Weekly Mulch: Obama Lacks Vision on Energy, Stomach to Defend EPA

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

President Obama made an energy speech this week that had little new to offer, while on Capitol Hill, Republicans were pushing to relieve the government of its last options to limit carbon emissions. In the House Republicans have passed a bill that would keep the EPA from regulating carbon, and in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid repeatedly pushed back a vote on the same issue.

But as Eartha Jane Melzer reports at The Michigan Messenger, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has become the latest senator to propose taking away the EPA’s authority over greenhouse gasses this week. If the Senate decides it wants to pursue this policy, it will have plenty of options to choose from.

Conflicting news leaked out about how strongly the Obama administration was willing to stand up for the EPA’s right (granted by the Supreme Court) to treat carbon as a pollutant under the Clear Air Act.Grist’s Glenn Hurowitz noted an Associated Press story with a comment indicating that the White House was telling Congress they’d have to compromise on this issue. But on Thursday the White House reassured progressive bloggers that it was opposed to any amendments to funding bills that furthered “unrelated policy agendas.”

The energy speech

The energy speech that President Obama delivered at Georgetown this week, however, did not do much to reassure climate activists that the administration will put forward a strong vision on these issues. The president talked about decreasing our dependence on foreign oil and set a goal of having 80% of the country’s electricity come from clean energy sources by 2035.

But as David Roberts at Grist writes, Obama skirted some of the trickiest issues. “The core truth is that for the U.S., oil problems mostly have to do with supply and oil solutions mostly have to do with demand,” he says. “America becomes safer from oil by using less. From the Democratic establishment, only retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is telling the public that truth.”

Is clean energy green energy?

President Obama is right that the country has room to pursue more clean energy opportunities. As Public News Service’s Mary Kuhlman reports, America is behind in the clean energy race. The Pew Environment Group just released a report that, according to Kuhlman, “finds the United States as a whole is falling behind in the global clean-energy race….The U.S. maintained the top spot until 2008, according to research from the Pew Charitable Trusts, but fell in 2010 to third behind China and Germany.”

But as I point out at TAPPED, when politicians use the words “clean energy,” they’re generally talking about mid-point solutions like natural gas and nuclear energy. President Obama’s proposed standard does not necessarily support renewable energy — wind and solar projects that are truly sustainable.

The alternatives

And as Gavin Aronsen writes at Mother Jones, renewable energy projects need more support. “The near-term future of solar power in the US will also depend on whether President Obama’s stimulus money keeps flowing,” he explains. “For now, energy companies have until the end of the year toqualify for funding. Meanwhile, some solar advocates are suggesting alternatives like installing panels on urban rooftops.”

If these projects flag, the alternative to renewable, or even clean, energy is not appealing. The world is beginning to depend on energy sources that require greater effort and create more environmental damage. Oil from tar sands is one such source, although as, Beth Buczynski reports at Care2, “a research group at Penn State spent the past 18 months developing a technique that uses ionic liquids (salt in a liquid state) to facilitate separation of oil from the sands in a cleaner, more energy efficient manner. The separation takes place at room temperature without the generation of waste water.” Sounds like an improvement!

Does genetically modified alfafa do a body good?

The Obama administration is not only disappointing on energy issues. At GritTV, Laura Flanders talks to New York Times food writer Mark Bittman about the future of organic food, and the two agree that the only person whose agriculture and food policy they can wholeheartedly endorse is Michelle Obama’s. Too bad she’s not part of the administration.

One recent gripe is the Department of Agriculture’s decision to approve genetically modified alfafa. “Essentially it’s the beginning of the end of organic,” Bittman said. “Once you introduce alfafa, which pollinates by the wind, you can’t guarantee that any alfafa doesn’t have genetically modified seed in it. And alfafa is used as hay, hay is used to feed cows, there goes organic milk. There goes a lot of organic meat.”

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment bymembers of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The AuditThe Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

Weekly Mulch: Can Clean Energy Curb Climate Change? Probably Not.

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

During the State of the Union address earlier this week, President Barack Obama spoke at length about clean energy, with nary a mention of climate change. This is the new environment in which America’s energy policy is being made.

Just two years ago, Democrats were rallying to combat climate change, one of the most worrying challenges the country faces. But now, Obama has apparently given up his plan to openly fight climate change during his presidency. It’s hard to imagine how, even in a second term, he would choose to re-fight the lost battle to create a cap-and-trade system.

The Obama Administration has instead resorted to a sort of insurgent strategy. Instead of waging an all-out battle against energy interests, the U.S. government will try to chip away at the edges of the industry’s power and rally citizens’ allegiances to a new flag, that of “clean energy.”

Climate bill’s absence is smothering clean energy

Since Washington hasn’t succeeded at tackling climate change head on, Obama’s new strategy is to attack the problem obliquely by promoting innovation in clean energy and setting goals for the use of technologies like electric cars. But can clean energy efforts and innovations thrive in the absence of a wholesale climate policy? When a climate bill was still a possibility, clean energy entrepreneurs were promising substantial investments in the sector, if only Congress could give them a framework. And as Monica Potts explains at The American Prospect, in the absence of a climate bill, clean energy has flagged:

What’s been problematic about the president’s approach up to now is that, despite his efforts to pump funding into the clean-energy sector, as he did with about $90 billion of the stimulus, renewable energy hasn’t taken off. Obama had a line in his speech that summed up why this is so: “Now, clean-energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean-energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling.”

Short on influence

It’s possible that clean energy investors will take the President’s new promise as incentive enough to push forward. But, they will also have to consider the influence of the newly empowered Republicans. Mother JonesKate Sheppard isn’t convinced that the president’s new tactic will stick:

“There are plenty of people—and most of them happen to be Republicans—who don’t think that policies to support clean energy are worthwhile and who will oppose any attempt to move away from them,” she wrote. “Meanwhile, this latest iteration of the Obama climate and energy plan includes few of the driving forces that would actually make renewables cost-competitive in the near future and allow renewables to compete (the big one being, of course, a price on carbon pollution).”

When “clean” energy includes coal

Another weak point in the President’s new strategy is his reliance on the vague idea of clean energy, which becomes dirtier the more it is used. As Sheppard writes, “Environmental groups weren’t all that excited about the inclusion of “clean coal” and nuclear in that mix, but that’s pretty broadly expected as the price one must pay to draw broader support for a clean energy standard.”

Another key source of clean energy is natural gas. In Washington, it’s become a given that natural gas, which releases less carbon when burned than coal or oil, will help the country transition away from its high-carbon diet and be phased out as energy sources like solar and wind become more viable. (The natural gas industry, of course, doesn’t see its role as transitional. It’s playing for keeps.)

And while some places are rightly celebrating the freedom that natural gas gives them from coal—as Care2’s Beth Buczynski reports, Penn State is investing $35 million to convert its coal-fired power plant to natural gas over the next three years—other places are bearing the environmental toll of this new, clean fuel. In North Carolina, for instance, hydrofracking, the controversial technique that natural gas companies have been using to extract the gas from shale, is not even legal, but already environmental groups are having to fight efforts from energy companies to buy up potentially gas-rich properties, Public News Service reports.

A poverty of political capital

The president’s new strategy on clean energy will surely succeed at turning current energy economy slowly towards a new path. In the absence of any overarching strategy to fix the country’s energy problems, it’s going to have to be good enough. But ultimately, this sort of tactic, born out of a poverty of political capital, cannot move fast enough to keep energy companies from scouring the earth for more profits doing what they’ve been doing.

That means that there will be more scenes like the one in Kern County, California, where companies are dredging up the last resources of oils from the tar sands. In Orion Magazine, Jeremy Miller writes:

The land also reveals the Frankensteinian scars and machinery necessary to keep up that level of production. Gas flares glow on hillsides. Nodding donkeys lever over thousands of wells, some of which are spaced fewer than a hundred feet apart. Between the wells and imposing cogeneration power plants—which supply energy and steam to the senescent fields—run wild tangles of pipe. These are the conduits of an elaborate industrial life-support system, breathing in steam and carrying away oil.

Will the president’s new strategy prevent the creation of more landscapes like this one? It seems overly optimistic to hope so.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Pennsylvania says: Hillary You're Hired!

Hillary came to State College tonight, and she taught us not only what she stands for, but how she will put her plans to action for America. She was well attended, and very well received. I met Mark McCracken (Democratic candidate for District 5), and saw Rick Vilello on the sidelines as well, no sign of Bill Cahir though? We waited with thousands of our closest friends in the rain to see the Senator that would be called "Madame President."

(pics at http://pridepress.blogspot.com)

John Murtha, and Governor Rendell introduced her to the exhilarated crowd who were on their feet and eager to hear her plan for America.

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