A few days ago it was announced that Chicago’s two coal plants, both on the south side of Chicago and among the oldest and dirtiest coal plants still operating, will shut down much earlier than originally thought. A 2006 deal had them closing in 2018, and the news marks a hard won battle for environmentalists and for the well being of those who live in the south side of Chicago. The Fisk plant in the Pilsen neighborhood will close by December and the Crawford plant in the Little Village neighborhood will close by the end of 2014. It is not a total victory, as in exchange for the earlier closing the coal industry won the right to not have to reduce pollution from the plants in the interim or to install pollution controls on the Waukegan coal plant until 2014. Still, it is a significant victory for the health of Chicago, and it rightly gives Mayor Emanuel a feather in his cap on his quest to make Chicago the nation’s greenest city. This was a great step and of course we have a long way to go. It’s a great victory because it shows that facts and common sense can sometimes win out over big money interests, even if it takes a long hard fight.
In other news, I see the Republican candidates have taken to blaming President Obama for the high gas prices. Saying that is really a complete surrender to the fact that they’ve got nothing. No ideas, no vision, no reason they should be president. Because while they can’t say it, they know as well as every economist that a U.S. president has virtually no control over gas prices, which are subject to the global market. They also know that they can’t go around screaming drill baby drill, because, in fact, domestic oil production is higher in the Obama years than it was in the Bush years (while still far below the mid 80s; but then, oil is a finite resource). You can easily find the graph if you want. The right wing blogosphere of course is up in arms claiming that it was Bush’s policies that led to the increase in production, and Obama has actually admitted as much. Unfortunately for the Republican candidates, such nuance is completely beyond the average American voter. (As if it really meant anything anyway.)
It is sad to see us drilling more in the gulf again, without really any significant safety changes to ensure we don’t have another BP blowout. (As with all such disasters, the politics and corporations just wait until the news cycle has moved on and then go back to business as usual with no changes. Remember the Big Branch coal mining disaster that killed 29 coal miners a couple years ago. The one that would spark congress to finally do something and hold people accountable and put in place stricter safety standards? Yeah, well, none of that happened. Not a single mine safety law was passed or changed in the wake of that terrible disaster. The news cycle has moved on, and they are back to business as usual, and the families of the brave miners who gave their lives are just on their own.)
Yes, the drilling mania would be worse if McCain was in the White House, and it is still much worse than it should be. In the global market no new drilling in the gulf will have any effect on gas prices, so it is really all just for show. But then most things are in American politics. In 2011 the U.S. actually exported more fossil fuels than we imported. A global market, see. When we drill a little more here that oil doesn’t go directly to your local BP station at a lower price.
And on gas prices, as someone who hasn’t owned a car for close to 20 years, you might think I don’t have a right to speak about gas prices. And here is the thing; despite local and state gas taxes (which are really nothing more than a bait and switch), we subsidize gas prices so much through our federal government (subsidies that come out of my tax dollars too) that we artificially suppress the price of gas enormously. In most of Europe for decades gas has cost three or four dollars a liter (for those unacquainted with the metric system, a liter is a little more than a quart. And there a four quarts in a gallon). If we took away the direct subsidies of gas it would cost around 5 to 7 dollars a gallon. If we took away the indirect subsidies (using our military to keep open shipping channels to bring crude oil here) it might cost as much as 10 dollars a gallon. If we instead took all that money and subsidized renewable energy, wind and solar, they would suddenly be more than cost competitive with oil and coal.
I realize that change is hard and that even if Greenpeace ran the country it couldn’t change overnight because we are so entrenched as an oil society–just the infrastructure of gas stations alone–and it is also true that the longer we delay, the longer we artificially prop up oil, the harder it will ultimately be to make the change that we will have to make.