An old refinery has cast a long shadow over how James Cullin views energy issues.
Originally from Ponca City, Okla., Cullin grew up down the street from a Phillips 66 refinery.
Having seen the oil company slowly shrink its economic footprint in his hometown and experiencing the effects the facility had on his health as a child, Cullin said he regularly takes into consideration the role of renewable energy versus nonrenewable energy.
When he was younger, Cullin said, his doctor strongly encouraged him to move.
“Getting out of that neighborhood when I moved into the dorms my freshman year of college, my health improved. Go figure,” Cullin said. “My health improved again when I moved out of state. Again, go figure. All this only served to emphasize the importance to me of getting away from a fossil fuel-dominated energy industry.”
Despite his personal and professional support for developing renewable energy sources, Cullin said there is no way fossil fuel demand can be eliminated from the energy sector, given the state of the country’s infrastructure.
“It is neither feasible nor realistic to expect a complete changeover to renewables in a short time,” he said. “There will always likely be a need for small-scale use of fossil fuels, but long-term, big-picture, converting our energy infrastructure to utilize 100 percent renewable sources is the only viable option if we don’t want to irreversibly screw up the planet.”
Experiences such as Cullin’s echo data analyzed by two Ivy League schools that suggest there may be more common ground than expected among voters when it comes to energy policy.
Sixty percent of Americans oppose President Donald Trump’s proposed 31-percent budget cut to the Environmental Protection Agency for the coming fiscal year, according to results from a Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Politico survey in March and April.
A similar number also said they did not want the president to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. The agreement calls on signatory countries to take steps to reduce carbon dioxide pollution and implement more renewable energy sources in an effort to keep global temperatures from rising more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
More than half of all respondents said they do not believe environmental regulations cost American jobs. Similarly, 54 percent of Republicans answered that environmental regulations have little impact on employment, compared to 45 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents.
Two polls from Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication published this spring offer comparable numbers.
Overall, the survey has 70 percent of registered voters calling for the country to stay in the Paris climate agreement, including almost half of respondents nationwide who voted for Trump for president. Nearly three-quarters of self-described liberal and moderate Republicans support the global climate pact.
Only self-described conservative Republicans were split, with 40 percent in favor of withdrawing, 34 percent in favor of honoring the terms and 26 percent unsure.
A separate Yale poll also shows that more than 60 percent of Trump supporters approve of either taxing or regulating pollution that causes global warming, with one in three in favor of both options.
MORE ECONOMICALLY VIABLE
Dan Kammen said support for renewable energy has shifted in the last decade as prices dropped. The energy professor at the University of California Berkeley studies climate change and renewable energy and is the science envoy for the U.S. State Department.
Fifteen years ago, wind and solar installations were more costly, so many people had the perception that choosing renewable energy was uneconomic.
Now, energy and climate change issues have become politically polarized. So it’s difficult for opposing groups to admit the other side has a valid point, Kammen said.
“Ironically, the natural gas and fracking boom helped push renewables,” he said. “Gas had the most effect on reducing coal use, and gas is a natural complement to renewables.”
BRIDGE TO RENEWABLE ENERGY
But natural gas isn’t the most cost-effective fuel anymore, Kammen said. The cheapest power plant built worldwide in 2016 was a solar thermal power plant in India. The 800-megawatt generating facility produces electricity at 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.
And while natural gas is important for electric power, it should be used as a bridge to renewable power. Gas-fired power plants should be retired or converted to carbon-neutral by 2050 to prevent potentially catastrophic changes to the globe’s climate spurred by carbon dioxide pollution, Kammen said.
The data hint at bipartisan support for continued federal oversight of environmental policies. But many voters acknowledge an immediate shift to only wind, solar and other renewable energy sources is not a viable short-term option.
Daniel Norman of Baltimore and another former Oklahoman, shared a view similar to Cullin’s via email. He conceded that a complete transition to renewable energy is not feasible anytime soon.
Maryland created incentives for more renewable energy sources, including approving in May ratepayer subsidies for two offshore wind farms.
“I’d really like to see more incentive for people to go to renewables,” Norman said. “Here in Baltimore, new homeowners are given grants to make their homes greener. All those jobs lost in coal country could become green jobs.
“One of the problems is that it’s hard to convince people who are comfortable that there’s a problem. If you tell people ‘It’s to your financial benefit to go green,’ people might start listening.”
Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton is a freelance reporter. Sarah Terry-Cobo, a reporter for The Journal Record of Oklahoma City, a sister BridgeTower Media publication of Lehigh Valley Business, contributed to this report.