Oiled Dogs of May: Obama’s Gulf Crisis

Obama Visits the Gulf Coast | Gulf Oil Spill
Obama Visits the Gulf Coast | Gulf Oil Spill

Day 40. Great gouts of oil still rush from the ruptured BP well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. A frustrated president visits the scene of the disaster to literally dab his finger at a tar ball washed up on the Louisiana beach. Television news, enlivened by easy-to-get pictures, sets its stand-ups in strategic positions, broadcasting the drama of competition between spreading pollution and technological limits to a nation that clucks about the damage and still races down the highway in 18 mpg SUVs.

It’s convenient to compare Obama’s Gulf crisis to Bush’s Katrina crisis. Same region. Same antecedent: a nation devoted to oil and so ‘shocked’ when the consequences of its use produce a calamity.

Arguably, though, a more apt simile is Carter’s hostage crisis. The day-after-day countdown of quavering orders and quashed expectations. The grim Democratic president schooled by surprises and anxious to project managerial competence over details he has surprisingly little capacity to manage. And everybody involved — the company, the administration, the region, the nation — acknowledging the magnitude of the event but exhibiting no appetite for changing the rules of the game that would steadily reduce the need for dangerous deep-sea oil exploration and development.

How did the nation react after the hostage crisis? Americans turned right, discovered Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America,” built bigger homes on more cul-de-sacs, and bought Chevy Tahoes and Ford Explorers.

How will America react after BP’s undersea oil geyser is stopped? Maybe they’ll make a change in the White House. But they also have exhibited fierce resolve to secure what they have – cars, homes, choices, and mobility.

That means exploring for more oil or penetrating even deeper into the cultures and economies of other nations to acquire it. In 2009, according to the most recent figures from the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. consumed 18.7 million barrels a day, and imported over 13 million barrels.

Public opinion polls consistently show that a healthy majority of Americans support more offshore exploration. Those same polls find a decline in the sense of American urgency about climate change. Only a third of those polled in a Pew survey released on May 19 said it was very important for Congress to address climate change.

And with gasoline selling at under $3 a gallon for most of the last two years — it was $2.60/gallon in Muskegon, Michigan on Friday — Americans aren’t stressing nearly as much about prices.

President Obama is smart enough to know that the Gulf catastrophe is momentous. He’s apparently unsure about what precisely the moment demands. That’s why although last week he took the first step to explicitly link the need to pass a comprehensive climate and energy bill to the largest oil spill in American history, he wasn’t that enthusiastic.

On Tuesday, Obama met with Senate Republicans and, according to a White House statement, told them “that the gulf oil disaster should heighten our sense of urgency to hasten the development of new, clean energy sources that will promote energy independence and good-paying American jobs. And he asked that they work with him on the promising proposals currently before Congress. “

The next day Obama toured Solyndra’s solar thin-film manufacturing plant in Fremont, California and noted that even as “we are dealing with this immediate crisis, we’ve got to remember that the risks our current dependence on oil holds for our environment and our coastal communities is not the only cost involved in our dependence on these fossil fuels.  Around the world, from China to Germany, our competitors are waging a historic effort to lead in developing new energy technologies.”

The climate action and clean energy communities have been pushing the White House for weeks to leverage the oil spill as an event that could remind Americans of the serious consequences of an economy powered by fossil fuels, and galvanize political support for comprehensive legislation. Of all the options available to the president, really pushing for legislation that pushes the nation’s energy industry to address the markets and threats of the 21st century makes the most sense. It’s just the sort of big step out of the mainstream of conventional Washington thinking at a time of crisis that could help Obama really close the deal on his campaign promise of doing just that.

The American Power Act, introduced in the Senate earlier this month takes into account public support for offshore drilling — as well as the political influence of the oil industry — and provides developers access to new areas for offshore exploration. The proposal, though, also includes a range of other measures to spur clean energy development and restrict carbon emissions that are meant to diminish market demand for polluting and dangerous fossil fuels.

As a candidate in 2008 and as president Obama has made it a point of loudly and consistently promoting clean energy development, while also instituting the energy efficiency and emissions reduction regulations to respond to climate change and support new markets. The dual initiatives – public investment in clean energy tools and federal regulatory action — form the administration’s primary industrial development and climate action strategy. Just how powerful that combination is in generating jobs and new industrialization is now emerging in Michigan, where roughly $6 billion has been invested over the last year in new battery manufacturing plants for the next generation of clean cars.

With so many Americans calling on the president to do something about the Gulf mess, just not something that causes too much change, Obama’s next big move seems obvious. Press the Senate hard to pass climate and energy legislation. The bill is another factor in pushing the country in the right direction.

— Keith Schneider

Hour of Choosing Arrives: American Power Act Introduced


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

Though the Need is Urgent, Earth Day’s Best Moment May Lie in Past


This week, just a day before the nation marked the 40th Earth Day, the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded 50 miles from the Louisiana coast, leaving 11 people dead, dozens injured, and a pulse of crude oil that is spreading across the Gulf of Mexico. The blast, which caused the platform to sink on Earth Day itself, came 16 days after 29 men perished in a West Virginia coal mine – the worst American mining disaster in 40 years.

The two calamities embody the relentless risks – human and environmental – that come with the unceasing pursuit of fossil fuel. They also highlight a stubborn feature of the original Earth Day – the consequences of America’s dangerous reliance on oil and coal – that has expanded and deepened in the 40 years since.

On Monday, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman are scheduled to make public a proposal for comprehensive climate and energy legislation they hope will change that vector. By some accounts the steps it takes to diminish oil and coal use will include a phased in cap for the electricity and industrial sectors. It may also contain a pollution fee for transportation fuels and new measures to foster the development and use of domestically produced cleaner energy alternatives.

In these and other provisions, the Senate proposal is said by Congressional staffers to differ substantially from the House energy and climate legislation enacted in June 2009. The House legislation contained robust measures to cap carbon emissions and to develop an emissions trading market that has potential to generate billions of dollars to accelerate the low-carbon economy.

In anticipation of the Senate climate and energy proposal, Public Opinion Strategies, a national market research firm, released on Earth Day the results of a poll that was conducted in five moderate to conservative states.  The firm found that a majority of 800 voters polled earlier this month in Alaska, Florida, Iowa, Idaho, and Virginia favored what the pollsters called an “overhaul the nation’s energy system to reduce polluting emissions and increase the use of renewable energy sources.”  The pollsters also discovered what they said was “strong support” – regardless of party affiliation -for any plan to put a price on carbon to also include refunds to citizens.

I’ll be busy on Monday reporting for USCAN on the Senate bill’s content, gather a summary of reactions from the climate action community, and describe the shape of the policy debate over the next few months.

Forty years ago, in response to the first Earth Day, 20 million Americans demonstrated their commitment to Mother Earth in marches, actions (I painted the White Plains train station and dragged tires out of the Bronx River), teach-ins and much more. The civic activism prompted a generation of bipartisan federal and state legislation that cleaned the air, cleared the water, and protected man and animal alike from a good number of industrial hazards. It also opened the way to a much more efficient economy that is many times larger today than it was then.

The legislation made public on Monday is driven by motives and energy that is consistent with the first Earth Day. But the political culture is so much angrier, divided, jealous, and immature — and that encompasses the behavior of extreme voices on every side. The result is that in an era when environmental dangers are just as urgent, and the potential for doing good just as keen, the federal government has scant chance to enact a measure that comes close to what’s needed.

— Keith Schneider

Spreading Ticks and Other Climate-Related Actions

deer-tickJust in time for April Fool’s Day, the National Wildlife Federation today released its analysis of shifting habitats of ticks and other migrating critters with a tongue in cheek title, “They Came from Climate Change.”

“The horrifying hordes of Climate Invaders are upon us–creeping up from lower elevations, attacking from foreign countries, and settling into areas where once they were unable to survive,” notes the marketing copy. The current vibe is irony and humor. The presentation does a nice job of capturing that spirit, and the text contains a lot of good facts about the problem.

Other good reads of note:

VERIFYING EMISSIONS- The National Research Council’s “Verifying Greenhouse Gas Emissions” discusses the persistence of greenhouse gases  in the atmosphere. The report concludes that each country could estimate fossil fuel CO2 emissions accurately enough to support a climate treaty’s monitoring requirements.

OIL VULNERABILITY- During unpredictable economic periods, America’s addiction to oil leaves us vulnerable. NRDC’s updated analysis identifies the states that were most whipsawed by o oil prices in 2009. It also explores a hypothetical scenario: What would happen if another price spike like the one in 2008 happened now, in the midst of a recession? The purpose of presenting this scenario is not to predict its likelihood of occurring, but rather to highlight the fact that oil price spikes happen. The data suggests that oil vulnerability affects all states, but that drivers in some states are hit harder y than others.

URBAN EMISSIONS- WWF released “Reinventing the City: Three Prerequisites for Greening Urban Infrastructures,” a report on urban CO2 emissions reduction strategies. With close to 80% of CO2 emissions generated in urban populations, how we develop and manage our urban infrastructures during the next three decades could determine whether cities become a force for environmental destruction or a primary source of ecological rejuvenation. The report identifies the necessity for cities to adopt aggressive energy reduction goals and the utilization of the latest technological advances to support and enable a green transition.

DIRTY KILOWATTS – The power plants that provide electricity to run our homes, businesses, and factories are also the single largest source of mercury air pollution in the United States, responsible for more than 40 percent mercury emissions nationwide. The Environmental Integrity Project has ranked the top fifty power plant polluters for mercury. Pollution controls that dramatically reduce mercury emissions are widely available, and are already being used at many power plants. But, until the public and policymakers hold the electric power industry to its promises to shut down or clean up the nation’s oldest and dirtiest plants, Americans will continue to bear unnecessary health and environmental costs.

WINNERS AND LOSERS- “Who’s Winning the Clean Energy Race?” The new report from PEW documents the dawning of the new worldwide industry of clean energy. Accounting for more than 90 percent of worldwide finance and investment, G-20 countries dominate the clean energy landscape. The Unites States is on the verge of losing its leadership position in installed renewable energy capacity, with China surging in the last several years to a virtual tie.

The U.S. policy framework for reducing global warming pollution and promoting renewable energy remains uncertain, with comprehensive legislation slowly working its way through Congress. On the other hand, America’s entrepreneurial traditions and strengths in innovation—especially its leadership in venture capital investing—are considerable, giving it the potential to recoup leadership and market share in the future.
– Keith Schneider

Koch Industries Finances Climate Denier Factions

koch-report-cover-250pxThe work to achieve a climate and energy bill in the United States is moving with considerably slower momentum this spring than it did at the same time last year. A number of factors contribute, not the least of which is the time and focus that the White House and Democrats in Congress devoted to enacting a national health care bill, which passed earlier this month.  Another factor is the flagging U.S. economy and the meager appetite that many voters and lawmakers have for big new domestic initiatives, like the proposed climate and clean energy bill.

Still, the wearying health debate and the Great Recession do not fully explain the uphill struggle of climate activism. Another factor is at work. After years of swinging away at the climate action community’s formidable message of urgency and useful solutions, the fossil fuel industry’s rhetorical axes nearly four months ago found a soft spot in the scientific details of climate change.

The climate action community’s response has been double-barrelled. In December when the email conversations of climate scientists were stolen from East Anglia University, climate activists made a good case that nothing said between researchers damaged the foundations of the global consensus on the causes of climate change, its urgent consequences, and the opportunity for solutions that generated new industries and new jobs.

The second response has been to penetrate and uncover the full range, influence, structure, and interlocking relationships of the fossil fuel political infrastructure, which is actively involved in fostering the campaign of scientific deceit. The results of that work have emerged in the last couple of weeks.

Last week Greenpeace International published “Dealing in Doubt: The Climate Denial Industry and Climate Science,” which documented the 20-year campaign led by ExxonMobil to exploit the space the mainstream media opened with its “let’s hear from the other side” principle of reporting.  Meanwhile in Europe, Danish newspapers picked up the story initially flagged by Pete Altman, a climate specialist and blogger at NRDC, who reported that  a Danish study critical of Danish wind energy was financed by an American activist think tank with financial ties to oil-rich Koch Industries.

This week Greenpeace advanced the story enormously with its new report, “Koch Industries: Secretly Funding The Climate Denial Machine.” The report makes clear that Koch Industries is, and has been for over a decade, a stalwart institution, financier, and strategic adviser for the fossil fuel industry’s political infrastructure aimed at one outcome: Blocking the advent of the low-carbon 21st century economy and wrapping its arms as snugly as it can around the 20th century drive-through, energy wasting, coal-gas-oil-fueled American way of life.

The Greenpeace report also describes how Koch Industries, with revenues of $100 billion annually, 70,000 employees, and operations in 60 countries can execute this goal with a shockingly low investment. The report identifies over 40 climate denial organizations that Koch funded from 1997 to 2008 for $50 million, roughly half of that from 2005 to 2008.

In addition, Koch Industries spent less than $6 million since 2004 on the campaigns of federal lawmakers, almost all Republicans, and $37.9 million from 2006 to 2009 for direct lobbying.

In other words for an investment of less than $10 million annually in the lawmakers, lobbyists, activist think tanks, communications shops, and other facets of the political infrastructure, Koch Industries has assured the rising revenues and profitability of its core climate changing businesses.

Koch and its sister companies in the fossil fuel industry are so wealthy they can devote a tiny portion of their total revenue – a fraction of a fraction of 1 percent – to finance an influential inter-connected political infrastructure at the state level and in Washington.

The extent and expanse of that investment reveals the tight coordination that the fossil fuel industry deploys in executing its progress-denying work. Along with some of the usual suspects expected to receive Koch money — American Enterprise Institute, Cato, Heritage, Reason — the company also finances some of the active and influential state-based groups committed to “sound” science that is anything but.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, for instance, whose staff includes a former libertarian anti-science state director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality now dedicated to clouding the science of climate in Lansing, the state capital. And the Heartland Institute in Chicago, a free market “think” tank that isn’t doing much thinking about climate action that right thinking people would generally consider valuable.

More on this and other investigations as we move forward.
– Keith Schneider