Clean Energy Conversion (Part 3): We Must Re-Price Dirty Energy

If the first important truth of clean energy conversion is that dirty energy is cheap, and that’s a problem, the second is equally challenging and important: we must re-price dirty energy.
It’s as if we bought a really cheap used car and bragged to everyone about the great bargain we got. But over time, our “bargain” is turning out to be a lemon: it needs so many repairs that in the end, it will cost us a lot more than a more moderately priced, well-built car would have cost. Cheap dirty energy feels like a bargain, but hits us with so many hidden costs that we now need to gradually raise the current price so that it approaches the actual price. We need to do so gradually and according to a clear, agreed-upon plan so that we all – individuals and businesses – can gradually adjust to the more accurate cost.
We do something similar with nicotine and alcohol; because of their harmful impacts on health, we make sure that cigarette and alcohol corporations don’t make a killing at our expense. By re-pricing these substances, people who smoke and drink the most pay their fair share of the cost. In a way, using cheap, dirty energy is like our whole nation smoking or drinking too much. That’s why we need to take steps, gradually and carefully, to make it less profitable for dirty energy producers and less cheap for dirty energy consumers to maintain the status quo. As we do so, we’ll all move toward a more healthy economy together.
This might seem very obvious and common-sensical; but some people immediately write this truth off by using the “t” word – “tax.” “You’re just raising taxes!” they say.
But I think that response misses the point. The point is that we’re already accumulating the hidden costs for dirty energy, but we’re doing so in hidden ways that are unfair to many people.
For example, everyone on the Gulf Coast paid an unfair share of the cost of dirty energy this summer. People in Appalachia pay an unfair share of the cost of dirty energy by living in an environment toxified by mountaintop removal. People with asthma and other diseases pay an unfair share of the cost. Poor people who use less dirty energy experience the same consequences as those who use a lot of dirty energy, and that’s not fair. And our children who will live with the accumulating consequences of burning cheap, dirty energy … they will pay the biggest share of the cost, as the full consequences our dirty energy use crash upon them like an economic meltdown that was decades in the making. That’s not fair!
Again, who reaps the profit for these hidden costs? The dirty energy extractors – and that’s not fair, nor is it smart.
So instead of thinking of re-pricing dirty energy as a tax, we need to think of it as turning an unfair hidden tax into a public dividend, and then letting everyone share in that dividend – not just a few dirty energy extractors. The dividend raised by re-pricing dirty energy can be used for three purposes – three purposes which benefit us all, rather than hurt us all. (More on that in our next installment.)
So, to review: dirty energy is cheap, and that’s a problem. That’s why we need to re-price dirty energy.