One of the most important issues in this year's election is energy.
Our ongoing addiction to Mideast oil leaves us dependent on countries that are often unstable and hostile. Developing our own domestic energy resources and investing in renewable energy lessens this dependence. It also has the potential to create jobs and improve our trade deficit.
The two presidential candidates have laid out energy plans that sound similar: both President Obama and Governor Romney want to continue to develop domestic energy resources, including renewable energy, with the aim of making the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil.
But according to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the president of environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance, the plans are different in several important ways. And President Obama's plan, Kennedy says, is much better for the country.
"We need to be energy independent but we can't look into the future by looking in a rearview mirror and say that we're going to do that through carbon," Kennedy says in an exclusive interview with The Daily Ticker. The idea that there's not a future for wind and solar energies in the U.S. "is just a hoax."
Kennedy gives the example of a solar plant being built in the Mojave Desert. The plant will be one of the largest power plants in the U.S. and will be completed in three years. Coal plants take 10 years to build, Kennedy points out, and nuclear power plants can take as many 30 years. The solar plant costs $3 billion a gigawatt versus $15 billion for a nuke plant, one-fifth of the cost. Alternative energy sources like solar and wind are not only environmentally-friendly policies, but they're also smarter economic choices too, Kennedy says.
"We can do it cheaper, we can do it more efficiently, but we need a national commitment to do that," he says. "You've got China, you've got Germany, you've got the rest of the world who are looking forward, who are building these new technologies and we have the lead. We ought to be continuing that lead and selling them these new technologies not just lagging behind sitting on our hands and letting the Koch brothers dictate our national energy policy."
According to Kennedy, Gov. Romney is merely paying lip-service to the importance of renewable energy. Romney's primary focus, Kennedy says, is helping his friends in the traditional energy industry: oil companies, coal companies, and nuclear companies. These companies already benefit from massive and largely ignored government subsidies, and they create pollution that makes the cost of the energy they produce much higher than it initially seems.
Kennedy says he believes strongly in free-market capitalism. But he also observes that new industries often need government help, especially when they're competing with unfathomably rich and powerful incumbents.
"Government has picked the winners," he notes. "We give to the oil industry; we give $55 billion in direct subsidies each year. That's more than all the renewables put together have ever gotten in history. If we stripped away the subsidies, coal could not compete in the marketplace. Oil could not compete in the marketplace and nuclear definitely could not. You know, you can burn prime rib to make energy, why are we going with the most expensive stuff?"
The environment is not the sole beneficiary of an alternative energy policy. Jobs in the wind and solar industries are high paying, plentiful and are restoring the U.S. manufacturing sector, Kennedy says.
"We're employing more people in the wind industry than there are coal miners in America," he points out. "Today there's less than 14,000 miners in West Virginia and less than half of them are unionized. They have very little if any job security or pensions. The mountains of that state are being liquidated for cash, the communities are being destroyed and it's the second poorest state in our country. There are two different models for industry and you have to ask yourself: what do we want for the American economy? Do we want to measure the economy by how many millionaires it produces or do we want to measure the economy by how, and this is how we ought to be measuring it, by how it produces jobs and the dignity of jobs over the long term for every American?"
America should make a big bet on renewables, says Kennedy. Doing so will not just reduce our dependence on Mid-East oil. It will also help build a major new industry that will create thousands of jobs, bolster American manufacturing, and help build a much more sustainable and healthy economy.
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