Obama Makes Progress on Climate But Environmental Community Divided

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President Obama on Friday directed the EPA and the Transportation Department to develop a national policy to increase fuel efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from medium and heavy-duty trucks in time for the 2014 model year. The action comes almost exactly one year (May 19, 2009) after President Obama set new fuel and emissions standards for new cars and light trucks sold in the United States beginning with the 2012 model year.

The 2009 standards require manufacturers to raise average fuel economy for cars to 39 mpg , and light trucks and SUVs to 30 mpg by 2016. The EPA estimated the new standards would save 1.8 billion barrels of oil from 2012 to 2016, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 900 million metric tons, the equivalent of closing almost 200 coal-fired power plants.

Clean Car Legacy
Combined with the investments in clean car and new battery technology that were features of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as well as the massive federal aid to prevent General Motors and Chrysler from going out of business, it is clear one of the significant climate action legacies of the Obama presidency is pushing vehicle manufacturers to produce more fuel-efficient and much cleaner products.

The White House announcement on fuel efficiency was dropped into an energy and climate news cycle that five months past the Copenhagen climate summit is suddenly spinning with significantly greater urgency.

The Gulf spill, growing larger by the day, is daily evidence of the lengths the nation was ready to take to satisfy its addiction to oil, and the massive economic and environmental damage deep sea drilling can cause.

Pragmatism and Principle
The American Power Act, introduced last week, includes troubling provisions designed to secure more offshore oil.
But it also proposes to cap carbon emissions and provide for significant investments in clean energy, clean cars, transit and other energy conserving job-producing practices.

And the National Academy of Sciences published three studies this week that together again confirm that mankind is responsible for the warming earth and conditions are getting more dire.

All of this, and especially the American Power Act, has generated a moment-of-truth within the environmental community that is framed by the contest between pragmatism and principle. The new bill, if it passes, would be the second in as many years to focus substantial federal investment on emissions-reducing, job-producing, clean energy investments. Last year’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act included over $100 billion to jumpstart the transition to a low-carbon economy. The new climate and energy bill, along with proposing to reduce emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade, also includes strong federal support for energy-conserving, and alternative clean energy practices and equipment.

President Obama, recognizing the deep division, fear, and skepticism that dominate this era, is nevertheless steadily making progress in responding to climate change. One other step he needs to take is to support the climate and energy bill. But in the tilt between pragmatism and principle it is not clear where American environmentalism will land.

— Keith Schneider

Principle Trumps Pragmatism: Grassroots Greens Campaign Against Clean Energy, American Power Act

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As the expanse of the Gulf slick widened this week and climate advocates reckoned with an American public focused on more urgent risks closer to their front doors, 15 big activist organizations and a coalition of 200 grassroots advocacy groups from across the country, many of them green, lashed the American Power Act.

Greenpeace last Thursday called the measure “more of a ‘dirty energy bailout’ bill than anything else.” In a statement issued a day earlier, the 200 small groups said the Power Act would spur coal, oil, and nuclear development,  “would be ineffective at addressing the climate crisis,” and vowed to kill the bill if the conventional energy provisions were not dropped.

That’s no surprise. The American Power Act calls for federal investments and regulatory changes designed to secure domestic supplies of conventional fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources. Oil, coal, and nuclear power represent the foundation of a profligate way of life that has put the domestic economy and environment in peril. Over the last four decades green groups built an important and effective civic movement to deal with the consequences of dirty energy.

The American Power Act, though, also contains provisions for substantive federal investments in clean energy, transit, Smart Growth, efficiency, and energy-conserving practices. And it calls for capping carbon emissions, trading carbon allowances to generate substantial new revenue, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent of their 2005 levels by 2050. Because of these provisions some of the most prominent environmental organizations support the American Power Act as a strong step in the right direction, although with reservations about the conventional energy provisions.

Green v. Green
Green versus green is nothing new in the history of American environmentalism. The competition between pragmatism and principle is an insistent undercurrent that has surfaced periodically, for example in the rivalry between the big organizations with Washington offices, and the small organizations working in the field.

The differences expressed about the American Power Act, though, may reveal a new and very troublesome dimension to the green vs. green meme. The disagreement over national climate and energy policy underscores a growing trend, little noted in the environmental movement or the media, that involves fierce grassroots campaigns in more than 30 states to defeat big clean energy projects.

The grassroots opposition to clean energy development, most visibly displayed in the nine-year battle to permit the offshore Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, is having the effect of hindering clean energy development, and by extension, climate action.

It also appears to be opening a schism in American environmentalism that could threaten the movement’s credibility. Simply put, at a time of real crisis for the economy and the environment, what kind of leadership can be expected from American environmentalists? Can American environmentalism be a major force for good if it lets ideological principle trump pragmatism?

I Was There
Full disclosure: Last year at this time I was writing about the energy rebellion sweeping the nation as citizens and small organizations worked to close coal-fired power plants, shut down mountaintop removal coal mining, protest rate hikes in utility commission hearings, and take other actions to block expansion of the use of fossil fuels. The momentum leading to the Copenhagen climate summit included significant activism at the grassroots to block conventional polluting energy sources and spur clean energy development and jobs.

Late last year, though, a small utility near where I live in northern Michigan asked me for help, under a consulting contract, to design a communications and public engagement process for their proposal to acquire 30 percent of the utility’s energy from local renewable resources. One facet of the proposal included a plan to build a 10 mw, right-sized, state of the art, clean burning, combined heat and power, wood gasification biomass plant to replace coal-fired power.

The response from some prominent community environmentalists to that idea was intense and surprising. The win for green activists, of course, was to kill the plant, which meant under the circumstances of the utility’s power supply needs continuing to generate energy from coal.

Investigation Reveals Big Trend
I spent several weeks investigating whether the push back was an anomaly or emblematic of something more significant. I found considerable evidence that the opposition to the biomass plant in northern Michigan was part of a national trend at the grassroots to oppose big clean energy projects in dozens of states.

Clean energy developers, of course, haven’t stopped proposing new projects. They are just much more aware of the civic storm such plans are capable of stirring up. Google just invested in a big wind farm in North Dakota. Scandia Wind is proposing a big offshore wind farm in Lake Michigan that has generated considerable support and opposition. Battery manufacturers are settling around Detroit, anticipating breakthroughs in development and sales of the next generation of clean vehicles. Still, the distaste for the scale and number of clean energy projects needed to supplant fossil fuels is unnerving citizens, and they are expressing their concerns in town hall meetings, active opposition campaigns, and in the media.

Last week Linda Cree, an activist in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, expressed these concerns about proposals to build industrial-scale wind farms in a forested region that is steadily losing industry and residents: “What is happening with wind power is that its potential to be an earth-gentle, inexpensive, decentralized source of energy is being co-opted by large energy firms,” she wrote on Enviromich, a statewide environmental e-mail thread. “Going with their program means mega-wind-farms and massive transmission lines – – and the ecological damage and visual blight that accompanies such large scale industrial development.  It means allowing these huge energy corporations access to great swaths of land for their lucrative projects, and encouraging Americans to feel entitled to ever greater amounts of energy.”

“Environmental Rapists?”
Added Amy Cree Dunn of Michigan’s Wild U.P., “Will the environmentalists of today become the environmental rapists of tomorrow?  I certainly hope not.  Industrial colonization is industrial colonization whether it be coal-fired power plants or a mega-windfarm off the wild shores of Lake Superior – with, of course, the accompanying web of high-voltage powerlines criss-crossing the rural-wild landscape and polluting the areas with herbicides and, that nasty phenomenon, stray voltage. ”

In response to such sentiments Barbara Hill, director of Clean Power Now, a Massachusetts non-profit environmental organization that advocated for development of the big Cape Wind offshore development, said in an interview that grassroots opposition to the tools that will help reduce use of fossil fuels and solve climate change will force the environmental community to reexamine its principles and priorities. “We have to ask what we want to accomplish as environmentalists,” Hill said. “Do we not attend change here? Do we just hold holy the things we consider sacred and the hell with development?”

Scale Up
In a new article about the opposition trend in Outside Magazine
, Randy Udall, an energy analyst in Colorado and a member of the greenest political family in America, said “renewable-energy developers are running headlong into half a century of very successful environmentalist opposition to large energy projects. He also told the magazine, “The notion that if we just cover rooftops, we can leave the deserts alone, that we don’t need new wind farms, and don’t need to build new transmission lines—that doesn’t pass the mathematical sniff test.What I say to these people is: Buy a calculator. Run the numbers. We’re going to have to scale up renewable energy in a way we can hardly imagine.

The American Power Act, as introduced, is the second major bill to recognize that point since President Obama took office. The first was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, enacted in February 2009, which invests over $100 billion in clean energy production and practices and is one of the big financial drivers behind the new projects facing grassroots opposition. The new climate and energy bill has billions more for clean energy investment, plus cap and dividend provisions to reduce carbon emissions.

Frankly, the American Power Act provisions to produce more conventional fuel sources make sense, too, even if they curl an environmentalists’ hair. They are meant to buy time until the clean energy economy takes hold, and stave off the continued demise or even the collapse of the quality of life most Americans understand is at grave risk.

By allying themselves with that reality, disturbing as it is, environmentalists nevertheless have a shot with the American Power Act to take meaningful steps to begin curbing the consequences of climate change. Is American environmentalism mature and prudent enough to recognize that opportunity? Let’s hope so.

— Keith Schneider

All Eyes To The Future: The American Power Act’s Imperiled Pragmatism

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Over 70 years ago, in the General Motors-sponsored Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, an estimated 10 percent of all Americans were transported across a landscape of innovation, creativity, and optimism that became the economic and cultural foundation of the great American century. The Futurama exhibit was a huge diorama of a highway-heavy, congestion-free, car-dependent, time-efficient, leafy green urban and suburban all American pattern of civilization that no one had ever seen before.

What astute observers recognized — among them Lewis Mumford and Walter Lippman — was that GM’s new American geography needed enormous public investments in the roads, sewers, education, research, planning, and industrial infrastructure to make it reality. The vision, though, of an airy, prosperous, shining, and mobile American way of life was powerful and eminently achievable. Over the next two decades voters elected to Congress and the White House lawmakers of both parties who cooperated in steadily enacting big and expensive bills — the GI bill to educate veterans, the 1956 Highway Act to start the Interstate System, water and sewer spending bills, research grants for engineering, just to name a few — to change the way America looked and functioned.

American Power Act Tactics
Last week, Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut introduced The American Power Act, a big and expensive spending bill that is in every way a response to that incredibly accurate 70-year-old GM vision. Its central goal is to preserve American choice and mobility — the two central features of our way of life — in the face of an oncoming train wreck of accumulating economic and environmental consequences.

Kerry and Lieberman propose to execute this impossible task by laying out two paths for legislative action that need to be achieved simultaneously. The first is to generate more supplies of conventional energy sources — oil, coal, and nuclear — in order to stave off the slow demise or even the collapse of America’s convenient, have it your way, drive through economy.

The proposal provides incentives to coastal states to pursue more offshore oil and gas development, while also giving neighboring states the power to block development within 75 miles of their shoreline. It includes $2 billion-a-year in research grants to coal-burning utilities to test carbon capture and sequestration. It proposes to invest tens of billions in loan guarantees and other support to encourage the construction of 12 new nuclear plants.

The second tactical step in the legislation is to push America as insistently as politically practical toward more energy-efficient transportation, and home-grown, renewable, and much cleaner sources of energy. The idea is to spur innovation, new patterns of compact development, and new industrialization that also generates much less carbon pollution.

Kerry and Lieberman proposed spending $70 billion over 10 years on transit, clean vehicles, energy efficiency and other Smart Growth innovations. They lay out a plan for farmers to gain income by siting renewable projects on their land and to grow biofuels. There is money for solar and wind development. And the bill contains provisions to reduce carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and over 80 percent by 2050.

Carbon Pricing and Pragmatism
The bill envisions putting a price on carbon, and providing for trading carbon allowances that applies to large polluters and could generate billions of dollars annually, a portion of which would be rebated to citizens.

As a study in pragmatism, the American Power Act does pretty well. The legislation addresses most of what’s possible and practical in the place where energy, economy, the environment, and politics now meet. It’s as big and bold as it dares in an era when the boom-boom-boom of dire risks to our way of life — climate change, declining competitiveness, rising energy costs — is greeted in political circles with the squeak of small ideas and the clanging of ideological idiocy and anger from every side.

In almost every instance, environmental organizations and business groups commended Kerry and Lieberman for such a solid first draft. And in almost every instance — the exception was the Smart Growth community’s enthusiasm for the $7 billion-a-year investment in transit, clean car, and other transportation and efficiency measures — groups said the intricacies of the bill needed serious reworking.

Environmental groups are not thrilled with the oil, coal, and nuclear provisions. They aren’t thrilled with a section that would withdraw some authority of the EPA to regulate carbon emissions from certain sources. And climate groups are concerned that the bill’s proposal to start in 2019 to dedicate some of the revenue from carbon allowance trading to helping developing nations make the transition to a low-carbon economy is too little and too late.

Many business executives, meanwhile, are nervous about the carbon emissions limits. Democratic lawmakers from the Midwest want more investment in clean tech manufacturing. And the bill’s former sponsor, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham who dropped out following an ideological fit, said the proposal would not survive the — so far — uniform Republican opposition.

Transition and Trouble
America, of course, has not always had such trouble responding to change and transition. The America that resulted from executing the Futurama vision was industrious, optimistic, and capable of reacting to favorable market trends. The suburbs and highways, cul-de-sacs and three-car garages, homes with more bathrooms than TVs were made possible by cheap energy (most of which we generated ourselves), cheap land, core competitiveness in major industries, reasoned population increases, growing personal income, wealthy governments, and a willingness of taxpayers to invest in the nation’s future.

We’re not dealing well with the new market trends of the 21st century. Energy prices are steadily rising. Land is expensive. Whole industries have moved beyond our borders. The U.S. is the third fastest growing industrialized nation in the world. Incomes are declining. Governments operate with enormous deficits. Taxpayers are unwilling to invest in a collaborative future.

The result is a nation that is uncharacteristically hesitant and operating in fear. And while ideologues on all sides shout past each other, and make holding office at any level a thankless and grueling experience, the real danger in our governing circles is the entrenchment of the politics of stasis. Doing nothing. Holding the line. Not deciding. Not acting.

The American Power Act contains a suite of reasoned ideas that make sense. Hopefully it not only survives the blizzard of amendments but is strengthened. The sole provision that could be considered a breakthrough, and needs to survive intact, is the bid to put a price on carbon and then to generate revenue by trading allowances. By itself that provision sets the basic foundation to reduce emissions, spur clean energy investment, and prove to the world that the United States is serious about being a leader in the global work to solve climate change. Taking into account the political and economic context, the bill’s passage would be a step, arguably a big step, for America’s future.

— Keith Schneider

Hour of Choosing Arrives: American Power Act Introduced

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In a long-awaited proposal designed to secure existing domestic energy sources and develop new ones that begin to reverse the damaging effects of global climate change, New England Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman today introduced comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation.

clireactionsapaThe co-authors of the bill, one a Democrat from Massachusetts and the other an Independent from Connecticut, insisted that its vision is to change the direction of some of the nation’s toughest systemic problems — economic competitiveness, energy security, job loss, and environmental safety. Indeed, the 900-plus page bill’s expanse, encompassing development of the full menu of conventional and alternative energy sources, as well as international finance to help developing nations respond to climate change was widely commended by environmental and business organizations.

Support and Specific Concerns
But in nearly every statement issued today, by organizations as diverse as Oxfam America, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, executives expressed concern about specific provisions and vowed to work with Senators of both parties to fix them. Environmental organizations principally focused their critiques on provisions to expand offshore drilling, provide federal incentives to build new nuclear power plants, and support the coal and utility industries with grants to prove technology to capture and store carbon.

Environmental organizations also said they would work to improve or change provisions that would limit the reach of the Clean Air Act to reduce carbon emissions in new coal-fired utilities, and eliminate the ability of states to establish carbon-emission reduction programs. Oxfam said it was concerned that the international finance provisions of the proposal would not become effective until 2019, and did not include nearly enough federal investment to meet the commitment the Obama Administration made in Copenhagen in December to help establish a $100 billion-a-year global climate action fund to assist developing nations.

“If the proposal introduced today by Senators Kerry and Lieberman stays true to its goals,” said Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, “it can serve as a foundation on which we can build an America free from oil dependence, with millions of new clean energy manufacturing, construction and service jobs here at home, less wasted energy, and less of the carbon pollution that is threatening our economy, our health and our climate. But this proposal will only serve as a solid foundation if the Senate both improves and completes it.”

According to Senator Kerry, who blogged about the bill’s contents on Grist and Huffington Post today, The American Power Act proposes to put a price on carbon emissions from roughly 7,500 power plants and other industrial facilities. The bill proposes to establish a market to trade emissions allowances in order to reduce carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.

Returns to Citizens
Moreover, a provision that borrows from a separate climate and energy measure proposed by Senators Maria Cantell and Susan Collins, provides proceeds of the sale of allowances as rebates to citizens. “None of it stays with or grows government,” said Kerry. “Those rebates rise over time until it all goes straight back to Americans.”

The American Power Act also takes into account the environmental and political consequences of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The bill’s co-authors inserted a new provision that gives states the authority to veto drilling less than 75 miles off their border, although it also gives states that decide to drill access to a percentage of the lucrative federal royalties generated by oil and gas production. The proposal introduces new regulatory safeguards that require oil developers to much more thoroughly assess the risks and consequences of drilling offshore, and to more accurately predict the potential of a spill.

A third provision that environmental organizations considered crucial is the bill’s influence on the Clean Air Act, which the Obama administration is applying for the first time since its passage in 1970 to limit carbon emissions. Unfortunately, the legislation limits the Environmental Protection Agencies’s ability to clean up new coal plants. Maintaining the ability to use the Clean Air Act to reduce global warming pollution is critical, especially if the federal program is found to be ineffective in future years. The bill does call on the EPA to continue setting tough emissions standards to reduce global warming pollution from cars and trucks and continues EPA’s ability to set some performance standards for old power plants to make sure they operate more cleanly.

Other provisions of the American Power Act, designed to both gain political allies in the Senate and encourage development of alternative sources of energy and fossil fuels, include:

  • Providing incentives for farmers to base wind and other clean energy projects on their land.
  • $2 billion in annual investment in carbon capture technology for coal-fired utilities.
  • $7 billion in annual investment for public transit, clean car technology, and clean energy research.
  • Federal incentives, including loan guarantees, to encourage the construction of 12 new nuclear power plants

White House and Graham Respond
The White House issued this statement today from President Obama: “The challenges we face — underscored by the immense tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico — are reason to redouble our efforts to reform our nation’s energy policies. For too long, Washington has kicked this challenge to the next generation. This time, the status quo is no longer acceptable to Americans. Now is the time for America to take control of our energy future and jumpstart American innovation in clean energy technology that will allow us to create jobs, compete, and win in the global economy.”

The introduction of the American Power Act, initially scheduled for April 26, was delayed until today due to the Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s decision to withdraw as a member of the three-member Senate team that wrote the bill. Over the last two weeks, as Senators Kerry and Lieberman amended provisions, Senator Graham has consistently expressed his view that the proposal could not pass without his help.

Today Graham issued a statement that described his support for a comprehensive energy bill, but also warned that its Senate approval would be a struggle: “I want America to lead the world in the coming energy revolution, not follow. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to improve upon these concepts and find a pathway forward on energy independence, job creation, and a cleaner environment,” but ” the problems created by the historic oil spill in the Gulf, along with the uncertainty of immigration politics, have made it extremely difficult for transformational legislation in the area of energy and climate to garner bipartisan support at this time.”

Visit USCAN’s American Power Act page for more information and the climate community’s reactions. USCAN is following the developments and will be updating this article and posting others in the days ahead.

— Keith Schneider