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The Role of Money in Politics: Extreme Energy Edition

J. Mijin Cha
Huffington Post

The last few weeks have not brought good news for those of us wanting a future powered by clean energy. Thesouthern portion of the TransCanada pipeline is under construction. On top of that, New York State will lift its moratorium and allow fracking to occur in the state. If things continue along this path, not only will we miss out on the economic opportunity of renewables, we will also be forced to bear the substantial economic and environmental costs of extreme energy.

Fracking and tar sands are considered to be extreme forms of energy because of the amount of time, cost and destruction that go into extracting the resources. Oil and gas reserves that were easily accessible are largely tapped out and as energy prices increased, these more extreme and expensive forms of extraction became more viable. In the case of fracking, large volumes of toxic chemicals and water are injected into the ground to release natural gas in shale deposits. Tar sand mining uses open pits that destroy large surface areas and require enormous amounts of water.

The environmental consequences from extreme energy sources are well documented. Fracking causes several environmental hazards, including polluting water supplies, increasing earthquake risks in areas not normally prone to earthquakes, and making tap water flammable. Not only is tar sand mining dangerous, the pipelines that carry the oil spilt over 800,000 gallons of oil in Wisconsin and Michigan in just two years causing substantial environmental and economic damages to communities. These examples show just a fraction of the costs that will be imposed by an extreme energy future.

Of course, not everyone will bear these costs. The fracking industry, for one, is looking to profit handsomely, especially now that it can expand into New York. While TransCanada's profits fell last quarter, it still managed to pay out C$272 million to shareholders and have total revenue of C$1.8 billion. At the same time, the job creation and economic development promises these companies make to the impacted communities are unlikely to come through. Cornell's Global Labor Institute definitively debunkedTransCanada's job creation number and the idea that fracking creates great, local jobs is a myth, as seen by the inability of fracking operations in Pennsylvania to deliver on the level of local job creation promised.

In order to guarantee these profits, the oil and gas industry spends a large amount of money lobbying and buying influence. In 2011, the oil and gas lobby spent nearly $150 million on lobbying. This year, they've already spent over $70 million. These numbers don't include the millions of additional dollars spent on campaign contributions either directly to candidates or to outside spending groups. Considering the amount of money they will make from an extreme energy future, it is a worthwhile investment. Not only does money talk, it makes policy.

Yet, it doesn't have to be this way. If our elected officials made policy decisions based on what was in the public- not private- interest, we would see meaningful investments in clean, renewable energy production. Renewable energy investments produce far more jobs and economic development than the extreme energy alternatives. And, as an added bonus, renewable energy production doesn't pollute water sources, increase earthquake risks, or make tap water flammable.

Creating an energy future that results in more jobs and no flammable tap water seems like a good idea to me. It's a shame most of our elected officials don't seem to agree.