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How clean energy could be good for Washington's wallet as well as the environment

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As gas prices spike in Washington state and across the U.S., voices are calling for less reliance on foreign oil. To some, that means producing more oil domestically. But to others: "True energy independence means not being at the whims of the fossil fuel market."

That's according to Zane Gustafson, a researcher with the Sightline Institute, an independent environmental think-tank. He recently wrote about why clean energy is "the real solution," and explained further while speaking with KUOW's Angela King.

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Republican Congressman Dan Newhouse also recently spoke with KUOW and argued: "We have put ourselves in a dependent position, weakening our strategic position, by being dependent on other countries for sources of energy, Russia included. It's not too late to reverse that course."

President Joe Biden's recent rhetoric seems to straddle both perspectives as he banned Russian oil earlier this month. Biden bragged about how "companies in the United States pumped more oil" so far during his administration, "and we're on track to set record oil production next year."

In the same speech, however, Biden insisted he's still committed to clean energy promises he made during his presidential campaign, arguing that transforming the U.S. economy to run on electric vehicles, powered by clean energy, will help lower energy prices for Americans.

RELATED: Biden ban on Russian oil hits Anacortes, Washington refinery

Clean energy advocates, like Gustafson, argue the United States will continue to be vulnerable to gas price fluctuations, unless we move away from the global oil market — not just Russian oil.

This interview with Zane Gustafson has been edited for clarity.

Zane Gustafson: The root problem here is that we are reliant on oil. Oil funds Russian aggression, and oil prices are a roller coaster that hurts working people. Drilling for more oil makes the problem even worse, because it delays the real solution, which is to transition to a green energy society.

So, if we started ramping up production right now, it would take months for new oil to reach the market. Meaning that in the short term, new oil production has basically zero effect on high gas prices. Domestic oil production more than doubled from 5 million barrels a day in 2008, to overall 11 million barrels a day in 2019. Today, we are the number one oil producer in the world. And yet here we are, again.

True energy independence means not being at the whims of the fossil fuel market. And we get there through investing in clean energy that is more reliable, less vulnerable to shocks and cheaper.

But is it really as simple as just saying we've got to stop doing this now and put our energy toward cleaner resources?

It's definitely not simple, but that's the first step that we need to take. And we just need to go faster. The climate math is clear: If we do not stop emitting carbon, we are in for a world of trouble.

Do you see this as a key moment when it comes to our dependence on oil and looking for more clean energy sources? Or will this be another fleeting chance at affecting real change?

This could be that moment, and I certainly hope it is. Getting off of oil and gas has been something that we should have done years ago. So, today is the next best time to start that change.

One thing that could have a near-term impact on Russia, specifically, would be to ramp up production of electric heat pumps to supply to Europe. That would help reduce European demand for gas and create jobs here in the United States.

For the longer-term energy transition, we could expand investments right now in solar and wind farms. We can retrofit buildings to improve their energy efficiency, modernize our electric grid, change tax incentives to make electric cars more affordable — and all these investments would have the added bonus of creating jobs right here, right now in the United States.

Whenever we turn to new industries, there's concern over people losing their old jobs — kind of like what we've seen when during the decline of the coal industry. Do you think that would happen as we turn away from oil and gas, too?

Yeah, so I think it's important to note here that the energy markets are shifting away from oil and toward renewables of their own accord. So, at this point, it's a question of: Do we prepare for this transition? Or do we pretend it isn't happening?

And we actually have a transition success story here in Washington. Centralia had a coal mine and a coal power plant. The coal mine closed in 2006, and people lost their jobs because there wasn't a plan. So, when the coal plant started winding down, the city, county and state governments worked with the coal plant company to come up with a plan to invest $55 million in the Centralia community to fund local economic development projects and build clean energy infrastructure. And in the first few years of this transition, the investment is working. Job growth in Centralia was better than the national average from 2016 to 2019.

Every community is different. But Centralia's economic transition is the kind of model that oil communities can look to as they plan their own transition in the future.

At this point, delay in action is the greater danger to jobs across a bunch of industries, including agriculture and tourism, not just oil.

The climate could change so fast that we can't adapt fast enough. And the cost to the economy is greater in billions and billions of dollars than if we act now. The Sound Transit Project, for example, would have been cheaper if we had built that infrastructure 20 or 30 years ago. Every year we delay, it will cost more.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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