OPINION: Different types of energy can coexist

Ross McDonnell Opinion Writer

Two weeks ago, I was in the state of Texas — specifically West Texas. It was only the twelfth different state I’ve been to, and it was the first “new” state I’ve been to in almost a decade. Texas had a lot in common with the more rural areas of the state I was born in, Illinois. The city my connecting flight landed in, Dallas, was a major city, with an international airport, Dallas/Fort Worth, and a public airport, Dallas Love Field, which is the corporate headquarters of Southwest Airlines. Dallas the city itself is home to over 1.3 million people — more than Cleveland and Cincinnati combined — and the metroplex as a whole is home to 6,397,000 people.

However, the Midland-Odessa area, where I stayed the majority of my week in Texas, had one thing that stood out to me: a lot of oil derricks and a few rigs.

Now, did I already know that Midland, Texas, was known for oil production? Yes. However, one, “I’ve always known there’s oil in Texas” isn’t a very exciting lead, and two, seeing the number of people who made their living working blue-collar jobs in oilfields got me thinking about energy in the United States.

I remember about a month ago in one of my classes, we did something called a Futures Wheel. The professor gave us an event — in this case, the invention of the automobile — and asked us to list the consequences, both positive and negative, of said invention. We expanded on the topic and did exercises on the Futures Wheel on a range of topics. One such topic was the topic of switching to different types of energy.

I had never really thought of the topic before; it’s not really one of the “cool/interesting” topics to me. As a journalism major, I haven’t had to worry too much about a career in energy. God willing, I’ll be able to make a living doing exactly what I’m doing here, but hopefully, with time, practice and teaching, a lot better than I am now.

However, one thing that kind of caught my attention about that class discussion was the angle most people seemed to be taking on the topic.

Most of my fellow classmates seemed to be of the opinion that it had to be one kind of energy or the other. Coal vs. wind, or oil vs. solar, and so on. Since I didn’t know a ton about the issue, I remember my only contribution to the conversation is “why don’t we invest in all of them equally,” also making clear that I didn’t know exactly how much money per year was most optimal to invest in energy. I’m sure some smart people out there can come up with some figures, but that’s above my paygrade and not the point of my column.

There are a lot of different ways of energy in the United States, and all of them have their own strengths. I’ll get into those in a moment, but first, one of the most important things that almost any source of energy brings to the table: jobs, and in what cities, states or regions those jobs are created.

Natural gas and oil are responsible for 9.8 million jobs, according to the American Petroleum Institute. In 2019, a quarter of a million people worked in solar energy.

However, this larger number does not mean that we should keep oil and do away with solar. Coal mining only employs around 50,000 people nationally, but that doesn’t mean it is without worth, and this is where the aforementioned regional angle comes in.

Midland, Texas, would be in deep trouble if oil production stopped. While the national number of coal workers isn’t high, a large percentage of them, almost 15,000, live in West Virginia. That number is down from where it was before, and the linked op-ed, while offering mixed feelings on coal mining, does lament the hurt decreased coal mining has put on West Virginia.

As an aside, I feel like I should mention, obviously, mining towns that paid employees almost nothing, had underage labor and had people dying of black lung were terrible. There are right and wrong ways to have any industry, and anything that involves people being stuck regionally, and in danger, is not a good way for any industry to operate anywhere.

While oil and natural gas have advantages that include employing large numbers of people, it can also be expensive. Solar energy has strengths including lower electric bills and versatility, but it, like wind energy, can also be weather-dependent and less reliable. Nuclear power, among other strengths, is cost-efficient and reliable but has weaknesses such as being non-renewable. The United States has a ton of coal, the most in the world as of 2016 in fact, but was only the third-largest producer and somehow was a net importer of coal. Why wouldn’t we work harder not to be in a deficit, when energy is such a hot topic?

The one thing, however, that is clear about all of this, is that all types of energy have their strengths and weaknesses, so why should we have to choose? Why is one type of energy good and another type bad? Is being a business owner a “better” way to make a living than a journalist? I think most of you would find that question pretty silly.

In the same vein, I think Americans shouldn’t fight over what method of energy or power is best, and instead focus on what’s important. The fact that any of these methods create jobs, light up our homes, power our cars and fly us across the country to meet loved ones, and — when the economy is handled correctly — help our economy grow is why, in my opinion, we don’t have to choose. 

Ross McDonnell is an opinion writer. Contact him at [email protected]