The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

September 8, 2012

Zachary Hubbard | End political deadlock and enact an energy policy

Zachary Hubbard

— My wife and I enjoyed a long journey over the Labor Day weekend.

Our drive took us southward along the Appalachian Ridge to the beautiful mountains of southeastern Kentucky where I was born. It was a wonderful trip.

However, one aspect of the drive was not so great – gasoline in Kentucky costs nearly $4 per gallon. Each time I filled my tank, I couldn’t help but wonder how the local people survive in this economy.

Poverty abounds here in western Pennsylvania, but it pales in comparison to southeastern Kentucky.

Both regions are coal producers, but there’s a significant difference between them.

Western Pennsylvania has a diverse economy driven not only by coal, but also by manufacturing, a technology boom in the Greater Pittsburgh region and the Marcellus Shale. Southeastern Kentucky has a coal-based economy and little else.

Kentuckians feel the sting of President Obama’s self-styled “war on coal” that is being waged through environmental regulations such as Utility Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT).

Utility MACT regulations make the building of new, coal-fired electric generating stations cost-prohibitive and require existing stations to spend millions to remain operational.

This drives the already punishing cost of electricity even higher.

Driving through Kentucky’s mountains, one sees many businesses with signs boasting “Friends of Coal” and vehicle bumper stickers reminding us, “Coal miners keep the lights on.”

Federal pressure on the mining industry has become so severe that the United Mine Workers of America union, traditionally a hardcore supporter of Democrats, has declined to endorse President Obama’s re-election.

It has also refrained from endorsing Mitt Romney.

As I’ve stated before, energy is key to America’s economic recovery. Coal is but a single component of the nation’s energy resources. High oil and natural gas prices increase the cost of electricity generation, which increases the operating expense for manufacturing and other industries. Rising gasoline and diesel prices trickle down through the economy, increasing the shipping cost for food, manufactured goods and other products. In each case, the end result is a higher cost of living for American consumers.

Energy prices directly or indirectly affect the price of nearly everything in the economy. If our political leaders could succeed in controlling rising electricity rates and reducing the cost of fuel by even $1 per gallon, it would create a flood of disposable consumer income to help bolster our sagging economy.

Unfortunately, for decades, Democrats and Republicans alike have failed to develop a viable national energy policy.

An effective policy must capitalize on America’s vast natural energy resources and reduce its dependency on foreign oil.

The Republican “drill baby drill” approach has proven troublesome for multiple reasons. These include the BP oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, environmental concerns surrounding the questionable practice of hydraulic fracking used in natural gas drilling, and pollution produced by coal mining and coal- and oil-burning electric generating stations.

The Democrat approach to an energy policy has suffered from scandals such as the Solyndra solar-panel manufacturing fiasco, questionable subsidies paid to a fledgling wind-energy industry whose technology is still years from being cost-efficient, draconian regulation of the energy sector, and the shunning of energy production through coal and nuclear power.

The politicians aren’t totally to blame, however. Solving America’s energy woes is a wicked problem. The Financial Times lexicon defines a wicked problem as “… a complex problem for which there is no simple method of solution. Wicked problems are ones for which there is no clear stopping rule – you cannot say for sure that you are done with the problem.

“Working on it more might well bring forth a better solution. There is no single right answer and every attempt can matter because it affects the things people depend upon.”

Wicked problems don’t lend themselves to one-party political solutions and cannot be easily addressed in an ever-changing political system with an overlapping, 2-4-6-year federal election cycle. Finding a solution to America’s energy crisis requires a new approach, which must include bipartisan participation, compromise and solutions developed by patriots, not politicians.

California has demonstrated that such solutions are possible. In years past, its legislature was responsible for establishing legislative districts inside the state. The majority party at the time always held the greatest sway in redistricting decisions. This resulted in gerrymandered political boundaries drawn to favor the majority party in future elections.

This changed in 2008, when California established a Citizens Redistricting Commission. California’s congressional and state legislative lines are now drawn by a 14-member, independent commission created through a ballot initiative.

According to professor Justin Levitt of the Loyola University Law School, “Commissioners must have voted in at least two of the last three statewide elections, and may not have changed party affiliation for at least five years.

“Neither commissioners nor immediate family may have been, within 10 years of appointment, a candidate for federal or state office or member of a party central committee; an officer, employee, or paid consultant to a federal or state candidate or party; a registered lobbyist or paid legislative staff; or a donor of more than $2,000 to an elected candidate. Furthermore, neither commissioners nor immediate family may be staff, consultants, or contractors for state or federal government while serving on the commission.”

Solving our nation’s energy crisis requires a similar approach. An apolitical commission that combines sound science, practical economics and good old American horse sense could finally end the political deadlock hindering the development of a viable national energy policy.

Try to imagine what energy independence would mean for our country. Each time you see a wounded warrior who lost a limb in the Middle East, and each time the media report another American service member has been killed there, ask yourself: “Would he or she have been placed in harm’s way if our country was energy independent?”

If your answer is “no,” then tell your elected officials you want real change.

Zachary Hubbard is a retired Army officer and freelance writer residing in the Greater Pittsburgh area.

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