By Harriet Blake
Green Right Now
As passionate as his father was about civil rights, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is equally so about the environment.
In a lecture in Fort Worth on Wednesday, the 56-year-old son of the late Senator, advocated for moving the nation to green energy, which he doesn’t see as encompassing nuclear power.
Coal is not the only power-producing industry that needs scrubbing, said the longtime environmentalist, nuclear energy is simply not safe. “Nuclear energy is the most catastrophic form of energy. No bank will finance it…[and] no insurance company will insure it,” he said.
“It’s not just a bunch of hippies saying it’s unsafe. There are spills all the time into the Hudson,” says Kennedy, who serves as chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper, whose mission is the restoration of the Hudson River. Three Mile Island was not the last accident despite what nuclear advocates say.
He made it clear that lobbyists for fossil fuel and polluting energy industries are powerful and dangerous. The nuclear industry, for example, managed to find a way to get a Congressional exemption that leaves them free from damage. “All homeowners’ policies in the U.S. exclude radiation from the nuclear industry,” he said.
Kennedy believes greed has taken over the utility companies as well. “Utility companies make money by selling more energy – even if the energy is green. We need to change the rules,” he says. “Don’t reward bad behavior.”
He believes it’s a question of loyalty. “Instead of being loyal to their shareholders, company leaders need to be loyal to our nation,” he says.
Along with serving on the boards of green energy companies, Kennedy, a resident of Mount Kisco, N.Y., has led the efforts to protect New York City’s water supply, both through Riverkeeper and as a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He is the president of Waterkeeper Alliance and a professor and supervising attorney at Pace University School of Law’s Environmental Litigation clinic. (After getting his undergraduate degree from Harvard and law degree from the University of Virginia, he picked up a masters in environmental law from Pace.)
As a partner with Silicon Valley’s VantagePoint Ventures, he is involved firsthand with green energy. VantagePoint funds an array of emerging clean tech and green energy companies., including solar, algae fuel and energy conservation businesses.
During his lecture at Texas Christian University, Kennedy also addressed the coal industry’s claims that coal is clean and cheap. It is neither, he says.
The problem is that once a coal plant is built, there are many hidden costs such as pollution and healthcare.
“More than 60,000 Americans are killed each year due to ozone particulate pollution,” he says. In addition, every fish in the United States is affected by dangerous levels of mercury, thanks to the coal industry. That mercury level also has grown in humans. Babies being born to women with high mercury levels have a higher percentage of illness ranging from autism to mental retardation.
On the other hand, “Once a solar plant is built, the energy is free forever.” There are no pollution and health costs, and no strings attached, he said.
Using coal to produce electricity is a destructive business from the beginning of the process, says Kennedy, who opposes the mountain-top removal mining in Appalachia in which ancient mountains are sheared off to get to the coal. The practice destroys forests and the resulting debris pollutes area rivers. (Coal companies say they ameliorate the damage by planting new trees, but environmentalists say these saplings cannot replace the mature forests; that erosion, runoff and river pollution are not abated.)
Kennedy recalled his father being against what was then known as strip-mining. “He told me, [the coal industry] is not just destroying the environment, but permanently impoverishing the surrounding communities. They’re doing this so they can break the unions.”
It’s particularly a shame because Appalachia, Kennedy points out, “is the oldest ecosystem on the continent.”
“Today,” he says, “ninety-nine percent of coal in West Virginia is owned by Wall Street bankers such as JP Morgan and Chase.” The reason? Many of the homeowners were tricked into selling their mineral rights because they didn’t know any better. “The coal industry has liquidated the people of West Virginia of their cash,” he says.
Kennedy says he’s not just fighting for ecosystems and halting the destruction of the environment. “It’s about the subversion of American democracy, the public process and transparency in government.
“Government is supposed to protect us,” but because of the influence polluting companies and lobbyists wield in Washington, that’s not happening.
Interestingly enough, he says, “every nation that has attempted ‘de-carbonization’, has prospered afterward. In Iceland, they became scared of global warming and within 15 years, went from being the poorest nation in Europe to the fourth richest. Sweden is another example. After Sweden de-carbonized and closed their nuclear facilities, they prospered. Tons of entrepreneurs came in as clean energy was introduced.”
He named Brazil and Costa Rica as having robust economies after they de-carbonized as well.
Kennedy would like to see an increase in geothermal power, which he uses at his home in New York. “Geothermal,” he says, “is an underutilized resource. It’s been unexploited until now, but it could be a boon, especially in Texas where you already have holes in the ground from gas/oil drilling.” His home also has solar panels and between the two forms of energy, his home generates more power than he can use, which he then sells back to the utility company. “But you can’t do this in all states. This needs to be fixed. We need to reward efficiency; and punish inefficiency. We should be able to turn every home into a power plant.”
Another resource he’d like to see used more is wind. “There’s enough wind in the states of North Dakota, Minnesota and Texas to power the entire country,” he says.
The Obama Administration faces some major obstacles, Kennedy says. “We need to get rid of the subsidies that give breaks to dirty energy. And we have to build an electric grid that can accommodate the entire country.”
Kennedy compares the effort to the interstate highway system that was built during the Eisenhower years. The United States has the technology, Kennedy says. “And we have the resources – wind that blows at night; and sun that shines by day…We can put PVCs on every south-facing roof in the country.” Taking advantage of these green energies should be a no-brainer.
The TCU lecture was part of the Frost Foundation Lectureship for Global Issues, sponsored by the TCU Center for International Studies.
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