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.



Weekly Mulch: How the Status Quo Benefits Natural Gas Companies

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

There won’t be any national or international movement on climate policy for the rest of this year, at the very least. And while Washington waits to act on climate change, at least one group is benefiting. The natural gas industry is flourishing, despite reports that its practices lead to flammable tap water, poisoned aquifers, and multiple health problems.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), who is emerging as a new leader in Congress on these issues, said this week that a comprehensive climate bill had little chance of passing through the Senate in the next two years. Furthermore, the expectations for the next round of international climate negotiations, to be held this winter in Cancun, are abysmally low, as Inter Press Service reports.

Say no to the status quo

In the past, the volatility of gas prices limited the industry’s share of the energy market, but now, hydrofracking techniques guarantee a more steady supply, meaning steadier prices. It helps that green leaders have talked up natural gas as a clean energy source.

Natural gas does emit less carbon than coal, but the process of extracting it through hydrofracking—pushing chemical-laden water into the ground to create cracks and allow gas to bubble up to the surface—has serious environmental impacts.

Sandra Steingraber, in Orion Magazine, calls the rise of hydrofracking “the environmental issue of our time.” Environmentalists based support for natural gas production on the premise that natural gas would serve as a “bridge fuel” while renewable energy infrastructure grew enough to provide much of the country’s fuel needs. But without stronger support from Washington for renewables, that bridge may never reach the other side.

The high cost of hydrofracking

The alliance between the environmental movement and the natural gas industry has always been uneasy. Both sides regard each other suspiciously. As evidence mounts that hydrofracking pollutes air and water, posing health risks, the worries of local environmentalists are beginning to outweigh the advantages of gas.

“Fracking is linked to every part of the environmental crisis—from radiation exposure to habitat loss—and contravenes every principle of environmental thinking,” Steingraber writes in Orion. “It’s the tornado on the horizon that is poised to wreck ongoing efforts to create green economies, local agriculture, investments in renewable energy, and the ability to ride your bike along country roads.”

On the ground, fracking is frightening, as Kate Sinding, an attorney with the National Resources Defense Council told Change.org’s Jess Leber.

“Drinking water wells are being contaminated, livestock are being poisoned, explosions are occurring when methane has gotten backed up inside a drinking water well after the underground water supply became contaminated,” Sinding said.

Facing down gas companies

Steingraber argues that these effects—the true impact of natural gas extraction—should be factored into the cost of gas and that the public health implications deserve the benefit of the doubt. Even weighed against a lower level of carbon emissions, these considerations make gas look much more like a bridge to nowhere.

In New York, the state government is trying to reign in the industry, Sinding says. “Culturally and politically, I think New Yorkers may be more skeptical about a new heavy industry coming in,” she told Leber. While the promise of jobs is as tempting in New York as it is in places like Pennsylvania and Wyoming that had rushed ahead with fracking, New Yorkers are seeing, Sinding says, that “now residents still face the same problems as they did before, but now, in addition, also can’t drink their water.”

Outside of New York, there are other initiatives that could slow the momentum behind fracking.  The Nation’s Peter Rothberg suggests supporting United for Action, a group that’s fighting the practice, or pushing congressional reps to support the FRAC Act, which would increase regulation of the fracking process. (FRAC stands for Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals.)

Fracking and flammable tap water

Fracking can pollute water supplies, as the flammable tap water in fracking areas demonstrates. But the process also demands huge volumes of water as a matter of course. Fracking companies mix chemicals into the water and use it to keep the cracks in the earth open in order to access gas.

But fracking isn’t the only water-guzzling energy process. Keith Schneider, speaking for a network of journalists and scientists called Circle of Blue, told Inter Press Service that “the competition for water at every stage of the mining, processing, production, shipping and use of energy is growing more fierce, more complex and much more difficult to resolve.”

More than 200 billion gallons of water go to cooling power plants each day. Harvesting solar energy also demands huge quantities of water.

As water resources grow scarcer, this demand could drive huge conflicts, both internationally, and in the United States. As Making Contact reports, in Michigan, lawmakers are weighing the idea of putting water resources into a public trust, but already the ecological arguments for that idea and the economic arguments against it are clashing. Imagine how much harder it will be to divvy up water if energy companies got involved.

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.




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