Skip to main content

Time to get serious on energy: Clean or dirty?

By Sally Kohn, CNN Political Commentator
February 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Keystone pipeline sections lie next to a family farm in Sumner, Texas.
Keystone pipeline sections lie next to a family farm in Sumner, Texas.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sally Kohn: Many environmental disasters -- radiation leaks, oil spills -- aren't reported widely
  • Kohn: It's a bad time: EPA stripped of authority, energy corporations get wide latitude
  • Kohn: It's time to pursue green energy, stop fossil fuel projects, regulate dirty industries

Editor's note: Sally Kohn is a progressive activist, columnist and a CNN political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @sallykohn.

(CNN) -- Did you hear that a barge leaked 31,500 gallons of crude oil into the Mississippi River over the weekend? When the tanker collided with a tugboat, the resulting spill caused 65 miles of the river to be shut down for two days as New Orleans Port traffic ground to a halt and drinking water intakes were closed.

Or did you hear about the radiation leak at a New Mexico nuclear waste storage site? The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant stores plutonium-contaminated waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory and other government nuclear sites. The storage site has been closed since the Valentine's Day leak, but just this week, officials reported that more airborne radiation has been detected in southeastern New Mexico.

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

Both incidents come at a dangerous time, where American oil and energy companies are getting increasingly wide discretion and the Environmental Protection Agency has been hollowed out, losing its authority and resources to protect public safety. In Louisiana and New Mexico, officials insist there is no public health threat, but such assertions are suspicious when our government at all levels is more interested in protecting the power of the military and energy industries than the public interest.

A month after coal-processing chemicals leaked from an energy company's storage tank into West Virginia's main water supply, officials say the water is safe to drink. But residents are still wary. West Virginians report that just showering in their water causes headaches and rashes. In the staunchly anti-government, anti-EPA state, people wish there had been more government oversight and regulation to prevent the leak.

Canadian crude from an Exxon Mobile pipeline fills a ditch near evacuated homes in Mayflower, Arkansas, in 2012.
Canadian crude from an Exxon Mobile pipeline fills a ditch near evacuated homes in Mayflower, Arkansas, in 2012.

Which should make us all incredibly skeptical of expanding domestic dirty energy projects in the United States.

For instance, the Keystone XL pipeline. Forget the inflated claims about how many jobs the pipeline will create or even its environmental implications. Just think for a second about the fact that an existing stretch of the Keystone pipeline leaked 12 times in its first year of operation.

Forbes energy analyst James Conca, commenting on the second pipeline spill in a week in 2013 involving Canadian crude oil, wrote, "It's crazy to think the Keystone XL pipeline won't leak." That is a terrible risk to bear for a pipeline that many experts believe will simply pump a lot of Canadian crude oil over United States soil in order to be processed and sold internationally and which will actually increase the domestic price of oil in America, according to a study by Cornell University and a report by Bloomberg news. Keystone denies that the oil will end up being exported -- despite many reports that its refined product will.

Recently a judge in Nebraska ruled that legislation there allowing the governor to approve the Keystone XL route violates the state constitution — a victory for opponents of the pipeline.

Days later, the State Department's inspector general determined that the federal government had not violated its own conflict-of-interest policies in selecting a company that stands to benefit from the Keystone expansion as the to prepare a report analyzing the pipeline project — a victory for Keystone XL proponents. Meanwhile, the ultimate decision about the Keystone XL pipeline is expected to be made by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in the coming months.

I'm not saying we should turn off all the wells and nuclear facilities in America tomorrow. Given our massive consumption of energy, that's unreasonable. But is it too much to ask that in the wake of disaster after disaster, we restore regular levels of funding to the EPA so that our government can properly monitor risks to public safety and health? Already hobbled by the Bush administration, the EPA's budget has declined every year for the past four years.

Ruling jeopardizes Keystone pipeline
Longterm impact of Keystone Pipeline

"The jurisdiction is wide here and it's hard enough to do the job of environmental protection when working with the Department of Energy and the military, even when you have a well funded agency," said Michelle DePass, former EPA assistant administrator in the Office of International Affairs and a dean at The New School.

"And this is another case, like the West Texas plant fire (in Smith County last year) and the BP oil spill where industry will refuse to acknowledge that the worst case scenario can happen -- until it does," she said.

In addition to strengthening EPA oversight, we must seriously invest in green energy and new fuel technologies. Once upon a time, this was a nonpartisan issue -- with Republicans and Democrats alike not only voicing concerns about climate change but also wanting our nation to get ahead in the inevitable global green energy industry.

Green energy not only reduces the risks of such devastating spills and leaks but -- an important bonus -- according to studies, green energy production actually creates more jobs than fossil fuel energy production. And yet China is leading the globe in establishing green energy sources and manufacturing solar panels for export. The United States appears to be lagging behind on every count -- except maybe when it comes to oil spills.

The problem with dirty energy disasters is that we don't hear about them unless they're big -- on the scale of the BP Gulf oil leak or the Exxon Valdez. The other, "smaller" stories pop up quickly, but fade from national attention.

And yet for people along the Mississippi River or in southeastern New Mexico or throughout West Virginia, the disaster doesn't go away. And as long as we keep our heads buried in the tar sands and refuse to step up and fully regulate dirty energy industries while investing in safe, green energy, the disasters will only spread.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sally Kohn.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT