The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which counts the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. among its founders, is based in Atlanta, Georgia but has branches across the country. One of SCLC's missions is to eradicate environmental classism and racism wherever it exists. This past winter, we experienced one of the worst cold snaps and storms in recent memory, which highlighted the challenges we still face on managing weather events. You may recall the news coverage of impassable highways and of commuters stranded for hours in their cars.
The dramatic images on television certainly provided a glimpse of the immediate impacts of the storm but there were other impacts that were not seen but are still being felt from extensive power outages or increased utility bills throughout the South. All told, Americans east of the Mississippi spent $14 billion more on their power bills last winter than they did the year before. In some areas, power costs rose a jaw-dropping 1,000 percent. Sadly, the effects were especially pronounced among our most vulnerable brothers and sisters: the poor, the sick, the mentally ill and others that suffer hardship each day.
While we know weather events like last year's polar vortex can truly make a bad situation worse, what would happen if the outcomes we experienced last winter – namely, less reliable and more expensive electricity – become a regular occurrence? If not stopped, that's exactly the reality we will face as new, largely unrealistic environmental regulations from Washington, D.C. could leave us facing widespread power outages and increased energy costs, even when we're not in the midst of extreme weather.
I am neither an engineer, nor a weatherman, so why does this issue concern me? I am concerned because changes to the reliability and affordability of electricity disproportionally impact vulnerable, lower-income Americans. These regulations single out those who deserve our compassion and our aid and place the greatest cost on their shoulders.
Energy costs are already on the rise, and they are projected to increase exponentially in the coming years. In fact, energy costs as a percentage of overall household income are rising at a higher and faster rate for low-income Americans. Dealing with these increased costs is just one part of the equation, as health and safety issues are part and parcel of the problem. People's health conditions are impacted if they are forced to live without air conditioning or heat, or if meals are skipped just to foot the bill for energy.
During last year's winter storm, many hourly workers were unable to go to work, with most absences averaging five days away during the storm. As schools were closed and kids were home, families realized an even greater burden for their grocery budgets. When businesses face rising energy costs, they'll be forced to make cuts themselves, and workers across the board could be left without a job at all. Multiply the cost of not working by increased utility bills, and the outlook is deeply troubling.
As a person who has spent a lifetime fighting on behalf of poor people, I cannot support these proposed regulations. My belief in the spirit of Dr. King and my deep devotion to serving the least among us does not allow me to do so. Others who stand behind the regulations seem to think we must make a choice between protecting our environment and protecting low-cost, reliable electricity. I believe we can achieve both, but not by pursuing radical rules that do little to affect the environment, yet bring so much pain to hard-working people who can least afford the price-tag.