Most people know that how we produce and consume energy is an environmental issue. But is it a moral issue?
Recently I was invited by Salem State's MassPIRG to talk about energy and climate change at their annual Kick-Off event. This year they are launching a campaign to convince Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker to commit the state to the goal of generating 20% of the state's energy from solar energy by 2025 and to also to pass a law lifting the caps on net metering (allowing excess energy produced by solar panels on residential and commercial buildings to "run the meter backward").
I decided to talk about the environmental justice benefits of solar energy.over 80% as of this year. This is a dramatic change in how Massachusetts used to generate most of its electricity only a decade ago. No doubt, this change is an improvement over reliance on other dirtier fuels, like coal and petroleum.
However, extracting natural gas, transporting it, and burning it all have significant environmental impacts. To the extent that we can replace natural gas with clean, renewable energies like solar energy, we can reduce or eliminate many of these environmental impacts.
But there is also a moral dimension to the issue of energy. Our reliance on natural gas is an environmental justice issue. The environmental benefits and burdens of natural gas are not distributed evenly or fairly. The benefits are simple: cheap, reliable electricity. These benefits are enjoyed by anyone who buys or sells electricity produced from natural gas. But the environmental burdens tend to be borne by other people, often people who are vulnerable and see less of the benefits: poor and marginalized communities, the very young and very old, people who are less healthy. Unlike the benefits, the burdens of natural gas fall on very specific places and very specific groups of people. So, there are environmental justice benefits to promoting cleaner forms of energy in Massachusetts, and these benefits happen at the local, regional, and even global level.
Local Scale EJ Issues57 large, fossil-fueled power plants throughout the state. Every year, they emit tens of thousands of tons of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides which are pollutants and components of smog and ground-level ozone, all of which are very bad for our health. They are especially bad for children, the very elderly, and people with asthma or other lung or heart diseases. But these power plants are not distributed evenly around the state. Rather, almost all of them are in or near lower income communities or communities of color - exactly the types of communities that are most vulnerable and least able to protect themselves. This is what we call a disproportionate burden or an environmental injustice. To the extent that we displace, or replace, these dirtier sources of energy with emissions-free sources, like solar energy, we reduce these disproportionate burdens.
Regional Scale EJ IssuesThe remaining 80% comes from wells in the southern US and off the coast of Nova Scotia in eastern Canada. The latter is transported by pipeline. In fact, within Massachusetts alone, there about 1,000 miles of interstate natural gas transmission pipelines. All of this natural gas infrastructure, from the wells to the pipelines to the ships and the terminals carry their own environmental risks and impacts. A lot of us are already quite aware of these impacts. The Northeast Energy Direct pipeline by Kinder Morgan, Inc. would bring in a proposed 180-mile pipeline, running from eastern New York to a transmission hub in the northeastern corner of Massachusetts. The pipeline would carry fracked gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale Fields across northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. There is a lot of regional opposition to this pipeline and the disruption and risk it would bring to the communities through which it would pass. However, there is even more concern nationally about the boom in fracking and the threats that this drilling technique poses for water quality and geological stability in the places where this drilling happens.
Global Scale EJ IssuesMassachusetts was the most energy efficient state in the US for the last 4 years, BUT Massachusetts residents still bear outsized responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting climate change. At 10 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per capita, we are more than twice as emissions intensive as the global average (4.8 metric tons per capita; although not as bad as US as whole - more than 3x!). About one fifth of our CO2 emissions are due to electric power generation from fossil fuels in the state. This greenhouse gas (GHGs), as we know now, is the primary driver of global climate change. And we also know that the impacts of climate change fall hardest on the most vulnerable - poor and marginalized populations both here and abroad. As efficient as we are today, Americans bear a disproportionate responsibility for historic GHG emissions that are causing climate change today, and so we have larger than average moral responsibility to change our behavior and reduce our impact.
There is therefore both an environmental and a moral imperative to moving ourselves away from fossil fuels, like natural gas, and toward renewable energy sources, like solar energy.