Almost exactly 17 years ago today, I wrote an essay entitled “Fitzgerald’s Fools: Corruption in The Great Gatsby.” The thesis of that paper was that naivete, greed, and fragile masculinity are the toxic cocktail that destroys the American Dream. Daisy Buchanan’s snobbery, Tom Buchanan’s brutishness, and Jay Gatsby’s foolishness are destructive forces that, when combined, ruin lives and crush hope. This is hardly groundbreaking literary analysis, but I couldn’t help but reflect on the novel and that essay when I read this Terry Jarrett op-ed about what the so-called “war on coal” means for Alabama.
According to the Jarrett’s rhetorical emissions, coal is still king. An attorney and former utility regulator from Missouri, Jarrett has made a name for himself in the media — euphemistically identified as an “energy consultant” — penning opinion pieces in news outlets all across the United States. In fact, he has represented coal industry groups and utility companies.
It’s no wonder, then, that a simple Google search reveals that Jarrett has authored dozens of essays in local newspapers and online news outlets in March alone decrying the “war on coal” and celebrating the Supreme Court’s stay of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. His Alabama piece mentions coal 17 times. It’s worth noting that not once did he utter the words “health,” “jobs,” “climate change,” or “clean energy.”
Speaking of health, Physicians for Social Responsibility has said, “The time has come for our nation to establish a health-driven energy policy that replaces our dependence on coal with clean, safe alternatives. Business as usual is extracting a deadly price on our health. Coal is no longer an option.” PSR published a report titled “Coal’s Assault on Human Health” that noted the health consequences of burning coal, including respiratory effects, cardiovascular effects, nervous system effects, and climate change.
According to recent estimates, Alabama Power generates 55 percent of its energy from coal, well above the national average. It generates 17 percent from oil and gas. Combined, that means at least 70 percent of the electricity produced by Alabama Power comes from fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels are like the Buchanans: wealthy and powerful, and ultimately toxic. It’s no secret that oil, gas and coal companies wield enormous influence in the halls of Washington, D.C. and in state capitals across the country. It’s why people like Twinkle Cavanaugh, elected to literally serve the public, hold press conferences to “pray away the EPA.” The money and clout dirty energy still offers is no doubt intoxicating. Folks like Terry Jarrett remind me of Jay Gatsby’s naivete, romanticizing fossil fuel as the one, true source of reliable and affordable energy, blinded by love to the lethal consequences of their obsession.
Jarrett celebrates the stay of the CPP as a “huge sigh of relief.” He complains about the EPA “imposing regulations without regard for expense.” Utility companies across the United States benefit from cost-recovery mechanisms whereby they recuperate fuel costs by adding them to consumers’ bills. There’s nothing wrong with that — that’s how business works, after all.
But let’s also talk about the hidden costs of coal that the American people pay. Health costs caused by air pollution. Black lung. Water pollution. Land degradation. Climate change. To put it another way, when do we get to recuperate the cost of our kids’ asthma attacks on high ozone days? The short answer is: we don’t.
The more complex answer is that there are mechanisms we can employ to incentivize energy efficiency programs and clean, renewable energy like wind and solar that together will reduce the burden of pollution and potentially limit the impact of climate change on future generations. These solutions will pay dividends that won’t be realized for years, but such is the nature of the best investments.
The Clean Power Plan, while an important step in fending off global climate change, is almost beside the point. It’s merely a means to an end. Burning fossil fuels continues to be a threat to our health and our environment. Reducing carbon emissions is the responsible thing to do.
The bottom line is that the market is driving the downward spiral of coal, not EPA overreach or environmental activism. People are waking up to the reality that continuing to burn fossil fuels threatens the future of their kids and grandkids, and the planet itself. The market is driving demand for clean, renewable energy. Businesses and residential consumers alike are insisting that their electricity be generated from sustainable fuels that don’t pollute the air, water and land.
According to The Solar Foundation, the solar installation sector “employs 77% more people than the domestic coal mining industry.” And for all the talk of the American gas and oil boom, the TSF also says that solar installation “has created more jobs than oil and gas pipeline construction and crude petroleum and natural gas extraction combined” since 2014. Alabama ranks a dismal 45th in the nation in solar jobs. If anything, Alabama’s health, economy and environment all stand to gain immensely from pro-clean energy policies.
The times aren’t changing. They’ve changed. The sooner folks like Terry Jarrett and his fossil fuel cronies snap out of it, the better. It’s time to move on from fossil fuels and marketing slogans like “clean coal.”
And yet they beat on…
Michael joined GASP in 2013 as communications specialist. He has lived in Birmingham since 2008, and is an active member of the Birmingham community. He’s a passionate advocate for health equity, civil rights and equality. He is currently serving as executive director. Email Michael