By Pam Solo

America is facing a crisis of leadership. We need and deserve a vision and strategy to meet the energy and economic challenges facing the United States.

The latest budget proposal for 2013 illustrates this over and over again. The President summarizes it best as “all of the above” and is a vote for a lot of business as usual and a little clean technology.  The problem of course, is that this one size fits all approach to powering the nation is a recipe for disaster.  By throwing money at “clean coal” technology, nuclear power and fracked natural gas, we waste time, money and risk losing a share in the global market for clean energy technologies.

As an example, even after the recent Japanese nuclear tragedy the conventional wisdom in Washington is that we should invest 770 million dollars researching “advanced small nuclear reactors.”

Each of these reactors will require perfect attention to detail, perfect mechanical functionality, perfect maintenance, and optimal operating conditions, 100% of the time, for decades. At the same time budgets pressures dictate less and less people to run these plants. What could go wrong with that plan? Why proliferate the dangers and the security risks if there are alternatives?

The prevailing sentiment in Washington is that in addition to nuclear power we need natural gas. Natural gas solution is a fossil fuel that requires injecting toxic chemicals and millions of gallons of water into rock formations near water supplies.  Injection wells for waste water have been proven to contribute to earthquake dangers.  This process called “fracking” has a host of negative side-effects, and if Washington gets its way, communities throughout numerous states will host drilling rigs and spend their water budget on fracking natural gas.

Residents in Colorado, Texas, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania are reporting negative health effects from the fracking operations already underway in those states. 

The situation is so bad in one Pennsylvania town that a special pipeline had to be built to bring in drinking water after fracking ruined the local water supply.  The 2013 budget has 12 million dollars assigned to try and research a way to do the fracking process without poisoning Americans in the process, inherently acknowledging the problems with the process.

Unfortunately, energy companies will have unprecedented new access, as the president proposed in his last State of the Union address:  “Over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration. And tonight, I’m directing my administration to open more than 75% of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.” Pennsylvania is in the midst of passing legislation to preempt the authority of towns and municipalities to control or deny drilling in their communities.

The health and safety of these communities is offered as potential sacrifice zones to the same industry that caused the BP oil disaster in the gulf and allowed the oil spill in Yellowstone national park, with over 1,500 barrels spilled and only 1% of the spill ever recovered. The same industry that projects 11 major spills along the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route has already had 14 spills during the first year of operation for the original pipeline.

To try to mitigate this risk the proposed federal budget includes spending 386 million dollars to expand the Department of Interior to help oversee this hugely expanded offshore oil and natural gas development process. Remember, oversight did nothing to prevent the gulf oil disaster as BP just ignored existing regulations anyway. 

Even worse, after the accident BP was put in charge of the clean up. They had the power to control media access to the area, to control the message on the damage caused, and to control our discourse on the safety for deep water drilling. So how effective is spending a third of a billion dollars to monitor an industry that we know will break the rules anyway and then won’t be held to account after it catastrophically fails?

When it comes to safety and new ideas on our energy future both Congress and the Administration are dead wrong.  Instead they should be massively investing in efficiency and renewable sources. The current federal budget allocates only 8% of the entire Department of Energy submission to work on energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. By comparison almost 28% of the Energy budget goes to weapons activities, even though the President’s plan already gives 613 billion dollars to the Department of Defense.

We have other options. For example a recent report by Synapse Energy Economics Inc. shows that moving to renewable and clean energy sources would not only power our society safely but is a job creator for the United States and will result in net savings for consumers over the life of the study period.

They calculated that transitioning to renewable techs would create 42,700 construction jobs. The initial 42k jobs are just the tip of the iceberg, as the construction efforts would stimulate building suppliers, manufacturers, and related areas to create even more jobs. The report estimated 352k jobs would be created in total.

Plus this is power without the threat of oil spills or toxic chemicals in our water supply. Power that doesn’t require an additional third of a billion dollars just to monitor compliance with existing safety laws.

Washington’s “all of the above” consensus is a failed strategy and a continuation of a status quo that just doesn’t work anymore.  Leadership at the state and local level outpaces Washington.  Communities around the country will continue to call on the President and Congress to articulate a vision of the future that looks more like 2050 instead of 1950.

Solo is president and founder of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute.
Copyright (C) 2012 by the American Forum. 3/12


By Grant Smith

Energy policy in the United States is more a political game than a serious public discussion.  The newest incarnation of energy policy-by-advertising-campaigns is the Clean Energy Standard, supported by the President and various members of Congress. 

You really have to suspend reality once you head down the CES route.  The premise is that we need all energy technologies to meet our electric demand, regardless of risk to the public pocketbook or to the public health.  It includes the oxymoron of clean coal and cheap, safe nuclear power. There is simply no way that coal and nuclear power can deliver a sustainable economy or a healthy population.

While US policymakers chase after the politically expedient CES, the European Union, the largest economy in the world, has been seriously working towards a sustainable electric grid.  The EU adopted a resolution that by 2020 all new buildings have to be zero energy buildings (i.e. use as much energy as they generate).  It has also set specific targets for renewable energy.  The European Parliament recognized in 2007 the “Third Industrial Revolution” (the confluence of telecommunications technology, renewable technology, and energy efficiency) as “the long-term economic vision and road map for the European Union.” (Rifkin, 2011)  This is not to say that there are no differences of opinion among European governments, but US policymakers, all from the same country, can’t even agree what day it is.  And there is no serious public discourse on how to move forward.  

Fukushima and Chernobyl proved two things.  Nuclear power can never be “safe”, and one accident can have worldwide negative and lasting impacts.  That is, nuclear fallout from meltdowns does not stop at the border.   

Despite general agreement of a strategic approach to energy policy, the reaction of European governments to the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima is varied, ranging from decisively moving away from nuclear power altogether to ensuring the safety of existing plants while adhering to current plans for expansion or holding steady.  The public, however, is not consistently in agreement with governments that support nuclear power. 

A decisive blow came to the nuclear industry when the conservative Merkel government in Germany, the EU’s strongest economy, announced the phase-out of nuclear power within a decade.  Merkel’s decision was, in part, influenced by an ethics commission that was formed after Fukushima.  The commission noted that the phase-out of nuclear power presented an opportunity for the economy by growing the renewables and efficiency sector.  Other contributing factors appear to have been massive demonstrations against nuclear power and the Chancellor’s party losing in regional elections in the aftermath of Fukushima.  The Merkel government had weakened the previous government’s attempt to phase out nuclear power.  Siemens, a German company, also announced it would withdrawal from nuclear investment.

Switzerland and Italy were the other two European countries to react strategically against nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima.  Italy has been toying with restarting nuclear power for some time.  However, a national referendum in June put an end to those aspirations.  94% of Italians shot down the government’s plans for new construction.  Switzerland stopped the licensing process for three new reactors and announced plans to phase out nuclear power by 2034.

The non-nuclear countries of Austria, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta and Portugal issued a declaration in May calling for stringent safety measures at nuclear power plants now and transitioning from both nuclear power and fossil fuels.  The declaration found that nuclear power is incompatible with sustainable development and with effectively addressing climate change.

The governments of France and England remain staunch supporters of nuclear power.   The British government issued its “Final Fukushima Report” in October 2011 stating that there’s no reason to temporarily shut down any plants for safety reasons.  The government is looking at a few sites for new construction.  President Sarkozy views a nuclear phase-out as impossible.  However, 51% of French citizens, according to a June poll, want nuclear power phased out within 25 to 30 years and 19% want a rapid phase out.  A majority of the English are somewhat or strongly opposed to nuclear power as well.  An international poll taken in June shows 51% in the UK against nuclear power.  According to the same survey, 86% of the French and 80% of the English do not view nuclear power as a viable long term option.

The Fukushima incident has sparked a debate.  The tenor of the debate in Europe is more towards the do-we-really-want-nuclear-power than the how-do-we make-this-work end of the spectrum.  Some countries continue to hitch their energy futures to the nuclear bandwagon. However many countries including the EU’s strongest economy have made a decisive move away from nuclear power.  Public opinion is shifting in opposition and there is little to no support for nuclear power as a long-term option. 

Grant Smith is a senior energy policy analyst to the Civil Society Institute and former executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana, where he worked for 29 years.
Copyright © American Forum. 2/12.


By Kathleen Rogers

Optimistic environmentalists believe that future generations will view the first half of the 21st century as the birth of a global green economic revolution. Indeed, investment and advances in technology, coupled with anxiety regarding climate change, are already pushing global leaders to embrace a sustainable future. Unfortunately, that optimistic vision is clouded.

The stark fact is that almost all green-revolution investors and decision-makers – those who are defining and designing the green economy – are from a single demographic: men. International Women’s Day presents a timely and important opportunity to examine why women should be leaders in the green economy.

Like any revolution, a substantial risk exists that the green revolution will move in unpredictable or wrong directions. All economies are stronger when the people leading them bring diverse points of view. Certainly, creating a sustainable economy and breaking habits of over-consumption and fossil-fuel dependency are difficult tasks. Let’s examine some of the reasons why including women in the construction of the green economy is a good idea:

  • Women make the vast majority of consumer choices. Stimulating women’s enterprises is critical to taking advantage of this important commercial opportunity.
  • Women are driving economic growth. The increase in women’s employment in rich nations of the world has contributed more to global GDP growth in the past two decades than new technology or new economic giants China and India.
  • The proportion of women in a country’s legislature significantly reduces the level of corruption in the country. Less corruption benefits not only women entrepreneurs but also all businesses.
  • Women are better at putting resources back into the community. Women usually reinvest a much higher percentage of their earnings in their communities than men, accelerating development. 
  • Women’s repayment rates are higher. When women are direct beneficiaries of credit, their repayment rates are higher throughout all regions of the world.

Despite these facts, real barriers to women’s full participation in designing and developing the green economy exist. For example:
  • Women-owned companies face problems in bringing their businesses to scale, including lack of access to capital and business networks. While women own about 30 percent of U.S. businesses, only about 5 percent of all equity capital investments go to businesses headed by women, and just 3 percent get investments from venture capital.
  • Women have less access to the global supply chain. Only a fraction of governments and large corporations actively source from women-owned businesses.
  • Women entrepreneurs face discriminatory laws in many places around the world.

How do we fix this? To start,  corporations, governments and international institutions should adopt quotas for participation – from board rooms to national forums to multilateral negotiations.

Once the initial problem of representation is taken care of, we can get down to the business of breaking down legal barriers to women’s full participation in the green economy. We need a comprehensive examination of national and international law and protocol dealing with the economy, energy and environment for bias against women. Then, we need to alter the language to promote inclusiveness.

Once problems in the system are fixed, we can go further. For example, formal policies and legal mechanisms should be adopted to support preferential treatment for loan guarantees; promote women’s full participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education; and create investments and market incentives to enhance women’s entrepreneurship.

In the meantime, we also have to fix how women as leaders of the green economy are perceived. We need training for journalists that includes heightened awareness of the gender gap. And we have to make gender, development, the green economy and climate change “hard” issues – and not perceived as “soft” issues only for women journalists.

As the world tries to recover from its financial crisis and, at the same time, recognizes the lack of sustainability of the existing economy, we cannot afford to let barriers to women’s participation stand. The facts are clear: Bringing women into the design and development of the green economy will result in a better, more sustainable, more just economy. Let’s ensure that happens.

Rogers is president of Earth Day Network and leads the Women and the Green Economy (WAGE®) campaign.

© American Forum. 2/12.


By King Salim Khalfani and Stephen A. Northup

According to the most recent polling data, public support for the death penalty is at its lowest level in decades. Four states have ended capital punishment since 2007 and strong abolition efforts are underway in a number of other states.

So where is Virginia in this current national debate?

Virginia has a long and dark history with the death penalty. The first execution in the New World took place here in 1608 when Captain George Kendall was executed in Jamestown for spying. Throughout its history, Virginia has executed more than 1,300 people, more than any other state. Virginia has executed more women and the youngest children of any state. Since the resumption of capital punishment in the late 1970s following a de facto moratorium imposed by the courts, Virginia has executed 109 people, second only to Texas.

The average time between conviction and execution in Virginia is less than eight years, by far the shortest in the nation. Since the 1970s, 140 persons convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence; the 140 spent an average of 10 years on death row. Many of these victims would have been executed before evidence of their innocence came to light if they had been convicted in Virginia.

Notwithstanding Virginia's rush to judgment in its capital cases, one innocent Virginian -- Earl Washington -- was released from death row in 1994 following his conviction and death sentence. And just last year, a federal judge vacated the conviction and death sentence of another Virginian -- Justin Wolfe -- because of misconduct by prosecutors at his trial. The judge also found that Wolfe was innocent of the murder for hire for which he was convicted. The history of Virginia's use of the death penalty is not something of which Virginians can be proud.

While facts like these should be sufficient to cause any concerned citizen to question why Virginia chooses to persist in its use of capital punishment, we want to focus on one aspect of Virginia's use of the death penalty that is perhaps the most disturbing of all -- the role played by race. Without question it's the single most salient factor in determining who is executed and who is not. For example, between October 1908 and March 1962, of the 236 people executed by Virginia, 201 were black males, 34 were white males, and one, Virginia Christian, was a 17 year-old black female. In February 1951, Virginia executed eight men in a 72 hour period. All eight were black and seven (known as the Martinsville Seven) were executed for the rape of a white woman.

A number of studies have confirmed the significant racial disparity in the application of capital punishment. A 2003 report by Amnesty International entitled "Death by Discrimination -- The Continuing Role of Race in Capital Cases" documented significant racial disparities in the race of persons who have been executed (predominately people of color); the race of victims of crimes for which death sentences are handed down (predominantly white); the race of prosecutors who seek the death penalty (overwhelmingly white); and the race of juries that return death verdicts (mostly white).

A report published in 2000 concluded that although Virginia's capital justice system is not as overtly racist as it was in previous times, "race continues to be a significant factor in capital sentencing" in Virginia. Among the report's conclusions based on an analysis of the 88 post-1976 Virginia executions that had taken place as of 2000 were the following:
  1. In cases of rape/murder, the probability that the offender will be sentenced to death is about 19 percent if the victim is black and about 42 percent if the victim is white.
  2. Blacks who rape and murder white victims are more than four times more likely to be sentenced to death than blacks who rape and murder black victims.
  3. In robbery murders, a death sentence was more than three times more likely if the victim was white than if the victim was black.

It's no coincidence that the states with the heaviest use of capital punishment are located exclusively in the South, with its shameful history of slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow. Fortunately, the worst of these practices are things of the past. Unfortunately, their legacy continues in some present day practices, including the use of the death penalty. It's time for Virginia to bring this shameful history to a close.
Khalfani is executive director of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP. Northup is executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Copyright (C) 2012 by the Virginia Forum. 3/12