The Blessings of Abundant and Affordable Energy
Acton Institute Powerblog

The Blessings of Abundant and Affordable Energy

I grew up with the attitude that wealth was measured by whether the sun was shining and the fish were biting and whether my belly was full and the family larder stocked with canned vegetables and fruit as well as fresh meat and poultry raised on our tiny 80-acre farm in Michigan. To quote Dylan Thomas: “And the sabbath rang slowly / In the pebbles of the holy streams.” Certainly there were items and conditions we desired, desires often unmet but with little or no detriment to my siblings and me. When one of us would watch a TV commercial, and lament the absence of any given material possession in our respective lives, our mother would tell us: “If ifs and buts were fudge and nuts we’d all have a Merry Christmas.” For his part, dad would say: “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

These phrases also hold true when applied to the repeated proxy shareholder resolutions of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. If both my parents still were alive, and the figurative Fern Hill of my youth once again in their possession, I’d suggest to the religious investors of ICCR hold a retreat on the premises. My parents could’ve instructed the good nuns and clergy that their “ifs and buts” and “wishes” related to reducing carbon emissions, if successful, would make energy beggars of us all, reduced to riding horses or bicycles.

Although recent reports indicate U.S. households will spend an estimated average $550 less on gasoline in 2015, ICCR seems to say while endeavoring to drive up energy costs by demanding economically indefensible measures. Among ICCR’s current efforts is backing the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut 30 percent of emissions by electric power plants.

I’ll go on record at this point by stating that reducing emissions is a worthy goal as we’re all called upon to be good stewards of the planet – if there’s something in the pipeline to replace the energy sources hobbled or displaced by regulations, which currently isn’t the case by a long shot. But we’re also called to take care of the least advantaged among us, including the poor for whom $550 will be like a Christmas present spread throughout the year. Despite this, ICCR touts the EPA rules as beneficial only with no drawbacks or tradeoffs:

Citing the enormous economic, environmental and health benefits, the group [ICCR], representing over $58 billion in collective assets under management, believes it is in the interests of both the private and public sector to adopt the proposed EPA regulation….

Said Sr. Nora Nash of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, “In addition to the strong business case, the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia support this rule because of the significant impact of climate on low-income and vulnerable people, both within this country and around the world, especially the economically disadvantaged who are less able to adapt and are often more dependent on climate- sensitive resources such as local water and food supplies.

Enormous economic benefits? With oil prices currently hovering below $50 a barrel and with cheap and plentiful coal, how can today’s renewable technology conceivably compete economically? As for Sr. Nash’s claims on behalf of the world’s economically disadvantaged, it’s not as lofty as it seems unless one buys completely into the worst-case scenarios of the big-if of catastrophic climate change. In the meantime, lower energy prices are benefiting the poor right this very minute. As noted by Ron Arnold earlier this month in response to the “new crusade” he identifies

‘[R]esponds to climate change by urging universities, churches and pension funds and other big institutional investors’ to destroy petroleum and coal companies by dumping their shares and reinvesting in a ‘fossil-free clean-energy economy,’ modeled loosely on the anti-apartheid activism of the 1980s….

And an Oxford University ‘Stranded Assets’ study asked, “What does divestment mean for the valuation of fossil fuel assets?” It found that dumping stocks may neot even be necessary to destroy the oil and gas industry because “stigmatizing” can do it….

Stigmatizers behave as if fossil-free alternatives are available for everything. Are they?

What if somebody answers the unasked question and reveals transportation’s vulnerability to stigmatization and government restrictions? The stock market is an open door that investors can enter and exit at will, and sometimes shocking news leads to shocking selloffs. If the Oxford researchers are right, stigmatization and restrictions could bring down the oil and gas industry in a jolting overnight panic.

Arnold poses the questions most relevant to the nation’s poorest:

How will we power America’s 26.4 million registered commercial trucks and the 2.4 million heavy-duty trucks that deliver more than 70 percent of all freight, including our food? Where is the fossil-free infrastructure to take over that demand? How would we react to empty food shelves in every market and hungry millions ready to do anything for a meal?…

What will we use to make plastics, lubricants, asphalt for paving roads, wax for sealing frozen food packaging, fertilizer, linoleum, perfume, insecticides, petroleum jelly, soap, vitamin capsules, pharmaceuticals and the 6,000 other petroleum products we all use?

Come to think of it, the home I remember from my youth wasn’t so much Fern Hill as it was the Waltons. We heated our home with a coal furnace until the mid-1960s, when we switched to cleaner burning natural gas (which is exactly that path that developing nations hope to follow as they battle energy poverty). We filled the tractor and truck necessary for our livelihood from the farm’s gasoline storage tank topped-off several times a year. Nor were we all that self-sustaining now that my memory’s been jolted. I recall my mother returning weekly from grocery shopping and both parents driving to full-time day jobs while simultaneously maintaining a small farm. A childhood where warmth, plentiful food and hardworking parents are taken for granted is a blessing indeed. We still observed the Sabbath, thank you very much, by driving to Mass every week, and we maintained our small corner of the environment by occasionally hauling obstructing pebbles from our holy streams with the assistance of a hydraulic front-loader.

Bruce Edward Walker

has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. He was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News from 2010-2012. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2011 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past five years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Flint, Mich., with his wife Katherine.