Weekly Mulch: Why Energy Reform is on Shaky Ground

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Since national energy reform is on the rocks, ethanol subsidies for the Midwest and ballot propositions to roll back progressive energy legislation in California are the most important policy fights to watch right now.

Neither will revolutionize the way Americans get power, and in both cases, moving forward could actually mean moving away from a sensible energy future. In California, voters could turn back progress the state has made towards holding down carbon emissions. And Washington’s support for ethanol reveals the static thinking that’s smothering our ability to address climate change.

More important than legalizing pot

In 2006, California passed a law that would take effect in 2011 and put an ambitious plan in place to decrease the state’s carbon emissions by 2020. Even after the law passed, however, the debate over its merits continued. This being California, that debate made its way onto this November’s ballot.

The most commonly floated line of reasoning against the law focuses on negative impacts to job growth: Increasing the price on carbon increases the cost of doing business, limiting economic growth and the resources that businesses have to dedicate to expansion. Proposition 23, a ballot initiative that will come to a vote next Tuesday, would delay the carbon bill’s enactment until the state’s economy takes a turn for the better.

But Mother JonesKate Sheppard knocks down the economic argument against the 2006 law (AB32):

While enacting AB32 could cause job loss in some sectors, most independent experts actually forecast growth in jobs in the renewable energy, transportation, and efficiency sectors. In fact, green jobs are pretty much the only sector growing in the Golden State. The number of green jobs grew 36 percent in California between 1995 and 2008. The rate of growth for regular old jobs was only 13 percent.

Double trouble

Activists have focused on shutting down Prop 23 (check out, via The Washington Independent’s Andrew Restuccia, this clever campaign to flip “yes” voters), but as Amy Westervelt points out at Earth Island Journal, that initiative is not the only one that could free companies from their environmental responsibilities.

It turns out another California proposition, Prop 26, could raise the threshold legislators would have to meet in order to make companies pay for their pollution, including from oil spills. As Westervelt writes:

While some companies have steered clear of the Tea Party-backed Prop 23, which seems to be losing popularity every week, California companies interested in slowing down AB32 and maybe ridding themselves of responsibility for pollution altogether have been quietly funneling money to Prop 26.

California has long been a leader on energy issues. If either of these propositions goes the wrong way, it will be yet another troubling sign of the failure of progressive energy policy.

The other ethanol

Although environmentalists have fought hard since 2008 to pass cap-and-trade, the policy was always fundamentally conservative one. The Obama administration has always tried to map out a middle path on energy policy, and so far it has been ineffective. Ethanol is yet another case in point.

As Lynda Waddington reports at the Iowa Independent, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last week that the administration was moving forward with a program that aids farmers producing crops (in addition to corn) that could be turned into ethanol. Switchgrass, the foundation of Brazil’s much-touted ethanol system is one example. Notably, the arguments Vilsack advanced for the program had more to do with the economy than with energy.

Pros and cons

This type of cellulosic ethanol, Brooks Lindsay explains at Change.org, would go mainly towards fueling cars. Lindsay weighs the pros and cons of producing this sort of ethanol in general, and comes down against it. His reasoning: “At best, cellulosic ethanol is just a stop-gap measure while electric cars slowly replace liquid-powered cars….But, a stop-gap fuel does not deserve massive investments and government attention.”

Indeed, progressives across the board have long argued that politicians’ support for ethanol derives from political calculation, not from practical policy. (Ethanol states are swing states.) Ethanol is energy-intensive to produce, and it has a slew of negative environmental consequences that outweigh the cuts in carbon emissions.

Rethinking the politics

Before they rush to back the Obama administration’s policies, however, policymakers should consider this news from Heather Rogers, author of Green Gone Wrong. Rogers reports for The Washington Monthly:

As I discovered on a recent reporting trip through Iowa, many farmers there would welcome a way to break free of the ethanol-industrial complex. The people I met said they’d rather cultivate crops using ecologically sound methods, if they could do so and still earn a decent living. It’s not as if midwestern farmers don’t know—better than the rest of us—that growing crops for biofuels damages their soil and keeps them at the mercy of predatory multinational corporations.

The article is worth reading in full, but fast-forward to the end to find Rogers’ sensible policy proposal. Instead of enlisting farmers in a complicated energy-production procedure that ultimately keeps Americans in their cars, why not aide the work they’re already doing to reduce carbon emissions on their farms? After all, farms are responsible for a huge portion of the country’s carbon burden — they just have lobbyists savvy enough to keep their business from being regulated. As Rogers puts it:

Paying farmers to sequester carbon is sound public policy, but it’s also, and just as importantly, good politics. By helping to preserve farmers economically while also allowing them to be the stewards of land most want to be, it peels farmers away from the agribusiness coalition that is pushing the Obama administration to bet the country on a failed biofuels energy strategy.

Now there’s a bit of thinking that could move energy policy forward.

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: Oil rig sinks, as does Senate climate bill

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Two disasters flared up this week, one environmental, the other political. Off the coast of Louisiana, oil from a sunken rig is leaking as much as five times faster than scientists originally judged, and the spill reportedly reached land last night. And in Washington, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) jumped from his partnership with Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) just before the scheduled release of the draft of a new Senate climate bill.

The trio had worked for months on bipartisan legislation on climate change. After Graham’s defection, his partners promised to press on, but the bill’s chances of survival are dimmer.

The next Exxon Valdez?

As Grist puts it, the spill off the Louisiana coast is “worse than expected, and getting worser.” The oil rig sank on April 20, and since then, oil has been pouring out of the well and into the Gulf of Mexico.

British Petroleum (BP), which operates the rig, along with the Coast Guard and now the Department of Defense, has pushed to contain and clean up the spill. The problem is deep under water and difficult to measure, but by mid-week, experts estimated that it was gushing 5,000 barrels a day from three different leaks.

Interior department officials said the spill could continue for 90 days. Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum looks at a couple of estimates for how much oil could end up in the Gulf and concludes, “An Exxon Valdez size spill might only be a few days away.”

The federal government has rallied to respond. Administration officials have traveled to Louisiana, and  both the executive branch and the legislative branch have announced investigations into the spill. But, as Care2 writes, the White House is saying that the explosion should not derail plans for future drilling.

“In all honesty I doubt this is the first accident that has happened and I doubt it will be the last,” press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters, according to Care2.

New drilling, no regulations

Just a few weeks ago, President Barack Obama announced that the government would open up areas off the East Coast for offshore oil and gas drilling. The proposal already had some opponents, and the spill makes the politics of new drilling that much trickier. Mother Jones’ Kate Sheppard reports that White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner acknowledged the issue, along with energy experts around Washington.

“This reopens the issue: Is the risk worth the reward?” Lincoln Pratson, a professor of energy and environment at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, told Sheppard.

And even though BP is relying on the Coast Guard and the Department of Defense for help managing this spill, the company is pushing back on efforts to minimize those risks, Lindsay Beyerstein reports for Working In These Times.

The company “continues to oppose a proposed rule by the Minerals Management Service (the agency that oversees oil leases on federal lands) that would require lessees and operators to develop and audit their own Safety and Emergency Management Plans (SEMP),” Beyerstein writes. “BP and other oil companies insist that voluntary compliance will suffice to keep workers and the environment safe.”

Climate bill catastrophe

The country might also have to rely on companies’ “voluntary compliance” with measures to combat global warming: Congress doesn’t seem likely to pass a bill regulating carbon any time soon. Sen. Kerry and friends were supposed to release their version of climate legislation Monday, but over the weekend, Sen. Graham backed out. His reason? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had floated the idea of prioritizing immigration reform, which Graham argued would undermine work on energy legislation.

“It seems like the senator…has a bit of an attitude problem,” wrote The American Prospect’s Gabriel Arana. “He storms out of climate talks because Democrats have dared consider working on two things at once? The degree to which movement in the Senate hinges on this single, mercurial senator, seemingly the only one whose agenda includes something more than stymieing Democrats, is remarkable.”

Call the clean up crew

After Graham’s announcement (Arana called it a “hissy fit”), congressional democrats scrambled to prove that the climate bill was not knocked entirely off course. On Monday, Sen. Kerry and Sen. Lieberman met with their wayward colleague; by Wednesday, Sen. Reid had promised that he would “move forward on energy first;” and by Thursday, Kerry and Lieberman had asked the EPA to start evaluating the bill’s environmental and economic impacts.

Although a draft of the bill was supposed to come out on Monday, no one has seen it. At Mother Jones, Kate Sheppard reports that even the EPA, which is supposed to analyze the bill, hasn’t received the full draft.

“According to the EPA, the senators submitted a “description of their draft bill” for economic modeling,” she writes. “The agency confirmed in a statement to Mother Jones the senators “have not sent EPA any actual legislative text.” The agency is determining whether it has enough information about the bill to produce an analysis of its economic and environmental impacts.”

Despite assurances from the Senate leadership, it’s not clear if climate legislation will come to the floor this year or, if it does, that it will pass.

Not a disaster

There was one bright spot of news for environmentalists this week: the United States will build its first off-shore wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod. The project, called Cape Wind, has a host of opponents, but Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar decided to approve it. The scale will be smaller than originally planned—130 rather than 170 turbines, the Washington Independent reports—which could mollify critics who worried about its visual impact.

Cape Wind is a prime example of how clean energy projects can still cause harm or anger the people who live in their shadow. The Texas Observer recaps opposition to clean energy projects: A working-class neighborhood fought against efforts to build a biomass plant in their town, and won.

“Despite some activists touting these projects as solutions to global warming, and politicians promoting them as the key to economic prosperity, renewable energy projects tend to have their own sets of problems for local residents,” reports Rusty Middleton.

Biomass is one thing: burning materials like waste wood might produce fewer greenhouse gasses, but a biomass plant still dirties the air around it. But if the choice is between an off-shore wind farm that could mar a pleasant vista or an off-shore drilling operation that could spill gallons of oil onto your coast, it seems clear which is the better option.

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.




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