The most recent spill by Duke Energy in Eden, N.C. highlights a ‘soft’ spot in the U.S.’s economic system that reinforces the argument for stringent oversight of energy companies throughout the country. Rules and regulations have been set in place across federal, state, and local governmental levels to prevent the types of spills that residents on the border of North Carolina and Virginia now must confront. What was lacking was proper oversight by Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Environment.
To say that the U.S. system of economics has flaws is merely to state that it is a human construction liable to the same human errors of its creators. Environmental laws were created to address the flaws within the U.S. economic system, flaws that require constant oversight to achieve their stated ends: to protect and promote human and environmental health for current and future generations.
Duke Energy, like every other player in the U.S. energy market, is under pressure to keep their costs as low as possible while increasing revenues. As a consequence, activities and objects which eat up profits can be neglected, as was the case with the coal ash that was improperly contained by Duke Energy. ‘Proper’ containment would have been a considerable investment with few, if any, short term returns that the company could put on its balance sheet. For the surrounding community as a whole, however, the benefits of environmental regulations have benefits that outweigh the costs.
When the issue is confronted from its root, it’s easy to see that Duke Energy’s actions are a direct result of the economic incentive structures that presently exist in our country. We can look away or pretend that a new CEO or law without stringent enforcement provisions will somehow eliminate the perverse economic incentive to disregard costly environmental management best practices, but coal ash spills and train derailments with thousands of pounds of leaking toxic chemicals will remain.
Oftentimes, the issue of economic growth and environmental protection has been discussed in competing terms, as if protecting the environment inherently restrained economic growth. But there is no law of nature that states environmental protection shall inhibit economic growth.
In the short term, environmental protection may burden economic growth, but there is no gain where there is no pain, as the saying goes. Unfortunately for the residents who looked to the Dan River for drinking water and aesthetic beauty, the pain of a sullied body of water is very real, and there is little gain to be found.