April 3, 2013

Although the Tobacco Monster Was Slain, Fossil Fuel Monster Still in Growth Phase

To the Editor:

In Post-Hurricane Sandy World, the last thing we need to be doing is investing public and private dollars in ways to pour more climate changing gases into the atmosphere.

There’s been a jarring contradiction in recent headlines in Princeton. In one, the Health Board is further exiling the act of smoking from the public realm. Banned in public buildings, smoking will now be banned as well outside those buildings and in parks. Meanwhile, there are proposals to spend $40 million to add a lane and turnarounds to Route 1, and $600 million to expand the local section of the Transco pipeline that pumps natural gas through the Princeton Ridge to distant locales.

What is the contradiction here? On the one hand, the public territory whereon one can practice the destructive act of smoking is being steadily diminished. On the other hand, public and private entities want to actively expand infrastructure for emitting another kind of air pollution — one that is permanently destabilizing the climate and sea levels, now and for generations to come.

The regulatory contrast between burning cigarettes and burning fossil carbon fuels is breathtaking. Regulation and targeted taxation are vilified, and yet without them smoking would still be glorified in ads and lung cancer would be epidemic. Cigarette taxes relieved other forms of taxation while discouraging destructive behavior.

The tobacco monster was slain, but the fossil fuel monster is still in growth phase. Car ads are in the “low tar and nicotine” stage, combining glorification with claims of lower gas consumption. Low energy prices encourage us to consume more fuels, the collective impact of which will be a hastened loss of our beaches and shoreline communities, large and small. Laissez-faire government policy now means massive government intervention later to deal with crises, as Hurricane Sandy amply demonstrated.

At a recent information session on the proposed pipeline expansion sponsored by the Sierra Club, the project was portrayed as “supply-driven”, meaning the pipeline expansion serves no great domestic demand but rather the desire of the extractive industry to sell as much natural gas as quickly as possible before fracking regulations become more stringent. Forty percent of that gas might well be exported overseas by 2016.

Increased extraction of our underground energy resources, falsely equated with energy independence, is rather a means of making future generations even more dependent on imported energy. Expanding roadways and the Transco pipeline ensures there will be less energy left underground to draw from later on.

In a post-Hurricane Sandy world, the last thing we need to be doing is investing public and private dollars in ways to pour more climate changing gases into the atmosphere. The most cost-effective way of relieving stress on our roads and energy infrastructure is not to expand them but to find ways to use them less.

The economy is portrayed as a fragile creature whose environmentally destructive ways must be endlessly indulged. But it survived a shift away from tobacco dependence, and it will survive a shift away from dependence on fossil fuels as well. It’s time for government to intervene with some tough love, to speed the transition.

Stephen K. Hiltner

Harrison Street