Power Plays

Flip on that switch,
Who cares the source;
We’ll get gouged
For it, of course.

Energy production is too vital to be left to private industry’s tender mercies. Therefore, sensible nations run that sector of the economy themselves. Unfortunately, there aren’t many sensible nations, and those that are often get invaded.

Hence, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) just made Greece sell off its government-owned electric utility, the Public Power Corp. Consequently, the private misuse of Greek energy will now further destroy both the world’s economy and its environment.

(Photograph by Rainforest Action Network)

(Photograph by Rainforest Action Network)

To wit locally: coal is a key cause of climate change, but coal companies still succeed in squeezing out environmental exemptions and federal subsidies. That’s because oil is identified ever more plainly as a main cause of both wars and climate disruption. Oil companies nevertheless continue to muscle through subsidies and pipeline permits. And, even as the links between natural gas “fracking” and grievous water pollution grow clearer, gas companies are spreading their drilling operations like kudzu around the world. And, as the dangers posed by the world’s aging nuclear reactors are becoming better known… Well, you get the picture.

In the United States, even though we have now identified some major renewable solutions for energy, there are no appealing profits in them and no big corporations lobbying to get them built. Wind and solar power are commonly recognized answers to climate change, but there’s little money to be made exploiting them. No lucrative mines or wells are required, for example.

What those sustainable solutions desperately need are permits and transmission lines. To get these requires expensive lobbying and strong government support, both of which are lacking today. Coal, oil, and gas control Congress. Nuclear power is the darling of the White House.

Then add to this corporate energy cartel the classic American-style monopoly of electricity. It makes an interesting case. Back when streetlights first became feasible 100 years ago some municipalities undertook that task themselves. Others fobbed it off to newly formed lighting companies. Over time, most of those municipal departments grew to provide cheap, reliable power to their towns. The corporations, conversely, grew to become monster monopolies. Public utilities commissions struggle, generally unsuccessfully, to regulate them. Power companies still do what all monopolies do — overcharge.

As a result of leaving most energy to the pillage of the private sector, coal mines devastate the environment and society from West Virginia to Bangladesh; oil extraction defiles life from Louisiana to Alberta and Nigeria; natural gas fracking destroys water tables in Pennsylvania, New York, and Colorado, and uranium quietly poisons Western Indian reservations and other poor spots around the globe.

Yes, it’s a bit late to correct this catastrophic public policy mistake and move energy into the public sector. We couldn’t afford it. But we can do a whole lot better on subsidies, permits, and regulations. President Barack Obama is surely better at this than President George W. Bush, but still tragically wimpy.

And since Congress is effectively paralyzed on energy issues, it’s unfortunately left to the White House to promote wind, solar, geothermal, and tide energy. But there are no tasty profits looming from any of these technologies, so don’t hold your breath.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. http://otherwords.org