Hear me out.
As the Boston Herald editorial board joins the rising chorus of voices from left and right urging President Joe Biden to ease back from his commitment to transition the U.S. away from fossil fuels, at least for now, an equally vehement chorus has emerged to extoll the higher fuel prices as a good thing.
“Time for Biden to fire up the coal plants,” urged the Boston Herald editorial staff today. They aren’t the only ones saying it, either. “Biden Has ‘Only Bad Options’ for Bringing Down Oil Prices,” concluded the New York Times on June 5, adding miserably; “The president’s trip to Saudi Arabia is unlikely to reduce oil and gasoline prices, and it is not clear that anything else he might do would work, either.”
While President Biden has called for a three-month gas-tax holiday, and invoked the Defense Production Act to accelerate the clean energy economy in recent weeks, U.S. consumers continue to grow very nervous as they watch prices rise across the board, impacted by skyrocketing fuel and production costs.
Those who oppose domestic energy production frequently ask: “Why would we want the dirty work of producing our own fossil fuels domestically?”
Pointing to impoverished Afghans forced to toil in unsafe coal mines in, “The Economic Lessons To Be Had While Shopping at American Girl,” John Tamny begs us to; “Please remember the horrors of work necessary for survival in Afghanistan the next time some political romantic promises to bring back factory jobs, or mining jobs that ‘went overseas.’ They reveal a remarkable amount of naivete when they lionize so-called ‘dirty work,’ or work done underground.”
Tamny inadvertently brings up an interesting question. It’s a question others on left and right have raised as well, if only obliquely.
It is really moral to pay impoverished and emerging nations to do our dirty work?
We are dependent on fossil fuels, there is no getting around that.
Unlike tobacco products, which have been all but taxed out of existence and good riddance, our entire economy is built on a 10,000-mile supply chain driven by petroleum. All our goods arrive by plane, ship, truck or other gasoline-powered transport.
Electric car owners aren’t off the hook, either: 61% of the electricity produced in the U.S. in 2021 came from coal, natural gas, petroleum. 20% came from nuclear power plants; only 19% from renewable sources.
And this isn’t 1900 anymore.
One of the biggest coal mines in the world, Adani Carmichael, just successfully shipped its first load of coal in December of 2021.
Adani Carmichael isn’t located in Afghanistan; it’s in Australia. The mining conglomerate which owns the mine is having no trouble finding workers, either. The work is reasonably safe and the pay very handsome.
As in Australia, in the U.S., in 2022, workers have rights. Unions are one of the reasons workers have so many rights, protections and safety restrictions today. We have unions for the same reason we have child labor laws; because we needed them.
U.S. factory workers were once locked inside unsafe buildings which burned down with them still trapped within. In 1916, female workers in a watch-making factory were exposed daily to radiation on the job. They suffered horrific facial injuries and later died from radiation poisoning.
The “Radium Girls,” as they later became known, were required to actually lick the ends of the paintbrushes they were using to get a fine point before applying phosphorescent radium to the tiny hands of wristwatches.
This wasn’t ancient antiquity. It was practically yesterday; but it was yesterday.
Not long ago, mine, factory and forestry workers were shipped to remote sites where “The Company,” by necessity, provided housing and a general store. Some unscrupulous companies would then proceed to jack up prices in their tyrannical monopoly until workers, “owed their souls to the company store,” as the old song goes.
Occasionally, striking workers drew the following response: Armed Pinkertons breaking the strike and the people striking. “Get back to work or we kill you,” was a powerful corporate mission statement.
Besides confusing mining work in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century- that is 1900- with the way mining work is done in properly-regulated wealthy nations today, the Not in My Backyard crowd forgets about the environmental justice aspect of our fossil fuel dependence.
In the real world, those fossil fuels have to come from somewhere, at least in the short-term.
From an environmental standpoint, and from an environmental justice standpoint, does it make more moral sense for wealthy nations to produce their own fossil fuels? Or does it make sense for wealthy nations to foist that work on emerging nations which lack the labor and environmental standards the U.S. enjoys?
Everyone knows the answer to that question. If you had to go to work a shift in a mine tomorrow, would you rather go to Australia or Iran?
How is it better to get our oil from brutal dictatorships like Venezuela or Iran?
Better to produce our own oil and gas domestically, where- thanks to a long fight by early American union organizers- we can be reasonably certain of things like safety conditions, proper equipment, worker training.
The U.S. has labor laws protecting workers; imperfect as those laws are, better to work in a country with imperfect protections- as if there is any other type- than a country with inadequate protections or lacking them altogether.
The U.S. has strict environmental regulations, perhaps not to the standards of activists and climate doomsayers, but it does have them.
Equally important, the U.S. has the institutional and executive authority and capability to inspect, levy fines, and enforce environmental regulations.
Not every nation has the capability of enforcing its laws, regulations and environmental standards.
The United States- that imperfect union, that great experiment in liberty and justice for all- does. As such, it might be time to assume responsibility for our own energy production needs.
If a pandemic, a failing 10,000-mile petroleum-fueled supply line and a war in Ukraine aren’t enough to convince us of the wisdom of this, what will?
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)