Reed Hamilton: Connecting the dots: COVID-19, oil prices, and the air we breathe |

Reed Hamilton: Connecting the dots: COVID-19, oil prices, and the air we breathe

Reed Hamilton
Other Voices

The world today is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, an event whose magnitude changes day by day. Its threat to health and economies at home and across the globe in the coming weeks and months is frightening to all of us.

Less obvious are its impacts on air pollution, the price of oil, and our health.

A few weeks ago, NASA satellite images showed a massive reduction in air pollution over China resulting from the economic disruption in that country following its aggressive response to COVID-19. In early March the same phenomenon was seen in Italy as its government also imposed nationwide restrictions to slow spread of the virus, including closing schools, businesses, sporting events, and ordering people to isolate themselves at home. It’s a pattern likely to repeat as the virus spreads across the world and governments respond to slow its course.

Sound like a silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic? After all, an estimated 4.2 million people worldwide die prematurely from air pollution caused by fossil fuels every year.

Let’s stop subsidizing unneeded oil production and act now to put a fee on energy at its source.

Maybe not.

As policymakers focus on urgent health and financial concerns related to the pandemic, federal and state programs aimed at transitioning from dirty fossil fuel energy to renewable energy could starve not only for lack of funding, but also lack of political will. Companies making transitions to cleaner energy technologies will be slowed by business losses. And individual consumers will be less likely to invest in technologies that benefit the air we breathe, like solar energy systems and electric cars.

Federal and state health departments, severely stressed by the pandemic, will have less resources to devote to the health effects of air pollution.

Moreover, global oil prices — and the price paid for gas at the pump — plunged in the past weeks, driven by the coronavirus pandemic concerns and the resulting economic slow-down. If that wasn’t enough, an oil price war broke out between Saudi Arabia and Russia, while the U.S. government announced it is buying oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. That reserve is a mechanism developed in the ’70s to protect U.S. consumers when gas gets too expensive — not to prop up prices to support oil producers. Consequently, it’s likely that even when the pandemic eases, low oil prices will continue, leading to increased consumption and world air pollution will return to high levels.

These setbacks in progress toward clean energy and clean air will hit close to home here in Nevada County. Those most likely to suffer the health consequences of air pollution are the elderly, those with underlying health conditions, and those with low incomes — the same populations likely to be hit hardest by COVID-19. An article in The Guardian on March 18 cited a study from the SARS epidemic that showed that those who caught it and who lived in heavily polluted areas were twice as likely to die of the disease. Nevada County is among the top four California counties for low-income residents age 60 and up. We have also been submitted to heavy particulate pollution from wildfires.

Right now, the coronavirus pandemic is consuming all of our attention. It’s difficult to focus on the future. But it will come — it always does. Let’s stop subsidizing unneeded oil production and act now to put a fee on energy at its source. It would provide a needed boost to innovation in energy-efficient manufacturing and technology and return the proceeds as a dividend to households. That would allow us, especially poorer Americans, to weather the transition to clean fuels that don’t cause air pollution.

HR 763, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, takes this approach. While there may be other incentives we want in the future, I believe this bill does the things I want for my children and grandchildren, and yours. Letting the market determine the true cost of energy is a bipartisan path.

I am encouraged by how Americans have responded quickly and cooperatively to the measures needed to reduce the spread of the disease in this pandemic. My hope is that when we emerge from this crisis, we will use the opportunity to make change in our energy systems that will leave us all healthier and more prosperous.

Reed Hamilton lives in Grass Valley.

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