A Whale of An Energy Bill

Bill SF0071, designed to shield certain industries from competition and kill technological advancement.

Is currently moving through the Wyoming state legislature.

SF0071 specifies how Wyoming can get its energy by designating coal, hydroelectric, natural gas, net metering systems, nuclear, and oil as “eligible generating resources.” It mandates that, by 2018, any utility that provides electricity to Wyoming generate 95% of that power from one of those sources, and, by 2019, it must be 100%. The bill also stipulates that for any electricity generated in violation of those source percentages the utility will be fined $10 per megawatt hour. Technically, this would be a fine on utilities for generating solar or wind energy, but in reality it would amount to a de facto ban on utility scale solar and wind energy in Wyoming.

Coal has been essential to Wyoming as an energy source and an economic driver so it’s understandable that, like other coal states, Wyoming is fighting the move to new energy sources. This attempt to prioritize coal and the other energy sources on SF0071’s list is also in keeping with the new president’s new national energy policy. The “America First Energy Plan” is committed to “reviving America’s coal industry” and mentions “shale, oil, and natural gas”, but not wind, solar or wave energy. Like Wyoming coal miners, oil company stockholders in D.C. also have a financial interest in maintaining the energy status quo so the national level resistance to moving away from fossil fuels also makes sense. But progress and technological advancements are hard to stifle and Wyoming and the rest of the U.S. are no more going to be able to hang on to coal than Massachusetts could continue to rely on the whaling industry when its time had passed. In fact, coal and other fossil fuels will eventually become obsolete for many of the same reasons that the whale industry collapsed.

Like whales in the early 1900’s, fossil fuels today are becoming harder and harder to get. Undoubtedly there are still lots of fossil fuels locked in the earth, especially coal. But, as we have to expend more and more energy to get our energy from things like shale oil, distant oil fields, fracking, and deeper coal mines, the net gain of energy is less. There is not an infinite supply of any fossil fuel. They will all eventually run out if we continue to extract and burn them and we could choose to keep using them until they’re all gone. It was also possible to kill whales until there was not a single whale left.

What ended whaling was not the end of whales, it was a shift in cost benefit. Eventually there were no more whales near whaling ports, labor costs in the U.S. had risen to the point that paying American sailors to hunt whales was too expensive and, of course, petroleum was becoming a lot easier to get than whale oil. At some point, before fossil fuels actually run out, the cost benefit balance will tip against them, too. Transportation costs, labor costs, and environmental costs all add up. For fossil fuels, these costs are increasing, but, for other energy sources, like solar and wind, the costs are going down. It may not be very long at all before fossil fuels are on the losing side of this equation.

Having access to whale oil when we did enabled American industries and our economy to grow in remarkable ways throughout the 1800’s. And having access to affordable fossil fuels is a big part of the reason that America is the global superpower we are today. But an even bigger contributor to America’s success is our national drive to move forward, do better, and embrace progress. Just as petroleum replaced whale oil in our lamps and machines, other sources of energy are going to replace petroleum and coal in our power plants. The fossil fuel industry wasn’t legislated into existence and we can’t reasonably expect to keep it alive with legislation when its time has passed. Massachusetts could pass laws to bring back the whaling industry and Wyoming can pass SF0071 to try to kill wind and solar and save coal, but that won’t make it so. Our energy future, like our energy past, will be, and should be, dictated by technological progress, economics, and resource management decisions, not by protectionist backwards-looking policy.

Alexis Chapman is a Political Consultant and Writer specializing in policy analysis, from international law to local ordinances. She’s lived in Australia, Ghana, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas and has worked for small and large NGOs, state legislature, industry associations, and a variety of publications. She is a regular contributor to Political Storm and you can find her on Twitter @AlexisAPChapman.