When the world's big economies begin to recover and begin growing, oil consumption also grows, but the global oil supply is constrained. Now that the easiest and cheapest oil extraction has been done, new extraction is in deeper water, deeper wells, and includes such energy-intensive efforts as the Alberta tar sands. So prices spike. Consumers who fill their cars with high-priced gas and see winter heating costs increase cut back on other shopping. Businesses cut back, too, and we return to economic malaise. If this analysis holds up, it means that economic stagnation is inevitable as long as we rely on an unstable global fossil-fuel market.

And then, of course, there's the instability that comes from military disputes over regions of the world rich in fossil fuels, a cost that is also borne by taxpayers.

Prosperity Based in Clean Energy

Germany has chosen a different way forward. Its economy, which is one of the strongest in Europe, is on a path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, mainly through turning to renewable energy and energy efficiency. And at the same time, it is closing down its nuclear power plants. Estimates by researchers indicate 278,000 additional jobs will be created as a result of the transition to renewables and energy efficiency.

This ambitious transition means remaking much of the generation and transmission grid, research and development, and becoming a leader in renewable technology -- which positions the country well to be a leading exporter of clean energy technology. Europe's strongest economy is moving forward into a clean energy economy and prospering as a result.

Romney's plan leaves the United States behind in the old, dirty oil economy.

And Romney's plan relies on a notion of energy independence that has no meaning when a country is dependent on a global oil market. Drilling more on U.S. soil and off our coast, or building the KXL pipeline across U.S. lands, will not insulate us from that unstable market. Resources will be sold to the highest bidder, wherever they are extracted. Note that the proposed KXL Pipeline was slated to run to the Gulf of Mexico, where the oil could be loaded on ships for export. Plan B for the KXL is to run the pipeline through British Columbia -- in spite of the opposition of First Nations people -- to Pacific ports for, yes, export.

Renewables, on the other hand, help build local and regional economies, and are much better insulated from global fossil fuel price shocks. Energy efficiency does even more to protect against global fluctuations in price and supply.

Governor Romney's plan has neither. Likewise, President Obama, while he has made gestures toward renewables and energy efficiency, touts his plan to promote major expansion of oil drilling.

These oil-dependent policies plays well among the executives of giant energy corporations, like Exxon Mobil, who attended a big fundraiser for Romney just days before he unveiled his plan. And a big money attack by the likes of the Koch brothers, ALEC, and right-wing think tanks shows they are feeling the pressure to cut taxpayer subsidies for big oil and switch to renewables.

In spite of the millions spent to sway public opinion, and in spite of the lack of political leadership on renewables, polls show that a majority of Americans still want a major ramp-up in investment in clean, renewable energy -- and they're willing to pay more, if necessary, to get it. They want to be out in front of the next energy economy, and they want the jobs, the innovation, and the new manufacturing opportunities that come with developing the next generation of renewable energy technologies here at home.

Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Sarah is co-founder and executive editor of YES!

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