The Politics of Fossil Fuels: Obstacles to Wind Energy Development in Kansas

By Dr. Gary Brinker Coal and oil have always been the life-blood of the industrial economy.  Historically, these energy resources had been so plentiful that, until the latter part of the 20th century, few believed that we could exhaust their supply.  And although the chronic negative health effects from inhaling coal dust and the exhaust of burning fossil fuels were recognized early in the industrial era, the full extent of the threat to human health and survival has only recently been realized and acknowledged.  The most recent threat to the global ecology in the form of global climate change has energized a social movement to convert energy production to non-fossil sources deemed more environmentally friendly and biologically benign, such as solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal and bio-fuels.

There have been political initiatives to convert to non-fossil energy sources, especially among highly industrialized nation states with limited domestic sources.  Heavy dependence on foreign energy sources means nations must invest huge military and economic resources to secure the flow of these fuels into their industrial machines.  The costs are often hidden in the form of higher taxes, fiscal debt and human casualties of war and terrorism, but are manifest enough to drive efforts to reduce foreign dependency through higher domestic production and alternative domestic sources.  At face value, this seems a viable and attractive solution.  Yet domestic oil production remains stagnate, alternative energy remains marginally profitable and the massive importation of foreign oil continues.  The validity of widely accepted theories of global climate change, supported by the majority of research showing increasing global temperatures and concentrations of CO2, melting polar ice and rising sea levels, are being challenged and disregarded by conservative politicians.  Even though the extent to which these phenomena are causally rooted in the human consumption of fossil fuels versus naturally and historically occurring global biogeochemical cycles can be debated, there is little doubt that human activities contribute to some extent or that human technology and that intervention is the only real hope for altering these potentially disastrous climatic trends.

This paper explores the theory that the bureaucratic inertia of the fossil fuel industry explains the apparent reluctance by some to accept the conclusions of many scientists that human emission of carbon dioxide is a force in global warming and that conversion to renewable and environmentally friendly alternative energy sources is the solution to this and several other environmental problems.  It presents tests of the hypotheses that people living in geographic regions with high production of fossil fuels will express low support for alternative energy development and that there will be an inverse correlation between support for fossil fuels and support for alternative energy.  The hypotheses are tested using random sample survey data from a statewide telephone survey and secondary data on energy production collected from government and private industry sources.

Literature Review

In assessing the degree to which renewable energy sources have performed, both with respect to economic efficiency and market penetration, McVeigh et al. concluded that, "In general, renewable technologies have failed to meet expectations with respect to market penetration. They have succeeded, however, in meeting or exceeding expectations with respect to their cost" (1).  They attribute this apparent discrepancy to a "declining price in conventional generation," which tends to alter the target cost for making renewable forms competitive (1).

Anderson and Newell assessed the economic feasibility of carbon capture sequestration as a means of reducing the carbon footprint of coal powered electricity and found it too expensive to compete with other renewable sources (2).  They concluded that it would only be an economically viable option if the price of competitive alternative energy rose sharply (2).

Azar and Dowlatabadi concluded that the only way to stabilize the long-term global climate, given widely accepted models of population growth and industrialization, is through rapid conversion to non-carbon based energy sources (3).  They found that, historically, the rate of structural and economic change necessary for rapid conversion has only occurred in the wake of economic or resource crises for periods of several years or more.  Dyson reached similar conclusions, going on to speculate that the lack of a contemporary structural or economic crisis and the typical way in which humans respond to difficult, long-run problems such as AIDS—denial, avoidance, recrimination—will result in no significant behavioral change in carbon emissions in the near future (4).

There is literature referencing the cost of fossil fuels as a determinant of the profitability of wind energy (5), but little discussing the cost of wind energy as a determinant of the profitability of oil production.  One way to encourage capital investment in wind energy that has been explored is to require large utilities to offer long-term contracts to wind developers and purchase surplus electricity from companies generating electricity for their own purposes from wind turbines, as California did in 1983 (5).

Method

Quantitative analysis was performed on survey opinion data collected by the author in 2010 from a large random sample of Kansas residents (n = 1,200) and on secondary data on various forms of energy production at the state and county level collected by the Kansas Geological Survey and the American Wind Energy Association (6,7).  Qualitative data are from interviews conducted by the author with two key informants currently developing wind farms in western Kansas.  The first key informant is a community leader in a rural western Kansas county interested in local economic development and curbing population loss.  The second is the City Manager of a city located in a more urbanized county of western Kansas considering a wind farm.

Analysis

Quantitative Analysis

Univariate analysis showed that most respondents think devoting resources to producing wind (62%) and solar power (49%) is "extremely important," while few were likely to say developing coal (21%) and nuclear energy (21%) is "extremely important."  Natural gas and oil fell in the middle.  Most respondents’ concerns with wind farms revolved around aesthetics and danger to wildlife.  Few (5%) felt wind farms were a threat to the local economy.  When asked specifically if the need for coal and oil energy outweighs environmental concerns, just over half agreed.

Bivariate analysis of variables measuring support for developing the various energy sources revealed that support for wind energy development was positively correlated with support for solar and bio-fuels.  Support for wind energy development was negatively correlated with support for development of coal.  Although the Pearson’s r p-significance does not quite meet the 0.05 criterion, support for wind energy development was also negatively correlated with support for oil development.

There was a moderately strong correlation indicating that respondents who felt it was not important to develop wind energy were more likely to also say that the benefits of oil (r = .286) and coal (r = .278) outweigh environmental concerns.  These results, together with high covariance between support for the fossil fuels, as well as covariance between support for the various alternative fuels, indicate a tendency of people to support one or the other, and suggests a perceived conflict of interest in supporting fossil and alternative fuels among a faction of respondents.

Correlation analysis was performed on a combination of survey data measuring support for wind energy development and aggregated county-level data on oil and gas production for each respondent’s county of residence (8).  Table 4 shows that three of the four correlations are in the hypothesized direction, but are weak and statistically insignificant.  Respondents residing in counties with high gas and oil production were slightly more likely to say wind energy development is unimportant.  Those in high oil producing counties were slightly more likely to agree that wind farms are bad for the Kansas economy.  The correlation for gas was very near zero in strength.

Another way to test the theory that wind energy development is impeded by concerns that it may be a threat to fossil fuel prices is to examine the relationship between the level of fossil fuel production and the percentage of potential wind development realized in each county.  If fossil fuel interests impede wind energy production, then one might hypothesize that the greater the amount of fossil fuel production in a county, the lower the percentage of potential wind energy will be realized.  Table 3 shows the correlation coefficients for these dependent and independent variables.  Here again, we see the evidence of weak relationships in the hypothesized direction.

Qualitative Analysis

Key informant #1 is a local investor who had been heavily involved in promoting wind farm construction in a county with high oil production, but little gas production.  Presented with the thesis of this paper, he was asked to comment based on his observations.  In his opinion, the major obstacle to the development of wind energy was not related to economic conflicts of interest, but the cultural aversion to change held by many rural Kansans.  Uncertainty about changes in the landscape and economy make many local residents reluctant to embrace a new means of generating power.

Key informant #2 is the City Manager of a city of approximately 20,000 located next to an area designated by developers for construction of a wind farm that incurred significant political opposition.  He agreed with Key Informant #1 that a reluctance to embrace change was a salient cultural characteristic of the established regional population, and that was a major force in apathy, if not opposition, towards development of wind farms.

He also believed that much of the source of opposition to wind farms came from a faction of local residents living in the rural areas surrounding the proposed location.  This faction tends to be in the upper end of the class spectrum, well educated and politically powerful.  Wind towers can be hundreds of feet high; a typical wind farm contains dozens of these towers, so their construction involves a drastic change in the landscape for residents that live up to several miles away.  The pristine prairie panorama is often a major feature that rural Kansans value in choosing residential property.  Under the proposed agreement, a majority of the economic benefits of the wind farm would go to property owners on which the wind turbines would be located, and only relatively small tax advantages are enjoyed by those residing adjacent to or near the wind farm.  Key informant #2 saw evidence that many of these politically powerful residents living near the proposed wind farm felt they would lose the aesthetic qualities of their property and would suffer a potential drop in the value of their property with the construction of the wind farm, while those few land owners fortunate enough to have the ideal locations for wind turbines enjoyed all of the economic benefits.

Discussion

Analysis of survey data, fossil fuel production levels and opinions of key informants in areas where wind farms have been proposed revealed evidence to support the theory that bureaucratic inertia in the fossil fuel industry is an obstacle to timely conversion to alternative energy, but also identified other factors related to the regional culture that explain reluctance to accept construction of the required infrastructure for wind energy production and delivery.

Univariate analysis has provided evidence that only a relatively small proportion of Kansans exhibit opposition to wind energy development, and that the rationales for opposition are such that strategic location of wind farms and modest advances in biological technology could minimize these concerns.

Correlation analysis of variables measuring the importance of public support for the various forms of energy production showed that support for fossil fuel development tends to be inversely related to support for alternative fuels, especially coal.  Strong positive relationships between support for wind, solar and bio-fuels suggest that a faction of Kansans is supportive of all forms of alternative energy, while strong positive correlations between support for oil, coal and gas suggest that a second faction of Kansans is strongly committed to fossil fuel development.  So there is evidence here that many Kansans tend to support either fossil fuels or alternative fuels.  Environmental concerns explain the preference for alternative fuels, while the most obvious rationale for support of only fossil fuels would be economic interests, since fossil fuel production also harms animal life and blights the landscape, the most common reasons to oppose wind energy.

The fact that relatively few Kansans have direct investments in fossil fuels might explain weak correlations in Table 3.  The general public might not readily make the connection between the levels of fossil fuel production within their own residential regions and the overall health of their local economies, even though there may be a causal impact.  However, one may make a fair assumption that the small percentage of Kansans who do have vested interest in fossil fuels tend to be landowners, and thus have at least moderate political power and influence.

Finally, the observation that a county’s oil and gas production is negatively correlated to the percentage of potential wind energy development suggests that oil and gas interests are political obstacles to wind energy development.  The relatively weak strength of these correlations can be explained by the fact that many counties in Kansas have both high fossil fuel reserves and abundant wind, so the economic and political forces in many counties are comparable and offsetting.  This may not be the case in other geographic areas suitable for wind farms.  But there is some tendency for counties with low fossil fuel production to be more likely to fully develop their potential for wind energy.

Wind energy is likely to remain to be seen as a viable competitor to the fossil fuel industry, especially as it becomes an increasing source of electrical power and as demand for coal-based electricity declines.  As more cars become propelled by electricity, wind will increasingly usurp demand for oil.  However, wind is an unreliable, intermittent source, and most experts believe that coal-powered plants will continue to be needed.  Similarly, petroleum is used for producing many commodities other than fuel, not least of which is plastics.  The non-energy uses of fossil fuels, together with greatly increasing global demand for energy as underdeveloped countries industrialize, may result in a negligible effect on current fossil fuel demand and prices. Even with moderate growth in wind production, it may negate increasing demand and higher prices.  But as long combustion of fossil fuels declines, many of the health and environmental concerns will be addressed.

The study does suggest one immediate obstacle to wind energy development.  Means are needed to equalize the compensation/liability equation, so that everyone who suffers economic or aesthetic losses from the construction of a wind farm is fairly compensated.  One way this could be accomplished is through differential tax breaks, funded through revenues generated by taxing the electricity produced, to residents around a wind farm based on the distance of their property from the nearest turbines or reduction in the assessed value of the property.  Another option would be to offer residents near the wind farm reduced electricity rates.  With an equitable compensation structure, wind farms should become an attractive option for any community with enough wind to drive them.  The research of McVeigh et al. also suggests that reductions in government subsidies for fossil fuel production should be eliminated to allow renewable sources to be more competitive (1).  The research of Loiter and Norberg-Boh showed that mandates requiring large power companies, especially those owning large coal-burning plants, to purchase electricity at competitive rates from wind farms would also promote conversion to renewable energy.

Current fossil fuel subsidies and a well-developed infrastructure currently make fossil fuels a very profitable option for investors.  Building an alternative energy infrastructure will require considerable investments that may take many years to produce comparable profits.  This study suggests that if conversion to clean, renewable energy sources is to be the solution to reducing levels of CO2, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and the many other hazardous environmental pollutants resulting from production and usage of fossil fuels, regulations and tax policies must discourage future capital investment in oil, gas and coal.  Additionally, the study suggests that public resources will be needed to jump-start alternative energy production to build infrastructure that can produce and deliver abundant, clean, profitable and sustainable energy indefinitely.

References

1.            McVeigh JJ, Burtraw DD, Darmstadter J, & Palmer K (2000) Winner, loser, or innocent victim? Has renewable energy performed as expected? Solar Energy 68(3):237-255.

2.            Anderson S & Newell R (2004) PROSPECTS FOR CARBON CAPTURE AND STORAGE TECHNOLOGIES. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 29(1):109-142.

3.            Azar C & Dowlatabadi H (1999) A REVIEW OF TECHNICAL CHANGE IN ASSESSMENT OF CLIMATE POLICY. Annual Review of Energy and the Environment 24(1):513-544.

4.            Dyson T (2005) On Development, Demography and Climate Change: The End of the World as We Know it? Population & Environment 27(2):117-149.

5.            Loiter JM & Norberg-Bohm V (1999) Technology policy and renewable energy: public roles in the development of new energy technologies. Energy Policy 27(2):85-97.

6.            American Wind Energy Association FS (2012) Fact Sheet.

7.            Kansas Geological Society (2005) Production from Kansas Oil and Gas Leases.

8.            The Docking Institute of Public Affairs (2010) Kansas Speaks 2010 - Statewide Public Opinion Survey.  (Fort Hayes State University, Hays, KS).

Contributor's biography

Dr. Gary Brinker is the Director of the Docking Institute and a Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology and Social Work at Fort Hays State University. His teaching interests include research methods, social problems and quantitative analysis. His sponsored research projects define an eclectic research agenda.  Dr. Brinker has been the principal investigator for more than 75 applied research projects, including program evaluations, needs assessments, economic impact studies, population projections and public opinion surveys in the areas of education, substance abuse, environment, education, politics, family planning, aging, community health and marketing. He earned a Master of Arts degree in sociology in 1994 and a Doctorate Degree in Applied Sociology in 1997 at Baylor University.

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