I learned how to drive in the 2014 Chevrolet Volt. This glorious hybrid vehicle had an electric range that was more than enough for me to go to school, work and back home with no problems. And the ridiculously large amount of trunk space wasn’t even the best part! Nope, the best part was that I almost never had to pay for gas.
So when I was finally forced to switch over to a gas vehicle (a 1996 Infiniti I30 with absolutely atrocious gas mileage), I was shocked. $4 per gallon? But, like many Americans, I relied on fossil fuels out of necessity: That gas guzzler was the cheapest option and I had to get to school, so I fueled up.
Americans have no concept of a life without fossil fuels. Our society is structured around them: they power our cars, our lights, our plastics. As a result, this powerful industry has an enormous impact on our politics. Former President Barack Obama spoke about how his administration had lowered gas prices in his 2015 State of the Union Address. And about half of the officials that President Trump has appointed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have strong ties to the fossil fuel industry, giving fossil fuel executives an unfortunately prominent position in this discussion.
The fossil fuel business is dripping with profit. In 2007, ExxonMobil reportedly earned $1500 per second. The U.S. tax code bolsters the industry, allocating about $20 billion per year to provide cheap, affordable energy to all. And what’re these companies to do with all of that cash? A portion of it goes toward ensuring that the government continues to contain politicians sympathetic to their cause. The money flowing into the super PACs of Republicans is often oil-based — in 2016, about $107 million in oil money was collected by Republican presidential hopefuls.
No top executive in an oil or coal company can truly be “for the environment.” Fossil fuels and the environment are tied together politically and scientifically — burning one negatively affects the other, regulating one positively affects the other. Government officials have been swayed by this connection. “Natural” gas, a fossil fuel that releases carbon dioxide, has been lauded as a cleaner source of energy that can bring the United States from a society driven by oil to one powered by renewables by both energy companies and politicians. President Obama bought into this campaign, as he praised the increasing usage of natural gas.
Americans politically aggregate energy in a way that works directly against the environment. The government, like the GOP, centers its discussion on the environment around energy. This makes it impossible to productively talk about one without involving the other.
Times have changed. In this age of environmental consciousness, nearly everyone has acknowledged fossil fuels’ climate connection. Every 2020 Democratic presidential candidate has promised to refuse money from fossil fuel lobbyists and has released comprehensive environmental plans that tighten regulation of the fossil fuel industry. The GOP’s platform has also integrated “Energy and the Environment,” to make full use of the United States’ “vast resources including oil and natural gas, as well as clean coal, hydropower, solar, wind, geothermal, and nuclear power,” according to the GOP’s website. But it’s not enough to simply invest in renewable energy; we must also divest in fossil fuels.
The Golden State is starting to take this transition seriously. California’s Senate has passed bills calling for periodic reduction in overall emissions from energy companies; by 2030, 60% of energy created must be sourced from renewables. A greater number of these concrete, specific plans with timelines that provide oversight would greatly benefit both the planet and aid energy companies in adjusting their paths to zero emissions.
But who is going to make these plans? Decision-making has been unfortunately and confusingly split between the state and federal level — California is a good case-in-point. And even when politicians have the best of intentions, the confusing government bureaucracy can make progress difficult. Many committees seem to have some sort of jurisdiction: the House Committee on Natural Resources has a claim, as does the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and others; the list goes on and on.
Moreover, the Trump administration has reduced the ability of the federal government to regulate fossil fuel emissions. The EPA has seen an enormous shift in focus via its allocation of funding, as supporting the building of pipelines and lowering emissions standards is how the EPA appears to define “environmental protection.”
The people discussing and making environmental decisions cannot be tied to the fossil fuel industry. Energy companies should not have a seat at the environmental table. For them, profit comes before the environment’s well-being. Additionally, environmental politics should be shifted from this decentralized model with overlapping jurisdictions to one that is centralized with a clear governing authority that carries out a cohesive, scientifically and economically based environmental plan.
The U.S. government has begun to address fossil fuels’ specific impact on climate change. The newly created House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis has delineated how fossil fuels affect our global environment, with help from NASA, and are creating concrete plans to tackle these issues independent from the EPA. But we can, and must, do more. Declaring a national emergency would give the federal government the centralizing power it needs. We must provide a unified, scientifically based front against climate change that can be played out not only nationally, but also internationally.
Yes, fossil fuels have been at the core of the American economy for decades. But the reality of our environmental situation is staring us in the face in the form of climate change. Gas-guzzling vehicles should begin to reflect the environmental price in their costs, making hybrids and electric cars the cheapest, most logical options. Caring for the environment should not be extraordinary: it should be an easy part of everyday life. We must change so that the climate doesn’t.
Katherine Shok writes the Wednesday column on environmental politics and justice. Contact her at [email protected].