Photo Credit: Inside Climate News

Dr. Robert Forbis is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University with a focus on environmental and energy policy. At the Climate Science Center’s December Science By The Glass event Dr. Forbis gave a presentation, titled “Political Fairy Tales”, focused on how energy policy is shaped. This article is a summary of his comments.

Development of public lands in the US have historically included farming, ranching, timber cutting, and extraction of coal, oil, gas and minerals. Part of the “cowboy culture” has been that these uses derive a public benefit and are thus subsidized by the US Government. Currently there is a new historic shift away from fossil fuels toward renewables, but the policies to support this shift have not yet changed. The easy to extract fossil fuels have been exploited already and there has been little public discussion about the technology to develop what remains. The myths remain as to what is in the public interest and what types of development we should be subsidizing. This has led to a hidden exploitation of public land and resources.

Over time, the oil and gas industries have gained favor in the political and legal regulation of land management. Energy policy made a big shift with the Bush/Cheney administration toward fracking. The Energy Act of 2005 released oil and gas companies from having to follow the Clean Air and Water Acts—among other environmental protection laws—in their developmental processes. Fracking is now happening anywhere there is an available shale formation. As fracking began to expand onto privately owned surface lands of the Intermountain West of the Rocky Mountains, ranchers began to align themselves with the environmental organizations in an effort to reign in government support and subsidies for these practices.

Dr. Forbis outlined 5 fairy tales about energy policy and environmental interests in his talk. The first 3 of these myths are about the safety and low environmental impact of extracting fossil fuels from 1) fracking, 2) the tar sands of Canada, and 3) the Arctic regions. In each of these cases, the industry tells us that the process is safe and has minimal environmental impact. The truth is that fracking leaves huge scars on the landscape surface as well as impacting the geological stability of the area and creating a high potential for contamination of our water supply with carcinogens. The landscape scars from tar sands extraction are even bigger, leaving huge areas denuded of everything except the left over scarred landscapes, roads, and retention ponds. Drilling in the Arctic has not yet been shown to be safe, and after spending roughly $7 billion on drilling a single well in this area, Royal Dutch Shell found minimal resources in their well and have since abandoned their efforts for the time being. Are these projects ones that our taxpayers should be subsidizing?

The fourth fairy tale is being told by most Republican politicians, that the idea of man-made climate change is all a hoax. Dr. Forbis showed quotes from Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), Representative Larry Bucshon (R-IN) and Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), all who hold high ranking positions on committees concerned with science and the environment, all who distrust what they hear from climate scientists. A study done by the Associated Press last November asked 8 climate scientists to blindly rate comments by the presidential candidates for scientific accuracy. Hillary Clinton had the best score at 94% accuracy, and Ted Cruz had the worst at 6% accuracy. Donald Trump came in at 15%.

Doing nothing to mitigate climate change will cause global temperatures to continue increase over time, says Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, with serious impacts on our agriculture, water resources, and economy. Only the biggest shifts in our energy sources  toward renewables will be able to slow and eventually stop this warming. Moreover, these scenarios do not account for the potential environmental impact of future technologies being used to develop vastly more difficult to develop fossil fuels like those found in tar sands, oil shale, and beneath Arctic waters. We ignore the science at our peril.

The last fairy tale is that west Texas is at its maximum potential for the production of renewable energy sources, that there is nothing more we can do. Glen Robertson, the mayor of Lubbock at the time, said last August that “we’re bumping up against the cap of how much wind we can have in our portfolio”, and that “you can get too much wind in your portfolio”. Others have questioned the effectiveness of solar panels in west Texas because of the amount of dust that we have here. Misguided ideas such as these are the product of the large amounts of money being spent by entities supportive of the fossil fuel industry on lobbying and false advertisements. These varied entities are threatened by the expanded production and implementation of renewables and are fighting to retain their hold on the energy sector and with it, their corporate profits and political power.

In spite of what some politicians might say, the Texas panhandle area is a prime location for wind energy production, with a lot of undeveloped potential. Dust, for example, should not be an impediment to use of solar power in this area either. Dr. Forbis compared our dust loads and windy climate to that on Mars, where Mars Rover solar panels endure similar weather patterns on a planetary-scale and yet, when the wind blows and the dust clears, they collect more than enough energy from their solar paneled powered vehicles to function efficiently. If solar panels work on Mars, they should work well here, and yet this area has almost no solar panels in use at this time.

Some of the best solutions for our national energy concerns are coming from smaller local projects, not large national ones. Models of energy saving projects are coming from places such as Chicago and Salt Lake City with comprehensive sustainability programs and infrastructure for recycling, mass transit, more efficient building codes and incentives for residential solar panels and xeriscaping. In contrast, our “Keep Lubbock Beautiful” campaign has a very meager website concerned with cigarette butt disposal, identification of native landscaping plants, and a children’s coloring contest for a “Stash the Trash” calendar. We are way behind in the types of things we could be doing in Lubbock to reduce our carbon emissions to help mitigate global warming and with it, sustain our natural resources as well as our political, social, and economic institutions for future generations.

You can view video recordings of all the Science By the Glass lectures on the Texas Tech Climate Science Center web site.

This blog originally appeared on Lubbock Online- Avalanche Journal and was produced by TTU Climate Science Center, written by Susan Gillette and Dr. Robert Forbis.

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