Experts speak to energy, environmental concerns at Saint Mary’s forum
By Lou Fancher
As the Trump Administration pivots away from Obama-era efforts related to renewable energy, sustainability and climate change deceleration, people are paying attention.
Questions have gained urgency: Why are energy resources important? How will the United States and other countries collect, store and distribute energy in the future? Is science related to climate change real?
Environmentalists, social justice activists, clean energy experts, lawyers and policymakers, analysts who study jobs and markets, students participating in environmental research projects and education programs — people who seek to understand and protect Earth’s resources are many.
To bring clarity and the most current information to students and interested residents, tenure track assistant professor Manisha Anantharaman invited a panel of experts to speak April 19 at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga.
Focused on law, policy, markets and jobs, the panel included Elena Saxenhouse, senior attorney for the Sierra Club; Spencer Quam, former chief geologist for Galp Energia; and Robert Collier, policy analyst with the UC Berkeley Labor Center Climate Program.
Saint Mary’s professor Alex LaGatta said energy is the foundation of modern society.
“In the United States we get more than 80 percent of our energy from fossil fuels,” she said, referring to data from 2014. “Most of the energy we produce is used for electricity.”
LaGatta showed graphics establishing that electrical use in the country never falls to zero. A laddered, three-fuel structure had coal as the dirtiest fossil fuel, followed by oil. Natural gas is the cleanest non-renewable.
Turning to non-renewable nuclear energy and renewables that include solar, wind and water, LaGatta said pros and cons are common to all forms: non-renewables carry toxins that harm the atmosphere and the danger of explosions, but are consistently available; renewables are cleaner, but harder to store and — although this is changing — far more expensive than non-renewables.
Expectedly, energy is a political football. “Generally, Republicans oppose regulation, downplay climate change and are more receptive to fossil fuel industry,” she said. “Democrats support strong oversight, endorse subsidies and want a strong EPA.”
Saxenhouse called the rollbacks on Obama initiatives in the early days of the Trump presidency “head-spinning.” Most disturbing is “a fundamental denial” that corporations are required to comply with regulations.
As solar and wind become cost-competitive with fossil fuels and public service agencies are more knowledgeable about cost-efficient, sustainable energy resources, she said regulations issued by the EPA and enacted by Congress would affect the forms of energy developed.
Quam predicted no sweeping changes to the energy industry will result from Trump’s Obama-reversing executive orders. Proposed cuts to NASA, EPA and other agencies and possible elimination of federal programs that make homes energy efficient and regulate appliance energy ratings, he said were “bad,” but the most harmful actions involve the Keystone Pipelines.
Ultimately, Quam said burning fossil fuels for energy will continue because of economics. Regulations will force renewables to be implemented, but cost will be the driver.
Collier asked how many in the audience wanted jobs in clean energy, and approximately one-third of the people expressed interest. But there were no takers for a follow-up question: “How many want a green job that pays poorly, has no job security and doesn’t pay benefits?”
Collier said statistics show the number of new jobs created by clean energy policies is statistically insignificant. Additionally, the quality of the jobs is wide-ranging. Utility-scale work for laborers on large solar farms pay $14 per hour and lack benefits and security; distributed energy managerial positions and clean energy financing offer middle class wages and benefits.
“Will policies be written in a way that mandate union, middle-class income?” he asked. “I invite you to think about what all this means for people’s ability to live well, support a family, to have a decent life. To both do well and also do good.”
Panelists said the most exciting jobs for people inspired to safeguard the environment were in state government and public policy agencies. And Collier predicted sustained high volume of academic study aimed at employment in regulation and environmental science.
The panel advised people to organize and oppose the administration’s rollbacks and cuts to environmental protection agencies and regulations.
Saxenhouse said activism would influence and better inform in positive ways decisions made by policymakers, state governments and the general population.