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Bozeman Daily Chronicle
December 20, 2011

Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of ‘33

Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of '33

He said, "Roll along Columbia. You can ramble to the sea,

But river while you're ramblin' you can do some work for me."

Now in Washington and Oregon you hear the factories hum,

Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum.

And there roars a mighty furnace now to fight for Uncle Sam,

Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam.


Those lines are from a Woody Guthrie song about building the hydroelectric Grand Coulee Dam. They are a good reminder that public policy plays a large part in determining the energy we use.


From Franklin Delano Roosevelt's laudable Rural Electrification Administration, which brought electricity to less-populated areas of the country like Montana, to the controversial government underwriting of nuclear power plants in the 1970s, energy has always been a government-managed enterprise.


Our power bill is probably the best example of this presence. If you are unhappy with your electric service can you switch to another provider? No. Your electric provider enjoys a state-sponsored monopoly over your service area (with good reasons).


Some may argue that we should introduce more free-market principles into our energy markets. I won't argue the idea's appeal, but let's not forget Montana's best-known attempt to introduce the free market into our energy sector through deregulation in 1997. Consumer rates skyrocketed, Montana's homegrown utility collapsed, and cleanup by regulators will take decades.


None of this is to say that markets aren't important. In fact, new markets in energy services are key to making renewable energy work. But government too has a role to play.


The upside of this government intervention means we choose which energy resources we want.


Current policy, for instance, favors coal generation when we fail to price in the cost of coal particulate-related illnesses, or the cost of removing coal pollutants from our drinking water, or the cost of fighting forest fires when trees turn red and dead from the effects of climate change, or even the cost of cleaning up abandoned mine sites once all the coal has been hauled off to the power plant, these days likely located in China. All of these costs are eventually paid by society, and that's before we account for the $8 billion coal receives in annual subsides.


There is a better way. Instead of always paying out we could be investing so that our energy system works "for the farmer and the factory and all of you and me" by favoring clean energy that creates good-paying jobs and lessens our dependence on fossil fuels.

 

Read the rest of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle guest op/ed at:  http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/opinions/article_c0db25ac-2b65-11e1-8fe3-0019bb2963f4.html

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