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date: 14 April 2021

(p. 261) Perspectives on Energy Equity and Energy Poverty

Abstract and Keywords

The ongoing, large demand for oil in the United States has helped push oil companies from onshore to offshore, increasing the complexity of the operations and the risks. This has been encouraged by US policy, which has historically encouraged an increase in both national oil demand and domestic oil production. This chapter focuses on expanded offshore oil drilling in the United States and its risks, highlighting the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil blowout. Such events are examples of explicitly “human-caused” disasters that nonetheless can be expected to increase as we resort to lower quality and harder to reach fossil fuels, offering an interesting example of Charles Perrow’s concept of “normal accidents.”

Energy equity, energy poverty, and conceptualization of energy access as a human right describe another emerging area of sociological inquiry with exciting contributions to theory and practice. There remain marked differences in the availability of electricity around the world that cannot be ignored. Previous chapters have noted that sources of the earth’s energy resources are not equitably distributed. Scholars working in this vein describe the social implications of these dis-economies of space, to use Ciccantell and Gellert’s term. Inequities in energy access are by no means a purely “natural” outcome, however. The developmental trajectories of nations and the distribution of decision-making power within them have at least as much relevance.

It would be folly to discuss the distribution of benefits without also considering the distribution of risks, and this is where we begin our exploration into energy equity. The risks of energy development, as with the benefits that such processes produce, are likewise inequitably distributed. The negative social and environmental impacts of development are borne by communities at the sites of production, while the resources themselves and the wealth they generate are most often exported for consumption (p. 262) elsewhere. Risk is a core field of inquiry in sociology, and many forms of energy development have been subject to extensive risk analysis. All forms of energy entail risks that differ both in kind and in acuity. Debates in the past 10 years regarding nuclear power reflect this dynamic: coal remains the cheapest and most readily available form of electricity, but it also comes with a host of environmental and health impacts, and is greenhouse gas intensive. Nuclear power offers a low-carbon energy alternative, yet the risks associated with accidents and radioactive waste management have been a lightning rod since the Cold War.

While many of the environmental consequences of fossil-fuel development in the West declined over the late twentieth century with the introduction of national environmental regulations, that trend may be reversed in the coming decades, and observations of the hazards of energy development are once again in the limelight. As reserves of conventional fuels decline, investors resort to increasingly risky technologies to extract what is left.

These two co-occurring situations—energy poverty combined with escalating risks—raise uncomfortable questions about how, and the extent to which, the “right” to energy access can be accommodated.

We begin Part IV with a critical analysis of a prominent case of energy production disaster. In Chapter 14, Christine Shearer makes use of extensive documentation of what has been referred to as the most catastrophic of disasters associated with fossil-fuel development to date: the blowout of the Macondo drilling rig, operating in deep waters off the coast of Louisiana by British Petroleum. Communities along the southern US coast continue to suffer the consequences of this disaster, as fisheries have been destroyed, water supplies tainted, and a way of life eradicated, possibly for the foreseeable future. Considering the elevation of risk associated with accessing unconventional fuels—the unconventional nature of this particular operation due to its extreme depth—this blowout can be seen as a “normal accident,” to adopt Perrow’s depiction of the inevitability of calamity in complex technological systems. Human agency nonetheless played a key role: production pressure and lax regulation clearly increased the probability of this particular accident considerably. These two processes may well be interrelated, as governments are compelled to offer increased incentives and reduced constraints to support the corporate development of resources that have a rather unattractive expected profit margin.

Paulo Manduca, Mauro Berni, Iure Paiva, and José Alexandre Hage then offer a rare, intimate look at energy development dynamics in Latin America in Chapter 15. While many in the developed world complain about increases in the prices of energy, heat, and gasoline when they occur, the authors describe the especially crippling effect of energy price increases in low- and middle-income countries, not only for families and businesses, but for governments that rely on energy-development revenues. The authors, however, go beyond a consideration of energy poverty, which (p. 263) is certainly prevalent in at least some regions of Latin America, to provide an analysis of the interconnections between state-led energy-development projects and poverty. These authors describe the rise, and fall, of a renewable fuel in Argentina and Brazil, the development of which in Brazil at least was specifically designed to support the livelihoods of rural farmers. This story coincided with the fall and subsequent resurrection to prominence of fossil fuels—a story deeply entangled with regional politics, particularly recent emergence of the “pink tide” of populist, center-left governments, which have embraced fossil fuels as the means to economic prosperity, combined with intense international market competition among biofuels producing countries to supply EU markets. To these case studies is added a look at Venezuela, where Hugo Chávez embarked upon a grand experiment with petro-socialism. These are individual stories, and yet this comparative study shows how these stories are interconnected by similar economic conditions, and shared cultural and political imaginaries.

In Chapter 16, Karl-Michael Brunner, Sylvia Mandl, and Harriet Thomson provide a comprehensive overview of the concept of energy poverty and its multiple facets. Energy poverty, the authors note, is a persistent and pressing concern in the developing and the developed world alike, with particular implications for women and girls, who are often responsible for household tasks that require energy. Those lacking adequate and/or affordable access to energy in the developed world are also more likely to be living in housing with lower efficiency, translating into high levels of expense even for basic needs like heat. The authors emphasize that there are multifaceted causes, requiring integrated and gender-sensitive responses, but express hope in the growing acknowledgment of energy poverty as a serious concern: The eradication of energy poverty has been identified as one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The authors also suggest that there may be tremendous potential in off-grid electrification systems, as they may be more democratic and culturally sensitive, and just plain more pragmatic in some instances.

Part IV closes with Chapter 17 by Marcio Giannini Pereira, Neilton Fidelis da Silva, and Marcos A. V. Freitas that draws crucial links between energy poverty and climate change justice, and importantly, to climate change mitigation as well. As the authors note, there is a need to address energy poverty in climate negotiations. To begin, although we can observe slow but substantial growth in electricity access in some places, such as rural China and Brazil, in other regions such as India and countries in Africa, the obstacles to electrification remain substantial. Importantly, the authors make the case that obstacles to increasing energy access are linked not simply to limits in investment capital, but rather to extreme inequalities in wealth. As they state, “income inequality leads to unequal access to electric power and other modern energy sources worldwide.” The authors then provide a powerful definition and elaboration of the concept of climate justice, and its implications for climate negotiations. First, the authors note the need to differentiate emissions associated with meeting basic needs (p. 264) from the comparative “luxury” emissions of the middle and upper classes. Second, considering the limited ecological space available—including the “space” consumed or destroyed due to emissions of greenhouse gases—the distribution of that space becomes a justice issue. The authors provide evidence of enormous discrepancies among countries in levels of historic emissions, which can be interpreted as disproportionate access to ecological space. In other words, historic emitters like the United States owe a large ecological debt to the world, while many other countries have effectively offered an ecological surplus to global society. From this perspective, calls for equal emission reductions targets in climate negotiations lose their credibility.