Agency Reflection: Ben Wilke

My position as a Clean Energy Intern at the Sierra Club: North Star Chapter has given me the opportunity to study the process of transitioning from coal to the use of renewable resources. This process begins with the passing of laws that support such a transition, but is ultimately fueled by the support and willingness of the population to change the ways of obtaining energy. That is where I come in; serving as an advocate for clean, renewable energy and discussing the need for a change with the public. The instigation of awareness and promotion for an alteration in our energy source is the stem of an overarching movement to clean energy and this movement can be utilized to find the path to a greener country. The process is nothing less than painstaking and extensive, but the action supporting environmental improvement is fully underway.
When viewing our current and past effects on our environment with regards to the use of nonrenewable power, it is easy to see that the time is now for a change. The burning of fossil fuels, mostly coal, has been our primary source of energy since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s. By the 20th century, studies had begun to prove that the burning of coal was causing global warming secondary to its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. It was also established that the increased CO2 emissions has contributed to the increase in smog and acid rain, which then leads to further environmental damage (Seinfeld and Pandis). This viewed environmental change has continued even after scientific evidence proved the facts, and our environment proceeds to be destroyed by our carelessness and refusal to pursue immediate action. This context of environmental disarray serves as the groundwork for us to rebuild our community practices to accommodate innovative renewable energy sources. Along with the act of improving our use of resources, we can also start the transition away from the use of coal for the majority of our energy.
With regards to this need for an active change, there is a policy in place that is doing just that. The Clean Power Plan (CPP) is a call to begin the transition away from anthropogenic climate change, which was originally proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014 (US EPA). The plan focus is to reduce the carbon dioxide pollution produced by large power plants, while also utilizing feasible and maintainable regulations. The goal of the CPP is to put a cap on the amount of carbon emissions that each power plant can produce in an attempt to sustain an affordable, reliable, and environmentally friendly energy source. The need for the CPP comes from the fact that carbon dioxide is the most prevalent greenhouse gas being emitted at this point in time and is responsible for an extensive climate change that will have negative effects on both the human population and the Earth as a whole (US EPA).
The CPP was finally implemented by President Barack Obama on August 3rd, 2015. However, the plan was put on hold six months later (2/9/16) pending judicial review, and has not yet been upheld (US EPA). This plan was set to provide guidelines for the states to then enforce within their borders and utilize measures that they see fit for their people. In the state of North Dakota, coal mining and the burning of fossil fuels is quite close to its peak within the U.S. According to 2014 energy estimates, North Dakota is responsible for 35% of the carbon emissions produced by the U.S. (U.S. Department of Energy). With the CPP pursuing federal regulation, it is important for the Sierra Club to understand the exact reaction such a plan will emit in both the public and the large energy companies alike.
My job is to delve into this issue as a researcher with the intentions of better understanding the outlook people and corporations have on the CPP in North Dakota, which can then be used to predict the reactions to the CPP in Minnesota. A trend was quickly spotted with my time spent recording responses to the instated CPP. The public opinion was united, with the vast majority supporting the ideas that go along with the new, clean plan. With the public agreeing with the new proposition of change for a cleaner environment, the companies utilizing coal mining and burning for energy were on the opposite end of the spectrum. Every single response given by the companies using coal for profit were strongly opposed to the change in regulations given by the plan. It was evident that there was a strong contrast between the two categories of responders to the Sierra Club’s pole, and I was intrigued to thoroughly interpret the meaning of the responses.
The public response to such a cause is reassuring in a sense that almost all of the responders were supporters of the transition away from coal and the reduction of carbon emissions. It seemed to me that the responses from the individual citizens of North Dakota were most enthusiastic about the CPP’s effect on the future. A primary focus of many of the supporters was that the gradual change that the CPP promotes is a safe and efficient way to begin the long process to restoring our environment. This idea reminds me of the reasoning given by Aldo Leopold in The Land Ethic, as it is a step towards including ethical principles into the natural world around us and establishes the foundation for a cooperative relationship between humans and the land. Leopold explains the need for a biotic community between the human race and nature, and the public opinion is beginning to bolster that notion. The plan was also supported with the expectations that eliminating the use of coal as our primary energy source will prevent the continued destruction of our world. I believe that this type of engagement with the issue must come from the vision of a cleaner way of life and the promise of being an individual who makes a difference.
The large companies in North Dakota utilizing coal as a profit were thinking far beyond this thought of self-gratitude and environmentally friendliness. The focus of their responses was to simply state facts about their use of coal and describe how putting a cap on carbon emissions would ultimately affect the customer. Increases in energy cost, loss of mining jobs, and the mention of decreased energy efficiency were all arguments discussed in the letters written by the responding corporations. It was interesting to me that although some of the companies provided specific numbers and percentage alterations in costs when it came to the transition to renewable energy, most were primarily concerned about voicing the concept of increasing energy costs per individual. I am agreeable with the responding coal industries in the idea that energy prices may increase, but what about the losses of the companies itself? The energy generated by these large coal companies is quite lucrative, as coal is both inexpensive and abundant on this Earth (Carbon Brief Staff). When disregarding the ill effects of carbon emissions on the environment, the coal industry is booming as the energy empire and serves as a very profitable operation that plays an important role in providing us with energy every day. However, the idea of such a well-established industry giving up part of its current way of function for the environment is not a priority to the majority of the coal companies. This concept is clearly represented in The Land Ethic, as Aldo Leopold clearly states “The land relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but no obligations” (pg. 734). The profitable coal corporations are portraying this statement perfectly as they are gaining economic stability and wealth from the process of extracting and burning coal. The land is essentially granting them the resources to become financially sound, but they insist on using the land’s gifts to destroy the environment with no sort of consequences set in place for their actions. The willingness of this type of industry to give up its grasp of energy around the country is seemingly fictional due to the continued wealth of its existence with no immediate drawbacks to their means of profit.
Where do we go from here? Who is right when it comes to assessing and supporting the CPP? Do both sides have a point when viewing these arguments? All of these questions are circling above the initiation of the Clean Power Plan, and the fine line that is drawn between the two polar opposites is difficult to define with respect to who is right and who is wrong. The public is enthusiastic about the regulation of carbon emissions, but are they prepared for the increase in energy costs is the question at hand. Or is the coal industry in North Dakota prepared to take a step toward environmental friendliness and give up a small amount of their widespread operation, with the intention of joining the movement to a cleaner planet. The law is what will ultimately restrict the carbon emissions to a manageable amount, and is the only way that the coal industry will adhere to the pleas given by the public. The Clean Power Plan does exactly that, with an emphasis on a transition away from coal rather than an abrupt ban. This gradual process is used as a way to acclimate both the public and the large coal companies to a move away from fossil fuels without causing drastic amendments to our modes of living. A quick resolve to this ongoing problem of carbon emissions is not the answer at this moment in time, but the beginning to a transition away from the harmful use of coal is required as soon as possible in order to save the environment we have abused.
Works Cited:

1. Carbon Brief Staff. “How Energy Companies Make Profit: A Closer Look at the Data.” Carbon Brief. 11 Nov. 2013. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
2. Leopold, Aldo. “The Land Ethic.” W.W. Norton & Company. Twelfth Edition (2008): 733–735. Print.
3. Seinfeld, John H., and Spyros N. Pandis. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics: From Air Pollution to Climate Change. John Wiley & Sons, 2016. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.
4. U.S. Department of Energy. “North Dakota: State Profile and Energy Estimates.” U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis. 18 Feb. 2016. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
5. US EPA, OAR. “Overview of the Clean Power Plan.” US Environmental Protection Agency. 27 June 2016. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

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