When it comes to choosing the right energy to power America’s communities and economies, it’s safe to say that most Americans, if given the option, would choose an energy source much like they might choose a neighborhood in which to buy a home. Cleanliness becomes a factor, as does the overall health of the neighborhood, but so too the sustainability of the community: Will it thrive and will the local housing market be healthy enough to profitably sell at some point?
This is exactly how we should be thinking of energy: Are our energy sources clean enough and healthy enough for Americans and will they be able to sustain America, economically and environmentally, long into the future? The renewability and sustainability of any energy source must be front and center in any policy decision, whether it’s finite fossil fuels or infinite solar and wind energy. This is vitally important because the U.S. energy sector is currently responsible for about one-third of domestic greenhouse gas emissions, according to official government data.
President Barack Obama’s decision to ensure our existing power plants are contributing constructively to the physical health of our citizens and the health of our economy is part and parcel of what policymakers must consider when protecting this country and ensuring its long-term survival. We cannot let Big Polluters stand in the way of improving Clean Air Act standards to safeguard the health of Texas families. The EPA’s action follows the failure of Congress to do its job. Climate change is already happening across America.
First and foremost, we must do what’s right for the health of America’s citizens. We know that America’s existing coal-fired power plants presently come with a higher risk of heart attacks, lung cancer, asthma and other health problems via the pollutants that contribute to soot, acid rain and ozone. There is no question that America is going to be much healthier with up to one quarter less sulfur dioxide, mercury and nitrogen oxide in the air, which is the estimated cleanup after the new rules are in place.
In Texas, we know this all too well, as the Latino community is disproportionately impacted when it comes to the adverse effects on health. Roughly 40 percent of Latinos live within 30 miles of a power plant, which means they’re highly vulnerable to the negative impacts of a power plant’s toxic pollutants and particle soot. Furthermore, nearly 1 in 2 Latinos reside in counties that are in frequent violation of ozone standards. Latinos are three times more likely to die from asthma than any other ethnic group.
Second, we must do what’s right for the health of America’s economy. We know that the employment and economic opportunities available to Americans, with the decision to clean up coal-fired power plants, far outweigh any adverse effects that come with reforming business as usual. With cleaner power plants, one study shows that American households and business customers will be able to save up to $37.4 billion on their electric bills in 2020 and it will create more than 274,000 jobs. Another study goes further, suggesting that 300,000 new high-skill and high-pay jobs will be created for engineers, project managers, electricians, boilermakers, pipefitters and ironworkers.
Healthier American workers — ones not lost to or disabled by heart attack, lung cancer, asthma or other health problems — are going to be able to contribute more effectively to our country’s economic productivity than a sick or dying workforce made worse by increasing power plant pollutants. Cleaner energy means less cleanup and upkeep, as there are fewer toxins eroding physical and human capital.
The imperative is clear, then, to clean up our air and clean up our energy, irrespective of any debate over our warming planet and climbing carbon emissions. If it’s doable, let’s do it. It makes economic sense, which is why Texas is already reaping the benefits of a clean energy economy as the first in the nation in installed wind capacity. Solar power is next, as Texas is among the highest in the nation for resource potential.
Americans should have another interest in seeing less carbon in the air. Beyond better health and a cleaner and greener economy, fewer greenhouse gas emissions means fewer natural disasters. The relationship between emissions and extreme weather is one that our nation knows all too well. The greatest weapon against a Category 5 hurricane or devastating drought is for America to cut its carbon footprint in a meaningful way.
That is why the White House’s decision is so important. It’s about saving our communities from impending natural disasters, saving our citizens from poisonous pollutants and saving our economy from energy options that are less than sustainable and renewable. The choice going forward is clear: Keep it clean.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, serves on the Ways and Means and Budget committees. Michael Shank, Ph.D., is associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.