Posted by Eric Michelsen.
Perhaps you’ve heard it said that in Chinese the character for “crisis” is the same as the one for “opportunity”. I know I have. A quick search of the internet, that great dasher of self-delusion, suggests that this assertion was probably wishful thinking guided by a poor translation. Nonetheless, I think there’s a great deal of merit to the idea of embracing turbulent times as a vehicle for positive change. And, there’s little question we’re living in turbulent times.
In the midst of a recession, with high unemployment rates and low consumer confidence, I think it’s easy for legislators to put their environmental concerns on the back burner, to focus on ways to create jobs, or to try to find ways to ease people’s economic burden. This old way of thinking – that economic prosperity can be exclusive of environmental sustainability – is actually what has gotten us into our current position: a Bay on life support, a climate out of control, and an economy where the best jobs we create are far from our shores.
The truth is that the economy and our environment are intertwined – especially in Maryland, where the Chesapeake Bay is an enormous economic engine. We are putting the pieces in place NOW, to make Maryland a leading innovator in the emerging green economy as well as a leader in improving environmental health.
For several years, Maryland has been a member of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), and has collected revenues, a share of which are targeted at energy efficiency and conservation programs. These are dollars aimed at reducing our reliance on coal and natural gas, and other polluting sources of energy by employing contractors to go into the homes of low and middle income individuals, install insulation, new windows and doors, and energy efficient appliances. This is the kind of program that creates installation jobs that can’t be shipped offshore, manufacturing jobs across multiple sectors, and helps drive down electricity rates for everyone in the state. This is but one instance where our economic goals are perfectly aligned with our environmental ones. Another is the case of promoting renewable energy, like offshore wind. By beginning to harness the natural wind resource off the coast of the Atlantic, we can decrease our reliance on fossil fuels, create jobs in the manufacturing and installation of turbines, and set the example for states throughout the region.
But what about the cost? Much is made in the popular media of the “subsidies” that renewable energies receive, and it’s popular in some circles to ridicule government support of solar or wind energy, but I ask you: what is the “subsidy” that each of us grants the coal industry every time that the top is blown off another mountain in West Virginia, or a stream is filled with toxic sludge in Kentucky, or a landfill is plugged with heavy metal-laden fly ash in Crofton? What is the subsidy that the taxpayers of Pennsylvania provide to the natural gas companies each time the poisonous wastewater from hydraulic fracturing operations is discharged into their rivers and streams? We’ve all been paying those subsidies since time immemorial. If we’re going to talk about costs, let’s talk about the TRUE costs of these methods, including their environmental impacts. It’s time we finally start subsidizing activities that benefit us, and that improve our quality of life without at the same time deteriorating the quality of those living at the site of extraction.
To my mind, there is no bigger crisis, or opportunity, than the current condition of the Chesapeake Bay. Popular accounts might lead you to believe that the Bay’s health is the product of 40 or 50 years of rough use and a few nasty hurricanes. The truth is, we find ourselves with our current opportunity because of over 350 years of intensive use and abuse. The feds have given us 15 years to get things back on track, the Governor has shortened that timeframe to 10. I would hate for him to think that I don’t appreciate his optimism, but with that ambitious goal comes a vastly shortened timeline. By the State’s own estimates, we need to invest something on the order of $1 billion per year, for the next decade, into on-the-ground practices that are going to improve the water quality of our streams, creeks, and rivers. From what I can tell, the current statewide expenditures for this effort are a small fraction of that amount, and constantly under threat. We need to ensure, starting this year, that we have the revenue streams in place to guarantee that our wastewater treatment plant upgrades across the state can occur without delay, and that each county in the state has a dedicated funding source in place to repair the damage that uncontrolled stormwater runoff has wreaked from western Maryland to the eastern shore and everywhere in between. Think about it, a billion dollars a year for the Bay. How many engineering, design, and construction jobs, as well as jobs in the resource conservation, aquaculture, and tourism industry do you think that translates into?
We’re in the midst of a crisis, of that there’s no doubt, and we have the opportunity to choose one of two paths: doing things the way we’ve always done them and praying for a different result, or embracing clean energy, a clean Bay, and a healthy environment as the roadmap to a healthy economy. I think you know which path you’ll find me on. I hope you’ll join me.