Kicking the fossil fuels habit


My recent book — Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America — is mostly a chronicle of what I’ve learned during a quarter century of taking on the oil giants and their environmental abuse of communities and workers across the American South. In the end, I note that — while it’s been a fulfilling career for me to battle the likes of Chevron and ExxonMobil inside a courtroom — that for society the only real way to fight the systemic abuses of Big Oil is to simply wean ourselves off of fossil fuels.

A lot of people think that converting to alternative renewable energy is a pipe dream. That’s understandable for a nation that’s awash in oil (sometimes too literally, as we saw in the Gulf in 2010) from your corner gas station to the methane flares of the North Dakota fracking belt. In 2014, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, just 13 percent of America’s energy came from renewable sources, and about half of that was hydroelectric power from the nation’s dams, with the rest coming primarily from wind and solar power.

We can do a lot better. As I note in Crude Justice,  Germany has increased the energy market share of renewables from 6.3 percent in 2000 to more than 20 percent today, and you have to think its ambitious goal of 80 percent by 2050 is doable. In achieving this, the European powerhouse has created tens of thousands of new jobs in industries such as solar panels, and it’s lowered the price of electricity for its everyday citizens. Just this week, the head of BP — of all people — warned investors that China’s success in switching to renewables is one of several factors now shaking up global demand for fossil fuels.

But America can keep up with the Germanys and Chinas — indeed, a few communities actually are. And one of the most surprising success stories comes from the buckle of the U.S. oil belt, south Texas:

Located about 30 miles north of the Texas capital in a deeply conservative county, the city of Georgetown will be powered 100 percent by renewable energy within the next couple years. Georgetown’s residents and elected officials made the decision to invest in two large renewable energy projects, one solar and one wind, not because they reduced greenhouse gas emissions or sent a message about the viability of renewable energy — but because it just made sense, according to Mayor Dale Ross.

“This was a business decision and it was a no-brainer,” Ross told ThinkProgress from his office along one of the city’s main thoroughfares. “This is a long-term source of power that creates cost certainty, brings economic development, uses less water, and helps the environment.”

Call it ironic, but Texas — an ultra-conservative state that’s laced with conventional oil wells and fracking rigs — actually has a fairly progressive-minded policy when it comes to encouraging renewables. That makes sense, when you think about all the wind and the sun that beats down on the prairie:

“We asked everybody in the state to show us the cheapest power at the longest terms,” [Georgetown city official Chris] Foster told ThinkProgress. “We looked at nuclear, coal, gas, some solar, and wind — and wind was by far and away the cheapest form of power.”

Foster…said that natural gas prices were competitive but that the providers were only willing to offer five- or six-year contracts. A year or so after signing the wind contract Georgetown went looking for additional long-term power. During this time Foster realized that solar would nicely complement the profile of wind energy, which blows most overnight.

Ross, the mayor, told the website Think Progress that it “[s]eems to me that the wind and sun will be out in Texas for many, many years.” That’s common sense, but a switch to all, or mostly, renewable power won’t only save money and ensure supply; the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions could save the planet. If it can happen there — deep in the heart of Texas — then it can happen anywhere.

Read the Think Progress feature article on the drive for renewable energy in Georgetown, Texas:

I make a plea for faster U.S. development of renewable energy in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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