Energy, economics and politics have made strange bedfellows for centuries. The peculiar dynamics among the three have historically been especially interesting in this part of the United States. Though the details and sources of energy are different, the struggles and special interests that drive the debates persist.
When Native Americans were the sole human occupants of Pennsylvania, man's impact on the environment was nearly inconsequential. Their modest numbers and general respect for the local resources on which they depended translated into a less destructive relationship with the natural world. Even many of the first European immigrants lived lightly on the land. After all, like the Native Americans, when they damaged their local environment, they endangered their own survival. But as soon as powerful economic interests became part of the equation, environmental exploitation became commonplace.
It was lumber that began this tale of extraction and environmental destruction. Once covered from end to end with forests, most parts of Pennsylvania were stripped naked at least once from the late eighteenth until the early twentieth century. This sometimes insatiable desire for lumber made the Appalachian Mountains look like a desert landscape (and photos taken after 1850 document the damage). But making charcoal for the iron furnaces was time consuming and it took massive amounts of wood to power a train.
It was coal that brought the concentration of energy needed to power the most revolutionary part of the Industrial Revolution. The legacy of the mining that began in the middle of the nineteenth century still haunts us today here in central Pennsylvania. Only a few miles from home we can find acid mine drainage fouling our streams and wells, toxic piles of mine waste, and barren strip mines that can't support the hardiest of trees. The careless way we have mined coal still curses us environmentally and economically many years after the coal was burned. Though natural gas and wind power are unquestionably much cleaner sources of energy than coal, they, too, may bring future cleanup costs that we still don't recognize.
This energy economic tom-foolery doesn't end with postponement of cleanup costs either. For we have given preferential treatment or subsidized (in one way or another) nearly every source of energy at one time or another. Yet contrary to some of the political rhetoric, the subsidies for the coal, oil and nuclear industries have far exceeded those given to solar and wind energy. (Visit Energy Fact Checks for details.)
Economic benefits are often exaggerated, too, as has been the case with the Keystone XL Pipeline. Several reports have concluded that less than fifty permanent jobs would ultimately be created by the construction of the pipeline. Recently, waste-to-energy and nuclear power advocates have embarked upon a rewrite of the economic history of their industries. No matter how you may feel about the issues surrounding incinerators and nuclear reactors, it has been the overwhelming economic challenges of those two sources of electrical generation that have discouraged investment over the last quarter century. Incinerators and reactors are ungodly expensive to build and operate.
It turns out that modest local investments (recycling facilities instead of incinerators, many rooftop solar systems instead of a large nuclear power plant) are not only good environmental investments but smart economic ones.