Pro: Why Quentin James Wants To Move America Beyond Oil
“Fossil fuel infrastructure is dirty, dangerous and very often located in and around African-American communities.”
In our Pro vs Con series, we ask two experts to weigh in on a hot button topic. This week, we tackle where America sources its energy. Quentin James is the National Director of the Sierra Club’s Sierra Student Coalition.
Loop 21: Please define “renewable energy sources” and explain how they are currently being used in the United States.
Quentin James: Clean and renewable energy presents an opportunity for America to become more energy independent and economically secure. Wind energy is the fastest-growing source of power on the planet. With our tremendous wind resources—what some have deemed the “Saudi Arabia of wind”—the United States can become a world leader in wind energy. It’s no surprise that wind energy accounted for 93% of total installed renewable electricity capacity in 2008. In fact, in 2008 the United States surpassed Germany as the world leader in installed wind capacity. Iowa already gets 20% of its power from wind, and the Department of Energy says that we can get 20 percent of our power as a nation from wind energy alone by 2030. Wind is also an affordable and reliable source of energy. In the summer of 2011, when record heat waves in Texas threatened the reliability of the state’s power grid, Texas turned to wind to provide the crucial power it needed to prevent blackouts. As a growing power source, wind energy is a major source of economic development. Not only do farmers already harness the wind and sell the extra energy they generate for a profit, but wind farm development brings construction jobs, leasing royalties and increased tax revenues to local communities. If the United States were to produce just 20% of its energy from the wind, roughly 800,000 jobs would be created, annual property tax revenues would increase to $1.5 billion, and annual payments to rural landowners would increase to $600 million by 2030.
Solar energy is the cleanest, most abundant, renewable energy source available, and the U.S. has an ample and infinite supply of sun. Solar is one of the fastest growing sectors of the American economy, with more than 5,500 solar companies employing people in every state in the Union. Solar is not only clean, it is affordable. In 2011, San Antonio discovered that solar had become so cost-effective that the city opted to scrap plans for a new coal-fired power plant and install a large-scale solar facility instead. Solar is also a great way to create needed jobs in America. Generating power with solar creates seven times as many jobs as generating power with dirty, dangerous and increasingly expensive fossil fuels like coal.
Geothermal energy is right under our feet. The earth’s core is like an inner sun, heating the earth’s surface and warming the water and rocks beneath. This steaming water and rock can be used to generate heat and electricity. The uppermost six miles of the earth’s crust alone contains more energy than all the oil and gas reserves in the world. Geothermal resources are reliable and are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The United States leads the world geothermal electricity capacity and generation, with most of that power installed in California. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that geothermal power plants can provide15,000 MWs of new capacity within the next decade.
Loop 21: Please define “non-renewable energy sources” and explain how they are currently being used in the United States:
James: Fossil fuels -- coal and oil -- are the biggest examples of non-renewable energy sources. Oil is the primary fuel used for transportation, and coal is used for generation of electricity. In both cases, their use in the US is declining as renewables increasingly come on line and the cost of renewable decreases. The Sierra Club places primary emphasis on making substantial cuts in CO2 emissions as soon as possible by moving beyond coal and oil, shifting to a clean and sustainable energy economy, reducing other greenhouse gases, and protecting forests and other lands to build “green carbon” and provide resilient habitats.
Loop 21: How is the nation’s current energy source mix affecting African-American communities around the country?
James: The infrastructure needed for fossil fuels is extensive, dirty, dangerous and very often located in and around African-American communities. Oil refineries, for example, are massive emitters of toxic air and water pollution. For coal, the power plants themselves, which are massive air and water polluters, as well as transportation of coal and toxic coal ash infrastructure are often located in communities of color, which suffer higher health and environmental impacts.
Loop 21: What are the pros of using renewable energy sources?
James: The cleanest way to meet our energy needs is to get the most out of the energy we already use. By planning well, using less energy and switching to innovative renewable energy technologies we can slash our energy consumption, save homeowners and businesses money and create thousands of new jobs. Improving energy efficiency lowers energy bills, eliminates the need for new power plants, increases our energy security and puts people to work.
Loop 21: What are the cons of using renewable energy sources?
James: There are no cons to using renewable energy, only unfounded fears sparked by those coal and oil companies—and their political cronies—that profit mightily from our nation’s addiction to fossil fuels. These interests, well-funded but unfounded, are the biggest impediment to moving to innovative, clean technologies that will deliver the energy we need more reliably and more cheaply, but without the terrible environmental destruction and poisoning of our communities that come with fossil fuels.
Loop 21: How would building the Keystone XL pipeline affect U.S. citizens?
James: Very simply, the pipeline is a scam.
Follow the money: With billions in profits at stake, the oil industry is pulling out all the stops to get Keystone XL built. TransCanada alone spent $1.3 million in lobbying last year, and pro-pipeline members of the House took $12 million in Big Oil political spending in the past two years. Millions more have gone to pro-pipeline special interest groups like API, the Chamber of Commerce and other lobbyists and political operatives to make Keystone XL their priority #1.
The U.S. gets the pollution: Other countries get the oil. Tar sands oil is largely destined for export. Retired Brigadier General Steven Anderson said it plainly: “The Keystone XL pipeline will not reduce America’s dependence on Middle East oil, or do anything to get us off oil completely, which is key to America’s national security future.” An increase in fuel economy of just 2.5 mpg would completely eliminate the need for all the oil carried by this pipeline.
Tar Sand Oil: It’s dirtier than you think. Tar sands crude contains massive amounts of heavy metals and cancer-causing toxins and must be pumped at high temperature and pressure. TransCanada’s Keystone 1 pipeline spilled 12 times in its first 12 months of operation. Spills on Keystone XL would pollute waterways, destroy farmland and put drinking water at risk along the entire 1,700 route.
- It’s not just about the pipeline: The Sierra Club welcomes the attention that the fight over Keystone XL has brought to the question of America’s energy future. The public is challenging the idea that the oil industry is entitled to throw open this massive source of carbon pollution. The Keystone XL pipeline will unequivocally fail the ‘national interest’ test in a fair review of the science, the costs, and the risks. Stopping Keystone XL and exploitation of the Alberta tar sands is a major priority for the Sierra Club. That’s why we are working to stop this project and move America Beyond Oil.
Loop 21: How would building the Keystone XL pipeline affect the U.S.’s relationships with other countries?
James: The current Canadian government, which is very conservative, is promoting the nation’s dirty tar sands around the world. Tar sands have been called the dirtiest oil on Earth. Prime Minister Harper and other high level Canadian officials have lobbied President Obama and Congress to approve the pipeline. However, Canada’s lobbying against international efforts to stem climate disruption and the nation’s lobbying efforts to approve the dirty, dangerous Keystone XL pipeline have led to a growing understanding that Canada is off track and needs to stop promoting tar sands oil. The United States’ relationship with Canada is not affected in any way by this issue. The Canadian government knows and respects the legal and moral need for a pipeline like Keystone XL to receive a thorough, unbiased environmental review—which it has not yet received, and which will be required before the pipeline is built.
Loop 21: In your opinion, what does an ideal energy source pie look like? (For example, what rough percentage of our energy should come from coal, wind, petroleum, natural gas, water, solar, etc.) Why?
James: The Sierra Club envisions that within this century the world energy system will use almost no fossil fuels, and will instead rely on the efficient use of abundant renewable energy from the sun, the wind, water, biomass and the Earth’s own heat. To achieve this, the nations of the world must immediately and decisively shift to building a clean energy future.
Loop 21: How would shifting the energy source mix in this way affect the economy?
James: The renewable energy sector already employs more people in the US than the fossil fuel industry, and those jobs are safer, cleaner, more stable and more sustainable—the kind of jobs that Americans want and that drive long-term prosperity. As more high-efficiency technology and renewable energy come on line, our economy will only grow and Americans will grow richer—not poorer as we currently do addicted to the pump and coal for our energy.
Loop 21: How would shifting the energy source mix in this way affect gas prices?
James: Because gas prices are set on a world market, controlled by super-producers like Saudi Arabia -- which holds 60% of the world’s reserves and pumps 80% of the world market—nothing the US can do will dramatically affect gas prices. The only thing the US can do to reduce the amount it spends on oil is to simply use less (or no) oil.
Loop 21: What role should this energy conversation play in the general election?
James: The future of America’s energy infrastructure is already a big part of the political conversation at the moment. American’s have a clear choice: to continue working to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by investing in renewable energy sources and building a clean energy economy, or to revert to the policies of the past that pollute our air and water by gutting environmental regulations and putting our communities in harm’s way.
Loop 21: How can readers take charge of the energy sources used in their communities and homes?
James: There are very practical ways your readers can be a part of building the new green economy. Many utility companies offer customers the option to have electricity for their homes or businesses come solely from renewable energy sources like wind or solar. Readers can contact their local utility provider for more information, but usually its’ as simple as checking a box on their bill or having a five-minute phone conversation with a customer service agent. Also, your readers can take small steps like using public transportation or biking instead of driving every day.
Loop 21: Is there anything else our readers need to know about energy in this country?
Do you support a shift away from nonrenewable resources? Tell us in the comments.