Clean Energy Conversion (Part 2): Dirty Energy is Cheap, and That’s a Problem

This is Part 2 of a six-part series
Coal, oil, and natural gas have brought us a long way. We owe a lot to them. But their day has passed. They are dirty energy sources. They cause harm in various ways when we extract them – as the Massey coal and BP oil disasters this year make clear. They cause additional harm when we use them, because they produce gases that are subtle but real forms of pollution – from fish-killing acid rain, to asthma-producing smog, to climate-changing greenhouse gases.
It’s time for a conversion to clean energy, but one big obstacle stands in the way: dirty energy is cheap, and that’s a problem.
There are two reasons dirty energy is cheap. First, we like it that way. We depend on cheap dirty energy to heat and cool our homes, fuel our vehicles, and produce most of our electricity. Second, energy extractors don’t have to pay the full cost of producing dirty energy. Who pays the full cost? We all do – we just don’t realize it.
Consider this little parable. Let’s say we started a company that sold apples. Our apples were really cheap and really delicious, and everybody started eating them- at least one per day.
But our apples had one problem that nobody knew about: each one had tiny, microscopic worms. The worms were too small to see, and they caused no harm if you only ate an apple or two a month. But once people consumed enough of our apples over time, the tiny worms began to make them very sick. They would have to miss work and go to the hospital, which was very expensive. Some people even died – something you can’t put a price on.
Recently, a few people have realized that the hidden cause of their illness is the tiny worms in our apples. Now they are threatening to sue us for damages. As a result, our apple company is weighing three strategic options:

1. we can prevent our apples from having worms – but that will cost us a lot of money – either reducing our profits or increasing the price of our apples;
2. we can raise the price of our apples to absorb the costs of lawsuits for damages caused by our apples;
3. we can convince people that since you can’t see the worms in our apples, they don’t really exist.

Obviously, Option 3 is the cheapest option – economists call this “externalizing costs,” since the public has to pay the hidden costs instead of our apple company. And since everyone loves the excellent taste and rock-bottom price of our apples, many consumers are easily convinced: we’re telling them what they want to hear. You can see why our apple company would lean toward Option 3.
In terms of dirty energy, we’re at the point in the story where some people are just beginning to learn about the worms in the apples, and the energy extraction companies are choosing Option 3, and it’s working. Most consumers are easily persuaded to ignore the hidden costs of dirty energy. And many politicians are easily persuaded as well, especially since energy extraction companies make big contributions to both political parties. Not only that, but if the government were to make dirty energy companies pay for the hidden costs, the companies would pass those costs on to consumers, and no politician wants to be blamed for higher energy prices, especially during an election cycle. (And we’re always in an election cycle.)
That’s why more and more of us have to learn about the worms in the apple.

We have to learn, for example, what cheap coal mining is doing to the people and ecosystems of Appalachia – how it causes asthma, how it puts toxins in the groundwater, how it contributes to rising rates of cancer and heart, lung, and kidney disease along with birth defects.
We have to learn what happens to the fumes that come out of our exhaust pipes and smokestacks – how they affect the climate, how they create acid rain, how they contribute to disease.
We have to learn about the concept of peak oil – the economic reality that the less oil there is left, the harder it will be to extract and the more it will cost. Many experts think we have already passed the peak oil point, and others think we will do so soon.
We have to try to understand some of the other easily overlooked but high costs of cheap energy too – like the fact that it involves us in wars and other foreign entanglements, some of which put money in the pockets of terrorists and others who aren’t fond of us but are happy to make a lot of money selling dirty energy to us.
We should even learn about the missed opportunity costs of cheap dirty energy: while we depend on cheap dirty energy, other countries are becoming the pioneers in clean, sustainable energy – which will fuel the economy of the future.

Put it all together, and you can see why we all need to understand – and communicate – this essential fact: dirty energy is cheap, and that’s a problem.