Coal and oil
May make a mess;
But I still love them,
I confess.

There is doubtless some solace in learning that China is now the world’s top energy glutton. That takes a bit of the pressure off us. America’s slip to second place, however, isn’t due to any moral superiority. Our chief energy subsidies still go to oil, coal, gas, ethanol, and nuclear energy. OK then, where should government subsidies go? Since our country is loaded with potent regional sun and wind sites, how about transmission lines from those hot spots to the main areas of electricity consumption? We already do that with our oil and gas pipelines and coal railroads.

Further, there are other potential energy sources that need government support for research and development. Immense power resides in tides, rivers, waves, and geothermal sites. But since investments in such schemes are risky, corporations rarely experiment. It’s easier for Wall Street to keep milking current fossil and agricultural fuel subsidies. Currently, parallel subsidies for non-polluting energy are much more fickle, preventing these industries from blossoming.

Much the same is true on the consumer end. Subsidies for home and commercial efficiency and conservation enhancement come and go. This uncertainty about rewards for cutting energy use hinders any progress on that front. Yes, many companies and homeowners do undertake energy improvements on their own, but that’s hit or miss. A nation serious about reform would make it a public crusade.

Here we should at least give the Obama administration credit for crusading on fuel economy for cars. The upcoming standards for new ones are the real thing, even if they remain a few years off. Let’s just hope that some intervening administration does not repeal them. We already lag behind most of the world on fuel efficiency.

And besides the enormous cost and the air pollution from excessive use of fossil fuels, they are very untidy. The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the Exxon Valdez debacle in Alaska are evidence of that, but these are just the high-profile calamities. Much of our fuel comes from poorer countries where unsung spills and leaks on land have degraded the environment for decades. Nigeria and Ecuador may be the worst, with tens of thousands of poisoned citizens.

Coal does its share of damage too, particularly with mountaintop removal demolishing big chunks of West Virginia and Kentucky. Nor have we solved the coal ash problem. It won’t go away by itself, you know. The mining disaster in Tennessee only reinforces the axiom that inspection is never adequate. Fortunately the environmental legal group, Earthjustice, is now taking that particular polluter to court.

Insufficient inspection is an especially chilling aspect of nuclear power, an energy source which President Barack Obama wants to crank back up. With the current rush toward smaller government, inspectors will be on the chopping block like everyone else. Another nuclear accident because they weren’t looking could make oil spills look like child’s play.

One more huge, if silent, player in this energy game is the Pentagon. Generals and admirals want their massive flow of cheap oil to keep on flowing. Especially while we’re at war, which is always.

Other nations offer more hope. Denmark gets one-fifth of its power from wind now, and Portugal is nearing 50 percent wind and solar. It just shows that you can do a lot when oil and coal moguls don’t run your country.

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

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