February 8, 2017

MALPASS | Clean Money

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Environmentalists really seem to get a bad rap. I’m not talking about eco-terrorism or the occasional highly offensive PETA advertisement —  I’m talking about image. No matter who you talk to, liberal or conservative, their idea of an environmentalist always seems to be the peace-sign-throwing, carrot-munching, Yusef-Islam-AKA-Cat-Ste­vens-looking hippie. I suppose it’s partly our fault; after all, I do have a few tie dyes kicking around in my closet. But generally speaking it’s always the same story: someone brings up clean energy, and the politicians and public roll eyes because another old beatnik took a moment between blunt hits to talk about how we’re all connected to nature.

It’s not the stereotype that bothers me, it’s the way it’s used to discredit environmentalism as impractical and overly idealistic. So let’s talk renewable energy from a purely financial standpoint. There is, of course, the long-term rationale to divest from fossil fuels. Increased consumption of oil and natural gas speeds global warming, which in turn fuels stronger storms, longer droughts and rising sea levels, the repercussions of which will be extremely costly.

But everyone has heard that doomsday scenario a thousand times over, so here’s a far more compelling argument: there is more money and job stability in the renewable energy market. The coal industry is done for — any plans to reinvigorate old coal mining operations in Appalachia are economic dead ends. Yes, this is troubling for the families who rely on this industry, but using federal money to subsidize this sector effectively amounts to extremely expensive welfare, when a better use for these funds would be to retrain coal workers for other energy jobs.

Now, much as I’d love to give all the credit to renewables, a significant factor of coal’s demise is due to natural gas, something of an old enemy for any New York State environmentalist. I am not an advocate for natural gas, but it is far better than coal. It burns cleaner, and while gas refineries are a massive eyesore and certainly not the most environmental structures, they are far better than the strip mining operations used in the coal industry. Unfortunately, natural gas mining comes with a host of issues ranging from poisoned well water to widespread methane leaks, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 in the short term.

But this column is about the financials of energy, so why not go with natural gas if it is the more profitable option? Because renewable energies have what fossil fuels do not: long-term potential. Natural gas may seem like a viable option right now, but how long until it goes the way of coal? Natural gas mining operations provide citizens with a one-time monetary package to drill on their land. Enticing to be sure, except property value has a tendency to plummet, both for the original land and the area surrounding it, once drilling starts. It’s a lump sum for the local population, not an investment. We still need natural gas for heating, but for electricity there are better options: solar energy.

Yes, the technology is new and often costly, but it is rapidly growing industry. According to Forbes, “more people were employed in solar power last year than in generating electricity through coal, gas and oil energy combined.” If we truly want an energy initiative to strengthen the economy, we need to develop our clean energy infrastructure. Investing in fossil fuels, even natural gas, will only benefit established corporate interests and will do little to nothing for the burgeoning small businesses that benefit the middle class. Need proof? According to a report by the State Department, the Keystone Pipeline XL, resurrected by the current administration, will create a grand total of 35 permanent jobs once construction is complete.

If we really want to revitalize America’s middle class, then renewable energy is the way to go. Solar, wind and geothermal energy are being used all across the globe successfully. China, one of our biggest economic competitors, is already vastly outpacing the U.S. in solar energy. Renewable resources will become the dominant energy form, just as coal once was. We as a nation need to start asking whether we want to invest in the future or keep clinging to old technology that is rapidly becoming outdated.

 

Soren Malpass is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at skm94@cornell.edu. Sorenity Now appears alternate Thursdays this ­semester.