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March 09 2011


Congress Seeks to End Billions in Subsidies for Oil Companies

As both oil industry profits and gas prices continue to rise, Congressman Bruce Braley (D – IA) believes that it is time to end the billions of dollars worth of subsidies that the United States hands out to oil companies on an annual basis. In his proposed Clean Energy Jobs bill, Braley would end the tax breaks and other subsidies that flow to the oil industry, and use that money instead to create clean energy jobs, invest in biofuel production, and pay down the national debt.

These oil industry subsidies are nothing to scoff at. In 2005, then-President George W. Bush authorized a total of $32.9 billion worth of new subsidies for the industry over five years, bringing the annual total of their subsidies to a staggering $39 billion. The new subsidies were put in place at a time when Americans were paying the highest price for gasoline at the pump in history, which coincided with the largest oil company profits to date.
To put the oil industries’ subsidies in perspective, T.J. Scolnick wrote in a DeSmogBlog piece last month in response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address:

The President proposed $302 million for solar energy research and development (up 22 percent); $123 million for wind energy (a 53 percent increase); and $55 million for geothermal energy (up 25 percent). But fossil fuels subsidies are holding back growth in burgeoning clean energy industries, which face a momumental challenge to compete with entrenched industries that receive far greater government subsidies.

Oil industry subsidies were established to help the industry meet the energy demands of the nation, and are meant to be used to increase production, exploration, and innovation. However, as fossil fuels are becoming more and more expensive to produce and causing increasing damage to the environment, the subsidies no longer provide a tangible benefit to the American people. The price of gasoline and consumer products continues to soar, putting a heavy burden on American families, and the only apparent benefits are going to the oil industry's bottom line, as evidenced in their record profits even in a tough economy.

Investing these billions of dollars of subsidies into clean, renewable sources of energy would not only create new industries offering much-needed jobs, but would also help reduce the pollution associated with dirty fossil fuels that threatens public health and the global climate.

Congressman Braley’s Clean Energy Jobs bill is in the early stages of the legislative process, and faces tough political hurdles with a Republican-controlled Congress.  While the wisdom of Braley's vision for clean energy and job creation is clear, the chances of the bill being brought to a full House vote remain slim. Once again, politics stands in the way of real progress.

January 31 2011


Groups File Appeal Over State Department’s Refusal to Disclose Communications with Tar Sands Oil Lobbyist


Three watchdog groups filed an appeal today with the U.S. State Department over its refusal to release correspondence between the agency and a former high-ranking presidential campaign staffer for Hillary Clinton.  In his role as oil lobbyist, Paul Elliott is seeking Secretary of State Clinton’s approval for the controversial Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline that would bring 900,000 barrels of tar sands a day over 2,000 miles through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

The coalition, including Friends of the Earth, the Center for International Environmental Law, and Corporate Ethics International submitted a FOIA request in December [PDF] targeted at Elliott, now lead lobbyist for TransCanada, the company aiming to build the pipeline.  The request was rejected by the State Department, and Marcie Keever, legal director for Friends of the Earth, believes that the State Department did not have legitimate legal grounds to do so. 

For the groups, the failure of the State Department to comply with its responsibility under the Freedom of Information Act is worrying, and further calls into question Clinton’s capacity to remain impartial on the pipeline decision.

“By refusing to disclose any documents, we contend that the State Department is violating the Freedom of Information Act,” said Keever.  “We are hopeful that with this appeal the State Department will release communications between the oil lobbyist and Secretary Clinton and her staffers.  If the agency doesn’t, we will take it to court if necessary.”<!--break-->

The State Department’s rejection of the groups’ FOIA request was criticized by independent FOIA experts and, unless overturned, threatens to force the issue into the courts.

Damon Moglen of Friends of the Earth argues that “The State Department is making a mockery of President Obama’s pledges to end the influence of lobbyists and improve transparency in Washington. "President Obama's State of the Union iterated our right “to know when your elected officials are meeting with lobbyists," yet in this case, Obama's goal and the glaring reality of the situation seem to be at odds. 

TransCanada also faces heavy criticism for manipulation of landowners along the pipeline’s proposed route.  In South Dakota, for example, TransCanada has filed more than a dozen lawsuits to condemn land along the pipeline’s proposed route, even though the company has not received the federal permit required for construction.  In Oklahoma, a family is suing TransCanada to defend its property, claiming that the company’s attempt to use eminent domain is unlawful.

The mounting outrage from landowners and local resistance to the pipeline clearly demonstrates that the public has not received adequate consultation on the pipeline.  For people along the pipe's path, this is more than a simple approval, it's a question of public health and environmental safety.

In the coming weeks, Secretary Clinton is expected to decide whether to fast-track a final recommendation on the project (and she already publicly said she was “inclined” to do so), or order a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, which would facilitate a more rigorous review and provide more opportunity for public input.

These groups feel that, for the integrity of the process, and for the health and safety of communities, a supplemental EIS should be mandated.  

What will be the fate of this ill-fated pipeline?  To learn more information about the Keystone XL pipeline, head over to the Friends of the Earth website.  

Image Credit: ForestEthics
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January 26 2011


Can You Have a Purely Economic Sputnik?

Last night, the president gave a speech that never directly mentioned the most pressing science-based issue of our time—global warming, climate change. I don’t like being so right in my prediction: Even I thought he’d say it once or twice at least.

At the same time, however, he announced a new national love affair with science, innovation, and clean energy, using a playbook that seems right out of the National Academy of Sciences’ now famous 2005 Rising Above the Gathering Storm report. And he capped it all off with a line of almost mythic potential: “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

Could it really be? And can this approach—save the climate, the country, the economy, and pretty much everything through technological innovation—deliver on its own?<!--break-->

First, let’s recap what happened following the Soviet launch of Sputnik. It really did create a boom of investment in the sciences in the U.S., which in turn drove prosperity—but it was an investment centrally impelled by fear of an external enemy. As I wrote with Sheril Kirshenbaum in our book Unscientific America:

The first Earth-orbiting satellite, beeping at us from above, inspired stark fears about our national security and competitiveness: Were we falling behind in technology? Would the Soviets fire on us from the skies, and if they tried, could we stop them? As Senator Lister Hill, an Alabama Democrat, put it, the nation had experienced “a severe blow, some would say a disastrous blow, at America’s self-confidence and at inner prestige in the world.” If the Soviets beat us to the moon, added sci-fi visionary Arthur C. Clarke, “they will have won the solar system, and theirs will be the voice of the future…As it will deserve to be.”

This is the context in which the National Science Foundation's previously paltry research budget achieved liftoff, and in which NASA was created to power us to the moon. This is the context in which graduate students were given generous funding—under the National Defense Education Act—to pursue science and engineering careers. This is the context in which we renewed focus on science education in schools.

Essentially, President Obama wants us to recreate the same sense of urgency, and the same national unity, but without the same fear of another competitor country, unless that country is supposed to be China—which, the President noted, recently “became the home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.” Okay, that’s something of a spur…but it is not, historically speaking, a Sputnik. (And, making China into the enemy is a very problematic notion.)

Obama wasn’t even speaking in a national security frame last night when he invoked Sputnik. He was speaking in an economic one. The sense of shared threat was displaced from an external other to our own economic problems—joblessness and deficits.

And that’s the real trick: Is the yearning for national unity, in the wake of Tucson, enough to overcome this chief non-parallel in Obama’s Sputnik analogy? Because undoubtedly, investing in more clean energy research, and more research in general, will spur jobs and innovation. But will we remember to forget our differences in the meantime? Is there some glue that will hold us together? Given the way politics now operate in the U.S., it’s hard to be so optimistic.

Already, you can see how the push for inspiration and unity requires papering over really serious and divisive problems. Last night, for instance, president Obama didn’t just ignore climate change (which is at least kind of understandable, in the sense that we can’t pass a law to deal with it in the next two years). He also threw together wind, solar, nuclear, natural gas, and even “clean coal” as the clean energy sources that he wants us living off by 2035. Well, it’s a nice notion, but for the moment clean coal remains an oxymoron, and there are reasons to suspect it may always be.

Don’t get me wrong—it was a deeply inspirational State of the Union, and I continue to be amazed at just how much this president understands and also adores science. And the Sputnik analogy remains powerful, because it does evoke a moment in the U.S. past where the country really proved its mettle--as it must again.

Let’s hope that’s where the analogies begin, rather than where they end.

January 24 2011


Will the State of the Union Address the State of the Planet?

It’s freezing out in the northeast—and to hear some pundits and strategists tell it, global warming may be largely frozen out of President Obama’s pending State of the Union address.

In other words, if waiting for the president to say "climate change" is your drinking game strategy for tomorrow night, you may wind up painfully sober by the end of the speech.

As Joe Romm notes, even those pre-speech analysts who do intimately understand the climate issue (and most do not) want the president to talk about energy innovation, not how much of a risk we’re running from ongoing warming. And at a time when the unswerving focus is the economy and jobs, and the president has just named the CEO of a clean energy company, General Electric, to head his new Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, you have to figure they're on to something.

After all, even in the last State of the Union Obama only mentioned climate change twice. And he only did so to quickly reframe it as a clean energy issue:<!--break-->

I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change.  But here's the thing -- even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future -– because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.  And America must be that nation.

Should we be upset by this? Should we welcome it?

I'm in the political realist camp. The fact is that global warming has never fared well as an issue on the public radar, and when the economy is faltering that’s even more certain to be the case. Media attention to the topic has been in decline since 2007 and since the Copenhagen-Climategate double whammy of late 2009. Indeed, this is something that we’ve come to expect: Media attention to climate change will not correlate with the subject’s growing urgency; and politicians will act more like journalists than like scientists in how much attention they pay to the topic.

Don't get me wrong: I think climate scientists should communicate clearly about climate science to address the many misconceptions out there on the topic—and they’re becoming better and better at doing just that, in real time. I also think it's important to expose misinformation campaigns, and trace them to their corporate and think tank origins.

But I’m not sure that presidents, environmental groups, and even some leaders of industry are wrong to focus on a message about clean energy innovation, rather than warnings of planetary climate instability.

We know from a variety of sources (polling data, issue framing considerations, etc) that the “clean energy”/"green jobs" message is probably the best one to put forward if you want to prepare a political environment for solving the climate problem, especially in the wake of an economic downturn that is only slowly reversing. And that’s why everyone has been running around using it constantly--and why the president will surely use it tomorrow night as well.

But experience further teaches that even with what is probably the best message out there, you still don’t up and win the issue suddenly. It’s so bitterly fought that you barely break even.

I'm inclined to say that that—not the failure of President Obama to get into the details of climate science—is the really sad thing about the current state of affairs.

January 27 2010


The State of the Green Union: Impediments to a Market Based Mechanism for Emissions Reduction

Almost one year ago, on February 24 2009, President Obama asked Congress for legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution. Henry Waxman and Edward Markey responded with The American Clean Energy and Security Act. Waxman and Markey outlined a cap-and-trade system involving significant US carbon emissions reductions. Early last fall Senators Barbara Boxer and John Kerry put together a new climate change bill.

Both bills contain a market-based mechanism to regulate emissions. The proposed bills offer an expedient means of reigning in carbon emissions on a national scale. These programs offer incentives and disincentives while letting the market do the difficult work of setting the price for CO2. Market-based mechanisms like cap-and-trade are functioning well around the world. We also have reason to believe that cap-and-trade will spur long-term job creation.

Despite fears about the costs of cap-and-trade, there are significant costs associated with a business as usual approach to climate change. In the final analysis, environmental costs must be understood as economic costs.

President Obama and the Democrats have failed to effectively communicate these facts to the American public. Part of that failure is attributable to massive misinformation campaigns from powerful economic and political interests. Americans are being swayed by these efforts as revealed by polls which show that an increasing number of Americans are questioning the existence of climate change.

Last year, President Obama took steps to impose reform by limiting campaign funding from corporations and unions. However, the President's efforts to address these problems were recently struck down by the Supreme Court. Corporations are now free to spend unlimited sums of money with the intent of influencing electoral outcomes. For evidence, one need look no further than the recent election of Republican Senator Scott Brown.

The implications for the green agenda are considerable. The massive exposure provided by unlimited funding can be very persuasive. When opposing interests are free to influence the electorate, financing takes precedence over ideas and scare tactics triumph over rational debate.
Election-year politics and growing estimates of stimulus spending will further complicate the passage of a climate change bill.

Although 2009 began with great promise, in 2010 we are forced to concede that deceit is clouding legislative efforts and the electorate is being swayed by misinformation. If key climate legislation is defeated, efforts to manage climate change will languish.

The Obama administration is attempting to regulate US carbon emissions, but progress is being stymied by the entrenched interests of the old carbon based economy.


Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources for information and tools on sustainability. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics and eco-economics.

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