Higher energy costs hurt all Americans

Charles Steele | Contributor

In my long career working with low-income and minority families in Alabama and elsewhere across the South, I’ve seen first-hand how groups are disproportionately affected by the cost of rising electricity bills.

In fact, a recent study by the Affordable Power Alliance found that African-American and Hispanic consumers would be especially hard-hit by legislation that results in higher energy bills, “both because they have lower incomes to begin with, but also because they have to spend proportionately more of their incomes on energy, and rising energy costs inflict great harm on minority families. Lower-income families are forced to allocate larger shares of the family budget for energy expenditures, and minority families are significantly more likely to be found among the lower-income brackets.”

It is vital that Congress is mindful of the fact that Americans—especially low-income and minority families—cannot afford higher energy bills.

Last week, we saw a media frenzy surrounding the pending release of the climate bill by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), followed by the abrupt announcement that Sen. Graham was dropping out of negotiations due to a lack of bipartisan support for the legislation. Now, the legislation is stalled. Rather than rushing an energy bill through Congress, we should use this extra time to be sure we pass the right energy bill for our country.

Many of the proposed energy provisions thus far—such as a federal renewable energy standard—would only serve to raise the already high electricity bills that American families must pay each month for light and air conditioning. If such provisions pass without adequate consumer protections, much of the country will suffer.

It is important to encourage the use of all of our country’s energy sources, including coal, natural gas, wind, solar, and nuclear energy, to name a few. A few states like North Dakota and California have easy access to unlimited wind or solar power, while many other states, such as Ohio or states in the South, rely on affordable, reliable coal. The states with access to renewable sources should be encouraged to continue to use these sources, but it would be grossly unfair to require every state in the country to obtain a certain percentage of energy from renewable sources. A federal renewable energy standard would lead to a transfer of wealth from states that rely on coal and natural gas to the states with renewable resources. As a result, at least 22 states would see their electricity bills rise by 15% or more as a result of such a standard.

Simply put, low and fixed-income households—especially minority groups and senior citizens—cannot afford the price increases that will surely result from the nationwide mandated use of a few select sources of “renewable” energy. Since the energy bill has been delayed, lawmakers should use the extra time to think long and hard about the negative effects such legislation would have on many American families. Instead of picking “winners” and “losers,” any climate legislation that passes the People’s House and Senate should encourage the use of the wide variety of sources available in the United States and find ways to make these sources first and foremost affordable.

Dr. Charles Steele Jr. founded Working People for Fair Energy, a non-profit organization devoted to fighting for energy laws that are fair and affordable to working people and low-income families. He has served in the Alabama state Senate, and re-elected three times before resigning to become president of the SCLC in November 2004. He has been inducted into the Martin Luther King, Jr. Board of Preachers of Morehouse College and the Tuscaloosa Civic Hall of Fame.

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