“I flew over the Cumberland Plateau. They are literally cutting down the Appalachian Mountains,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told attendees at the Forging a Sustainable Future conference sponsored by UnitedGREEN at San Diego State University last Saturday.
He painted a grim picture of the devastating costs of coal on the environment and human lives—then offered hope for an alternative that would not only be cleaner, but also revitalize the U.S. economy.
Coal companies have “cut down 500 mountains in West Virginia” using 2,500 pounds of explosives, “the equivalent of a Hiroshima every week,” said Kennedy, an environmental lawyer who sued to halt the destructive practice. Further, by dumping the rocky debris in waterways, the coal industry “buried 2,200 miles of rivers and streams and poisoned thousands of miles more.”
The son of former U.S. Attorney General and slain presidential candidate Robert F. Kennendy recalled, “My father was fighting strip mining back in the 60s…It’s not just impoverishing communities…It is destroying livelihoods.” He said that nine out of 10 coal mining jobs have been replaced by a “ruthless system” that now utilizes enormous machines instead.
Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit organization founded by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. sued the coal industry and won, in a courtroom with a conservative judge. “It’s all illegal….He enjoined all the mountain top mining.”
But the victory was short-lived. Lobbyists for the coal industry persuaded the federal government to rewrite a definition, resulting in a rubberstamp process for getting a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In West Virginia, the coal companies are ravishing the environmental in company owned towns. “That is what they want to do to this whole country,” Kennedy warned. “Whenever you see large scale environmental destruction, you also see subversion of our press…The cost to all of us is we are losing our democracy.”
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Look around the globe to countries that have led the way in switching from fossil fuels such as coal and oil to non-fossil fuels such as geothermal, wind, or solar.
“Every country that has decarbonized its economy has seen growth,” Kennedy said. For example, Brazil decarbonized its economy 20 years aog. “Now Brazil is the fifth richest country in the world,” Kennedy noted. Sweden decided to shut down nuclear plants and taxed carbon. “Now it’s the eighth richest.”
Great Britain has profited since adding a large wind farm in the North Sea. Iceland transitioned from the poorest country in Europe to the fourth richest in the world by converting its electrical grid to run on 95% geothermal, though Iceland has since seen its place fall due to bad investments in other areas, Kennedy observed. Costa Rica is yet another example of a country that experienced strong growth after decarbonizing its economy.
There are more compelling reasons to shift to greener energy sources.
“Virtually all the big challenges we face are rooted in how we extract and use energy,” Kennedy pointed out.
Disasters such as the Fukushima nuclear meltdown and the BP oil spill are consequences of relying on risky energy sources. The war in Iraq, health issues from exposure to toxic emissions, and trade deficits can all be traced to reliance on fossil fuels.
He called for “energy of innovation” to transition America to a green energy future. “We could quickly convert this country and solve many problems that we face,” he said. “Nature is the infrastructure of our communities.”
Arguments that changing the energy base too quickly could lead to economic problems are false, he said. The same argument was used to try and halt the abolition of slavery, which accounted for 25% of the gross national product of Britain at the time,, said Kennedy. “Instead of collapsing, the economy exploded.” Entrepreneurs and innovation led to the industrial revolution.
A carbon-based economy also indentures the U.S. to borrowing a billion dollars a day, mostly from foreign nations, while we subsidize the oil industry by $1.3 trillion a year and the nuclear industry by a half trillion dollars, with coal even more heavily subsidized by tax dollars.
The myth that these fuels are cheaper does not count the true and hidden costs, such as health costs of pollution.
“Every freshwater fish in American that has been tested has dangerous levels of mercury. The mercury comes from coal,” Kennedy explained. “We are living in a science fiction nightmare.” The CDC acknowledges a connection between autism and eating fish, he said, adding that one in six women in the U.S. now have dangerous levels of mercury in their wombs. Mercury can cause liver and heart damage, and other serious health conditions.
Coal kills 40,000 to 60,000 Americans every year, he said. It also causes 10 million asthma attacks that cost $435 billion.
“We could pay for Obamacare five times over just be eliminating particulate pollution from coal,” he observed.
“Crony capitalism” and “legalized bribery” by lobbyists are key obstacles. “The greatest, most visionary Americans have warned people about the dangerous of corporate power,” he said, citing Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt as examples. He denounced the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court which has allowed virtually unlimited campaign donations by powerful corporations and wealthy special interests.
“The domination of business by government is communism. The domination of government of corporations is fascism.” What’s needed is a midpoint, Kennedy said. “The Tea Party is worried about big government and I agree with that,” he stated, citing illegal spying on people and torture as examples of causes for concern.
Kennedy’s vision includes vast tracts of solar farms in the deserts of the Southwest, as well as geothermal and some wind farms, such as on farmland in North Dakota where farmers can lease their lands for wind farms for far more cash than crops would yield. Vantage Point Capital Partners, where Kennedy serves as a venture partner, has invested directly in some such ventures.
Long term, however, the future looks brightest for solar.
“The cost of solar is dropping so much that solar is the future. It’s not going to be wind. Wind costs won’t drop much, since so much of the cost is infrastructure,” Kennedy said. “But solar is dropping 80% – it’s below grid parity in 20 states. “
He also called for a smart grid to carry these new forms of energy –a new infrastructure of power lines built with government support in much the same way that the Internet was supported by the government and ultimately dropped the cost of telecommunications dramatically.
He envisions a future where “once you build a plant, it’s free energy forever.” The results would be an America free of coal “the fuel from hell” and instead reliant on “patriotic fuels from heaven” that are clean and renewable.
The cost to shift to a completely carbon-free nation? Less than the cost of the Iraq War, according to Kennedy. In addition, he said, “We can put to work thousands of people.” Jobs would come from bolting solar panels to rooftops across America and “stringing wires across the country.”
While his vision of power lines criss-crossing the nation was met with cringes by some East County audience members who have seen environmental damage from Sunrise Powerlink, Kennedy’s vision of “Free energy forever” and an end to polluters who “make themselves rich by making everybody else poor” had universal appeal.
Kennedy speech sparks range of reactions locally
East County Magazine interviewed audience members, including a Tea Party member, an East County elected official, an environmental leader, a man who once worked on RFK’s presidential campaign, and a green business/career consultant after Kennedy’s speech. Reactions ranged from enthusiastic praise to critical commentary—and some are likely to surprise you.
Dan Hendrickson is a member of the Tea Party. “It takes a strong person to stand up and do what’s right,” he said of Kennedy. “I felt his message was a very good message for all Americans.” Henrickson owns Libre Energy, which specializes in energy efficiency for buildings.
“Bobby Kennedy is probably as eloquent as his dad,” he said, adding that he approved of Kennedy’s appeal to “vote and discharge our responsibilities as citizens.” Henrickson feels that Kennedy’s call for a shift to an economy based on renewable energy sources is compatible with the Tea Party’s mission to “get our legislators to be responsible and get us out of debt.”
But Terry Weiner, head of the Desert Protective Council and founder of Solar Done Right, believes rooftop solar generated locally is a better option to massive desert solar farms and power lines. “Robert Kennedy is not a friend of our public lands,” he objected. “He is very supportive of Obama’s plan to industrialize the southwest with remote energy projects.”
But he added, “One of the things we have neglected to do is to invite representatives of the large environmental organizations and influential people like RFK to tour desert areas, rural communities and agricultural areas that are about to be badly impacted by industrial energy projects. We need to show them the beauty, educate them about the importance of the desert ecosystem and the connections with other wild lands.”
Donna Tisdale, chair of the Boulevard Planning group and a founder of Protect Our Communities has filed suit over Sunrise Powerlink and also opposes the Tule Wind Farm slated for public lands in East County.
“Some of it sounds really good,” she said of Kennedy’s talk of eliminating fossil fuels and halting the environmental devastation from coal in Appalachia. But she believes Kennedy is promoting a”double standard.”
Tisdale, who has a small windmill to power her own ranch in Boulevard, observed, “What about the loss of democracy that my community is facing and other communities in the desert areas? It’s shocking the size and speed of the steamroller that we’re being run over with.”
She suggested that Kennedy has a conflict of interest due to his company’s investment in wind and solar projects and further, noted that his brother, Joseph Kennedy, owns Citizens Energy—a company that owns a substantial interest in the power generated from Sunrise Powerlink in Imperial County. (A fact check of Citizens Energy confirms this is accurate.) Tisdale also faulted Kennedy for opposing the Cape Wind farm project off Martha’s Vineyard, near the Kennedy family compound.
For many, however, Kennedy’s speech struck just the right chord.
“It was very balanced, pro-American as well as pro-earth,” said Alan Ridley, a green business and career consultant. “But mostly he made the case for sensible and savvy stewardship of our national resources as well as a needed perspective on coal especially as it impacts mountain top removal which as he rightly points out, would be unthinkable in California.”
Ridley concluded, “When one sees the national perspective, California is not doing to bad. We have a lot to be proud of—and we are doing a lot of things right.”
Heartland/UnitedGREEN Board member Leon Thompson once worked on Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy’s presidential campaign. He believes the son has inherited his father’s courage, passion for justice and powerful oratory skills. He recalled the senior RFK giving a speech after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination against the advice of police, in an era when riots were occurring across America and the nation’s wounds had not yet healed from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Bobby’s brother.
“Robert Francis Kennedy Jr. was 14 years old the night his father died. I was 20,” recalled Thompson, who was in Los Angeles the night RFK was killed. His son, RFK Jr., “was in bed in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts along with his ten brothers and sisters. I had just left the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles with staffers and volunteers exploding with the joy of winning the California Primary and almost certainly the President of the United States of America,” Thompson recalled.
Memories flooded back upon meeting RFK Jr., he said. “His life has been one of selfless dedication and public service. The result has been the most accomplished and successful environmentalists of our time. To do so he had to take on the most powerful men and corporations in America, along with their powerful allies in government and armies of attorneys….Someone had to slay the fire-breathing dragons. That job naturally falls to the prince of Camelot and RFKJr has led the charge fearlessly, exploding myths and exposing the true costs of corporate greed,” Thompson said.
“So, did he remind me of his famous father? Yes, in fact he has taken on many of the same foes with the same vigor,” he concluded. “His father pointed the way and Jr has led the charge. Afterwards, I was pleased to see his face light up when he told me how great the audience was and his reception here in San Diego. In the future he will remember us, I am sure.”