Conflicts over energy production go back at least as far as the 13th Century, when the English nobility attempted to stop commoners from burning what was then known as sea coal for warmth because of the soot it produced.
Of course, the commoners had been forced to burn coal largely because the nobility had kept commoners from acquiring clean-burning wood from the royal forests.
Today, conflicts over energy production center on two issues: its impact on the environment and its cost.
Energy production from fossil fuels, e.g., coal, oil and natural gas, is often blamed for many of the world's environmental ills. But no one today was around to experience firsthand how dirty the world was before the invention of the internal combustion engine, when horses-and horse manure-were prevalent on city streets.
It is similarly easy to forget how much the new wealth made possible by cheap energy has enabled society to devote significant resources to environmental cleanup.
In two publications to be released next week by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, research shows that energy production has been largely decoupled from increases in pollution.
From 1980 to 2005, air pollution of all kinds sharply declined, even as coal consumption increased more than 60 percent and driving nearly doubled. Emissions of lead, sulfur, carbon monoxide, and NOx are all lower. Texas already meets federal health standards for most air pollutants.
The key remaining air pollution challenge for the Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston areas is ozone. Yet even here, tremendous progress is being made. Dallas/Fort Worth is on a glide path to attainment under existing controls, though it will come a year or two after the current deadline.
Of course, energy costs money. At the national level, concerns over costs have focused largely on gasoline and other oil-related products. Remedies to "high prices"-including price controls and taxes on "windfall profits"-have all made prices rise even higher.
In Texas, the cost of electricity has been most hotly debated. During the transition to deregulation of Texas' electric market, peak prices for electricity rose as much as 80 percent. Although critics wanted to blame deregulation, the price shocks were actually driven by the tripling of natural gas prices.
Now that natural gas prices have stabilized, the benefits of deregulation are easily seen. In the last year, electricity prices in Texas have dropped 5.37 percent while the national average has increased 0.82 percent. Texas' comparatively inefficient neighbors in Oklahoma and Louisiana have seen their electricity prices increase by about five percent.
Deregulation has also provided Texas with a reliable supply of electricity, while other large states – notably California and New York -have experienced supply problems. Since 1995, 37,063 megawatts of new generation have been added to the Texas market, putting Texas above the reserve margin needed to ensure reliability for extreme temperatures and unexpected major generation outages.
The high price of natural gas and backlash against new coal-fired plants had caused a decrease in projected reserve margins. But the market has responded-as the market will when regulators let it-with an additional 4,443 megawatts of capacity now under construction. The Electricity Reliability Council of Texas recently projected that the reserve margin will remain near or above its 12.5 percent target for the next two years.
The facts clearly show that Texans can have an affordable, reliable supply of energy and breathe clean air, too-if coal and other fossil fuels are allowed to meet Texas' future energy needs.
Bill Peacock is Director for the Center for Economic Freedom at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.