Friday, May 30, 2008

The U.S. civil rights revolution of the 1950s and ‘60s was one of the greatest social and political liberations in history. It gave African-Americans and other minorities new opportunities and new levels of success in virtually every walk of life.

But today we face unprecedented new challenges to indispensable but often neglected rights enunciated in our Declaration of Independence: “That all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

These fundamental rights are under assault in subtle, often insidious ways. Sometimes it is with the best of intentions, by good people who don’t realize they are impairing other people’s rights, hopes and dreams. At other times, it is by people who are willing, even determined, to sacrifice individual rights in the name of a proclaimed threat or greater common good.

One critical challenge involves restrictions on access to energy and economic opportunity - and thus on liberties and rights - in the name of protecting the environment.

Energy is the master resource of modern society. It transforms constitutionally protected civil rights into rights we actually enjoy: jobs, homes, transportation, health care and other earmarks of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. With abundant, reliable, affordable energy, much is possible. Without it, hope, opportunity, progress, job creation and civil rights are hobbled.

Laws and policies that restrict access to America’s abundant energy drive up the price of fuel and electricity. They cause widespread layoffs and leave workers and families struggling to survive, as the cost of everything they eat, drive, wear and do spirals higher. They roll back the progress for which civil rights revolutionaries like the Rev. Martin Luther King struggled and died.

They create unnecessary obstacles to the natural, justifiable desire of minority Americans to share in the American Dream. They prevent us from resolving conflicts through compromise and impose needless and unfair burdens on our poorest families. These regressive, energy-killing laws and policies deny minority and other poor families a seat at the energy lunch counter and send us to the back of the economic bus.

The Congress of Racial Equality and I care deeply about our environment. But we also care about having jobs, and affordable food, heat and transportation. We care about impoverished Third World families achieving their dreams.

We want to know that the environmental values we cherish really are threatened the way environmental activists say they are. And we want to know that the solutions they advocate really will safeguard those values, at reasonable cost, without creating enormous new problems, like global grain shortages.

Today, unfortunately, these common-sense requests are under assault by activists who want to eliminate fossil fuels, base public policies on unfounded ecological scare stories, and stifle debate by attacking anyone who challenges their assertions.

Energy reality must no longer be denied. Fully 85 percent of all the energy Americans use comes from fossil fuels. Add in nuclear and hydroelectric power, and we’ve reached 96 percent. Biomass (3 percent) is mostly waste from paper mills and sawmills.

A mere 0.8 percent is wind and solar power. These renewable sources are not alternatives to fossil fuel use. They are supplements. Just to provide electricity to meet New York City’s needs would require blanketing Connecticut with 300-foot-tall wind turbines that generate power only eight hours a day, on average. That is neither economically nor ecologically sustainable.

If we attempt to force a massive switch away from fossil fuels, we will create a Grand-Canyon-sized energy gap between what we need and energy we actually have if its production is delayed, outlawed, restricted or priced out of reach.

Geologists say America’s onshore and offshore public lands could contain enough oil to run 60 million cars and heat 25 million homes for 60 years; enough natural gas to heat 60 million homes for 160 years; enough coal, uranium and shale oil for centuries of power.

These energy resources belong to all Americans. They are not the private property of activists who insist they never be touched, or citizens who have been bamboozled into thinking they cannot be developed without destroying ecological values.

These energy takings force Americans to pay more for energy that is artificially scarce. Their economic progress is held back. They lose the jobs that energy development would create. They lose billions of dollars in royalties and taxes. Energy saved through painstaking conservation and alternative energy efforts is offset by declining U.S. production, and America ends up importing still more foreign oil and sending more jobs overseas.

We could produce almost 20 billion gallons of gasoline annually by drilling safely and carefully in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - in an area one-twentieth the size of Washington, D.C. We could get vast quantities of oil and natural gas from the Outer Continental Shelf.

But instead, politicians have locked this energy up and told us to rely on 7 billion gallons of ethanol, from corn grown on an area the size of Indiana. Food prices soar and millions starve.

Climate change is real, and has been throughout Earth’s history. But there is a huge difference between acknowledging this and claiming that our use of fossil fuels is the primary cause of climate change; future changes will be catastrophic; slashing carbon dioxide emissions will stabilize our fickle climate; and we can slash emissions without impairing energy use, living standards, jobs and civil rights.

More than a dozen climate bills are pending in Congress. Hundreds more are pending at the state, county and city level. Unaccountable activists and judges say we must protect polar bears that unreliable computer models say might someday be endangered.

Every proposal requires major reductions in greenhouse gases - many of them by 80 percent below 2005 emissions, a level not seen in these United States since 1909! Every one would give activists, courts and bureaucrats control over virtually any activity that produces greenhouse gases, and every aspect of our lives. Every one would curtail energy use and economic opportunity. Not one would make a serious dent in global CO2 levels or temperatures.

Whether the blunt instrument is a carbon tax, a carbon offsets tax, a cap-and-trade tax, a carbon sequestration mandate tax, or a bloated bureaucracy tax, the effect on prices would be the same - and already stressed families would get another dose of economic arsenic. We cannot let that happen.

In this election season, every thoughtful, caring citizen in our great nation must join me in challenging the modern-day Jim Crow laws that prevent poor people from having the energy they need to achieve Dr. King’s dream of civil rights, equal opportunity and true environmental justice. Together, we can make that dream come true.

Roy Innis is chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality and author of “Energy Keepers - Energy Killers: The new civil rights battle.”

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