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
December 29, 2014 -- Updated 0430 GMT (1230 HKT)
Les Abend: Before we reach a conclusion on the outcome of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it's important to understand that the details are far too limited to draw a parallel to Flight 370
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT