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

Oil Devotion Could Mean Climate No Motion

The one-foot waves today in the Gulf of Mexico were described as “tranquil” as BP started to lower a 70-ton case through 5,000 feet of water to contain the source of an oil leak that threatens the shorelines of four states. Guiding the steel cover over the well shaft in pitch-black waters at crushing depths, said engineers, is like floating a toy parachute off the Empire State Building and landing on a paperclip in the street.oil-booms

The political equivalent, of course, is what’s happening in the Senate with the climate and energy bill, which also is navigating in murky political waters and under enormous partisan pressure.

Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, in a joint statement today, said they would introduce a comprehensive climate and energy bill next Wednesday. They said they would do so without the participation of Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has been working for months on climate and energy policy with his two Senate colleagues. Sen. Graham abandoned the effort last week over differences with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over timing of the floor debate on the Senate energy bill, and immigration.

Kerry and Lieberman Promote Climate Bill
Senators Kerry and Lieberman said they were enthusiastic about the bill’s chances. “The last weeks have given everyone with a stake in this issue a heightened understanding that as a nation, we can no longer wait to solve this problem which threatens our economy, our security and our environment,” said the statement. “Our optimism is bolstered because there is a growing and unprecedented bi-partisan coalition from the business, national security, faith and environmental communities that supports our legislation and is energized to work hard and get it passed.”

Carol Browner, the assistant to the president for energy and climate change, told Bloomberg Television, that the Gulf spill could help spur public support for the bill. “This accident, this tragedy, is actually heightening people’s interest in energy in this country and in wanting a different energy plan,” Browner said.

The Gulf spill did indeed provide fresh evidence of the dramatic consequences of the nation’s devotion to oil, and prompted grassroots demonstrations to encourage clean energy investment and to reduce oil demand in several Gulf coast communities and around the country. In addition climate science, which forms the research foundation for new policy that encourages the clean energy transition to curb emissions of greenhouse gases, also generated fresh attention this week.

Science Supported
On Friday, Science Magazine published a letter from 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences that stated “there is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.” The letter, written in response to the December hacking of email messages from East Anglia University and other attacks on climate science, also called to an end to the “McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them.”

Politics and Oil
The letter also came as Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli targets Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist and former faculty member of University of Virginia. The attorney general is demanding that the university turn over e-mails and other documents that involve Mann’s research and contacts under a statute that is designed to detect fraud in government contracts, an action the Washington Post called “chilling.”

The targeting of climate scientists by political opponents is hampering action on the climate and energy bill. So is the Gulf spill and its long streams of oil the color of dried blood. Early in the week Democratic Senators Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, and Bill Nelson of Florida held a news conference to alert their colleagues that any provisions that expand offshore oil exploration have no place in a comprehensive climate and energy bill. By the way, those one-foot waves? Winds and waves are expected to pick up considerably over the weekend.

— Keith Schneider

A Miserable Week

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A week that began with a political blow – the disruption of the bipartisan Senate team drawing up climate and energy legislation – ended in environmental disaster. A vicious oil spill, produced by the explosion and sinking last week of the Deep Horizon drilling rig, inundated the Gulf shoreline and threatened to wreck the aquatic diversity that makes the Louisiana coast one of the world’s most productive fisheries.

Twenty one years ago, as a reporter for the New York Times, I spent weeks in Alaska covering the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and years afterward reporting on its lingering ecological and economic damage. The Gulf spill is fortified by 5,000 barrels of leaking oil a day (at least that’s what was said on Friday though others say the amount is much greater)  and there is no end in sight. Despite its assurances in public testimony and television commercials, oil companies have no proven techniques to penetrate the ink-black waters and plug the source a mile beneath the surface. The gulf spill could become the most significant oil-related disaster in the nation’s history.

In every way conceivable the Gulf spill is a dismal display of the runaway risks for a nation devoted to petroleum. Oil spills, like blood that gushes from a severed artery, attract public attention and civic lament. But what most of America really cares about is that the national blood pressure gauge – the price of gasoline – doesn’t soar.

That’s why two years ago the chant of “drill baby drill” looked for a time to be enough of an energy policy to catapult John McCain to the White House. Just a month ago President Barack Obama, arguing that it was needed to secure domestic energy needs, lifted the federal moratorium on offshore drilling and opened huge expanses of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to new exploration.

Yesterday, the administration put that decision in abeyance pending federal inspections of existing offshore Gulf rigs and a clearer understanding of how the spill affects public attitudes and policy. And Sunday, the president is scheduled to fly to Louisiana to view the expanding mess for himself.

Indeed, during a week that the EPA made public a new assessment of the sweeping effects of a warming atmosphere in the United States, and the nation’s first offshore wind farm received federal approval, the unanswered question is how much of an impression the Gulf spill will have on anything other than the wild creatures in its path.

The spill, dark and menacing and slow moving, is an apt metaphor for the pace and condition of America’s promised transition from fossil fuel to clean energy alternatives. Andrea Buffa, a writer at the Apollo Alliance, reported this week that some businesses are saying publicly that without federal climate and clean energy policies, more clean energy operations will move abroad to countries that are committed to clean energy. In an interview in the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday, Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, said that if the United States doesn’t adopt clean energy policies, GE will have to go overseas. “We have to go where the action is,” he said.

By any measure of economic and environmental reason the spill should resonate with the public and with lawmakers. It should convince Senator Lindsey Graham to rejoin Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman in introducing a climate and energy bill fit for the 21st century. In an era of warming temperatures and stone cold inflexible politics, it may be the best outcome from such a miserable week.

— Keith Schneider

When It Comes to Climate and Clean Energy, “Just Say No” Has Become Too Popular

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Monday, in the parlance of Washington policy and journalism, was scheduled to be a potential day of breakthrough in the work to achieve action on the warming climate. Senators John Kerry (Mass.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.) had announced that they’d come to consensus on what a bipartisan energy and climate policy fit for the 21st century looked like. The results were to be unveiled at a news briefing that had global import.

Instead nothing happened. It was like reeling in a sailfish, all fight and silvery splash, only to have the beast die on the way into the boat.

This is the third time in five months that that I’ve been involved in climate and clean energy campaigns that culminated in less than they promised. “Just say no” is emerging as a far easier answer than saying yes to progress.

In Copenhagen in December, nearly 200 nations gathered at the largest summit ever with the express purpose of reaching agreement on a climate treaty. Instead what they came up with was a novel accord that points in the right direction and may not achieve more than that.

In Traverse City, a small utility’s bid to acquire 30 percent of its energy from local renewable resources, including a state-of-the-art clean right-sized clean burning 10 mw wood biomass plant, generated such fierce hyperbole about unfounded risks among some environmentalists that you’d have thought the utility was proposing a 100-acre toxic waste site for the middle of town. The local push back, led by a grassroots environmental group, is consistent with similar resistance in 30 other states to proposals for new wind, solar, geothermal, wood biomass, and transmission lines. This week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected to decide on a big offshore wind farm in Massachusetts that has been the focus on a popular opposition campaign. The clean energy transition may not be televised.

Now comes the Senate’s attempt to push through a climate and energy bill, which over the weekend got washed up on the shoals of partisanship, immigration policy, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s re-election, and the powerful climate change-denying communications machine operated by America’s fossil fuel collective.

Today, Senator Reid retreated just a bit and sought to assure his Democratic and Republican colleagues that debate on the climate and energy bill would come before debate on the immigration bill. That makes sense since there is no immigration bill to debate in the Senate. But Graham, a very lonely Republican in the climate and clean energy space, has not yet indicated whether he’s ready to participate in introducing the ready-to-go energy bill that he’s spent months shaping with Senators Kerry and Lieberman.

The politics of stasis — of doing nothing — is brought action on climate change to a crawl, and that may be kind. The public will to act, to reduce emissions of carbon, to provide for the safety of the planet and all its inhabitants, is just not apparent in the United States, or in much of the rest of the developed world.

Clearly, a new operating program is needed politically and a new communications frame and strategy needs to be developed. Today the Environmental Protection Agency made public a new report on climate change effects that are getting worse:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are increasing. Between 1990 and 2008, there has been about a 14 percent increase in emissions in the United States.
  • Average temperatures are rising. Seven of the top 10 warmest years on record for the continental United States have occurred since 1990.
  • Tropical cyclone intensity has increased in recent decades. Six of the 10 most active hurricane seasons have occurred since the mid-1990s.
  • Sea levels are rising. From 1993 to 2008, sea level rose twice as fast as the long-term trend.
  • Glaciers are melting. Loss of glacier volume appears to have accelerated over the last decade.
  • The frequency of heat waves has risen steadily since the 1960s. The percentage of the U.S. population impacted by heat waves has also increased.

Still, people in the United States aren’t much concerned. They are clearly indicating,  in grassroots fights and in support for lawmakers who counsel to do nothing, that they are satisfied with the way things are. That is a dangerous sentiment in an unsettled world making powerful and swift transitions in every important sector — the economy, markets, the environment, energy, population, and competition for resources.

— Keith Schneider

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

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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