Meeting monthly payments for household energy use is increasingly difficult for families with incomes at or near the poverty level. While the system of extraction, generation, and distribution of energy in usable form has many other economic and environmental impacts on most sectors of society, for the poor, the monthly bill is this system's most direct consequence. Living in (often forced to rent) the least efficient housing in the country, the typical poor household faces energy costs of up to 25% of its total income. This household has but two options: reduce consumption and/or look for aid in meeting unmanageable energy costs. Federal funding for both of these options, however, has been dwindling since the mid-80s; more and more responsibility for controlling these costs to the poor falls on local governments and groups.
Earlier this year, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman visited agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland’s Decatur, Illinois, headquarters to tout its part in President Bush’s Biofuels Initiative. The secretary posed for photos with then Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) Chair G. Allen Andreas and announced that the Department of Energy would offer up to $160 million for the construction of three bio-refineries to expand U.S. ethanol production.
"Partnerships with industries like these will lead to new innovation and discovery that will usher in an era of reduced dependence on foreign sources of oil, while strengthening our economy at home,” Secretary Bodman said from ADM’s trade floor. Given the absence of conditions imposed by the Department of Energy, the three bio-refineries could well be partially coal-powered. ADM already operates coal-fired plants at its company base in Decatur, Illinois, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and is currently adding another coal-powered facility at its Clinton, Iowa ethanol plant and planning another coal fired plant in the town of Columbus, Nebraska.
In municipalities across the country, an unusual phenomenon is gaining momentum. It is the merger of two ideas traditionally believed to be opposites of each other—economic development and environmental protection—to create strategies for “green economic development,” or “sustainable development.” The creation of a “sustainable economy” is an attempt to find effective solutions to our country’s dependency on fossil fuels, while simultaneously boosting local economies through job creation. Now investors and policy-makers everywhere are pleasantly surprised to discover that green economic development promotes both, environmental protection and production performance.
How is it possible that soil samples from St. Bernard Parish in New Orleans have been found to reveal a serious health threat by countless environmental groups, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to insist that the area is safe, despite massive spills of oil and toxic chemicals?
“The first step in solving any problem is admitting that you have one, but the government is pretending there’s no problem,” says Anne Rolfes, executive director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB), a non-profit that measures air and soil quality for residents near Exxon Mobil’s Chalmette power plant. After Katrina, LABB empowered residents to measure the contamination stemming from the toxic stew of chemicals and oil saturating the parish from 44 spills and Murphy Oil’s Meraux refinery.
The U.S. is the wealthiest and most dominant country in the world, yet it can’t keep the lights on in New York City, nor can it provide power in “liberated” Baghdad. Centralized power production based on fossil fuel and nuclear resources has served to centralize political power, to disconnect communities from responsibility and control over energy, and to create a vast wasteful system. We need to recover democracy. And one key element is democratizing power production.
Let’s face it, we are energy junkies. The U.S. is the largest energy market in the world, and we consume one third of the world’s energy resources with five percent of the population. We are undeniably addicted—our economy is based on the burning of dinosaurs and on wasteful production systems. In other words, oil. Ninety-seven percent of the total world oil consumption has been in the past 70 years.