Power for the People

Energy for the 99 Percent

Kate Gordon presents the choices we face to build an energy economy that works for all of us or just for Big Oil.

In this September 27, 2011 photo, cars line up at the pumps at an Exxon mini-mart in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. High gas prices are bad for consumers but great for Big Oil, which pulled in a staggering $101 billion in profits during the first nine months of 2011. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)
In this September 27, 2011 photo, cars line up at the pumps at an Exxon mini-mart in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. High gas prices are bad for consumers but great for Big Oil, which pulled in a staggering $101 billion in profits during the first nine months of 2011. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

The Occupy Wall Street protests are focusing Americans’ attention on the fact that power is increasingly consolidated into the hands of very few individuals and corporations. This is especially true in the energy sector. Two weeks ago the country’s five largest oil companies—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell—released their third-quarter profits and once again revealed that high gas prices are bad for consumers but great for Big Oil, which pulled in a staggering $101 billion in profits during the first nine months of 2011.

Today Washington politicians publicly bicker over renewable energy credit programs that will only cost taxpayers $2.5 billion while the oil-and-gas industry quietly pulls in $7 billion in annual subsidies. But even that is not enough for Big Oil. These companies are now lobbying hard for even more federal government support, for even more of the public’s waters and lands to be opened up for drilling rigs or pipelines, and for even fewer health and safety standards to govern those projects.

At the same time, those of us who pay the taxes that subsidize Big Oil—call us the 99 percent, though in reality we’re more like the 99.99 percent—must continue paying out precious dollars at the pump and must suffer from the ill-health effects of fossil-fuel pollution because we have very little choice in how we power, or fuel, our lives.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We have the power to choose a brighter, more equitable, more sustainable future.

What could that future look like? Fast forward to America in 2030. Picture rolling up to the gas pump and having a choice of a petroleum product or a bio-based one, maybe from algae or switchgrass—or instead just plugging your electric or hybrid vehicle into the fast-charging electrical outlet located nearby. In 2030 conventional cars and light trucks will average at least 54.5 miles per gallon, saving our nation the expense of importing 2.2 million barrels of oil per day.

Picture an America where you don’t have to drive at all because buses, trains, and light rail systems are convenient and accessible. Bike lanes are no longer a luxury of certain coastal cities but are the norm along heavily trafficked commuter corridors. And cities are designed to allow workers to live much closer to their jobs, avoiding long commutes altogether.

Picture an America where at least half of our electricity comes from renewable sources such as wind, solar, wave, and geothermal. Sound impossible? It’s not. Other countries, especially in Europe, are already on track to get there. Germany has set a goal of 45 percent renewable energy by 2030 and Denmark is hoping to be completely fossil-fuel free by then.

In 2030 Americans could have the choice of whether to buy power from big utility producers or instead to install household or community-scale energy systems themselves—systems that allow excess power to be sold back into the grid, making the consumers the owners of America’s energy system. We could have a smarter grid, where home appliances and even plug-in electric cars could “talk back” to power distribution centers, which would distribute power more efficiently and effectively across the entire system and avoid costly blackouts. We could see homes built and renovated to efficiency standards that allow consumers to use far less electricity, for far less money, than they do today.

In this America our companies, labs, and universities would lead the world in the research and development of new and even more efficient energy systems—creating jobs, new businesses, and export opportunities while giving consumers even more choices in how their power is generated, distributed, manufactured, and used.

In this vision of America, consumers have fundamentally more choices and more control. And workers have more and better jobs—they are inventing, manufacturing, installing, operating, and maintaining a huge range of technologies in the renewable energy, energy efficiency, fuel, and vehicle industries. Unlike in the current economy, more than 25 percent of them are working in the manufacturing sector, ensuring that our energy future is Made in America, and that we’re exporting our innovative technologies to other solution-hungry countries.

Construction workers also will fare well in this new economy. The reason: Their skills will be called upon to build new energy-efficient buildings, or to retrofit the 115 million houses and small businesses that are currently responsible for more than half of America’s energy consumption. Whatever these future green workers’ skills and specialties, their wages are higher and their occupations more varied than in the current economy.

In this America the air and water are clean. The oceans and lakes are healthy enough to support a range of uses, from a vibrant commercial fishing industry, to family trips to the beach in summer, to offshore wind production that powers our economic growth. Our most precious public lands are protected from mining and drilling but remain open for recreation and tourism, which alone create 388,000 jobs on Interior Department lands and 224,000 jobs on Forest Service lands.

That’s one vision for our energy economy in 2030. Here’s another one, brought to us by the American Petroleum Institute. It’s a future where all our coastlines are opened to deep water drilling, even though we know more drilling won’t make us more energy independent or significantly lower our gas prices. In this America pipelines take dirty energy across pristine landscapes to refining stations, so we can export that energy to developing countries that are themselves trying to choose a cleaner future. Coal miners continue to risk illness and death by going deep into the bowels of the earth. And tops are still blown off pristine mountain ranges to extract and export those resources.

Huge swaths of federal lands that were once off limits—places such as the outer continental shelf on our East Coast or portions of the Rocky Mountains that are protected today—are instead open for drilling and exploring, without regard to potential health and safety costs. In this America most energy workers aren’t inventors, manufacturers, or construction workers, but instead are making minimum wage behind the counter in gas stations. And consumers continue to be slaves to the volatile global prices of fossil fuels while a small handful of companies reap the global profits.

We have the power to decide, right now, what America looks like in 2030. Decisions are being made every day from Wall Street to Washington, D.C.—decisions that will put us on a path to a clean, just, and vibrant future or instead chain our future options to a path of pollution, poverty, and growing peril. At this moment our government is facing decisions about whether to build the Keystone XL pipeline to transport heavy, polluting tar-sands oil from Canada across the Great Plains to refineries in Texas; whether to allow the Environmental Protection Agency to keep our air and water clean; whether to keep subsidizing oil while exempting natural gas drilling from health and safety regulations; and whether to provide the targeted government support and private-sector levers necessary to ensure America continues to lead the world in new and cleaner energy solutions for the global market.

In the next few years, we will face even bigger decisions, in particular the decision about whether and how to place a value on carbon so that we start to bring down emissions and address global warming, and about how to adapt to the global warming impacts that our cities and citizens are already beginning to feel.

We have the power to build an energy future that works for everyone, not just for Big Oil. The choice is ours.

Kate Gordon is Vice President for Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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Kate Gordon

Senior Fellow