Archive for the ‘Climate Policy’ Category

Obama’s State of Union will likely hit on a number of energy policy themes: climate change, promotion of offshore drilling, clean energy. The President’s statements on climate change were previewed in his January 21 inaugural address, when he declared “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.  Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.  But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it.”

The 2007 Supreme Court ruled the EPA must regulate greenhouse gasses under its existing Clean Air Act authority if it finds a scientific basis that such emissions pose a danger to public health. This summer, a Republican-led federal appeals court ruled that the EPAs compilation of the science of climate change was overwhelming and compelling, thereby requiring the Agency to act.

Obama has already used this authority to implement ground-breaking greenhouse gas emission rules for cars and trucks, and has proposed rules for new power plants that rule out the construction of conventional coal power plants. Tonight’s State of the Union will likely propose new rules over existing power plants.

And this is where Southern’s $100,000 contribution to Obama’s 2013 Inaguaration may become a factor. Southern Co was the only utility to make a contribution.  Obama’s climate change rules for cars were developed with auto industry support – previewing a framework for how rules over existing power plants may play out. In 2009 Obama was content to let the House take the lead in putting together climate rules to ensure there’d be shared responsibility among the legislative & executive branches on economy-wide legislation that was sure to be controversial in some circles. While Obama quickly abandoned succeeding Senate efforts to draft a companion bill after concluding that the cap ‘n trade approach was too politically risky, Obama pivoted in his 2011 SOTU around a clean energy standard that promoted nuclear and natural gas that had very similar emissions reduction targets as the Waxman Markey bill.

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climate change in the presidential debate on foreign policyThe final presidential debate on Monday will focus on foreign policy. Among the topics that are sure to come up: the war in Afghanistan, the conflict between Israel and Iran, the changing landscape in the Middle East and new terrorist threats, and the rise of China on the world stage.

But what is less clear is whether the moderator, Bob Schieffer will press the candidates on the national security threat that has yet be addressed: climate change.

The Defense Department in a 2010 report called climate change a prominent military vulnerability and an “accelerant of instability and conflict.” The report identifies climate change and energy as two key issues, “that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment.” The report notes that “climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.”

Thus far, both the debate moderators and candidates have been skirting around the issue, discussing energy issues repeatedly without mention of climate change. This prompted Chris Hayes of MSNBC to compare the silence on climate change during the energy portion of the debate to “discussing smoking without discussing cancer.”

And town hall moderator Candy Crowley, during CNN’s post-debate coverage, explained that time constraints prevented her from getting to climate change, saying, “I had that question for all of you climate change people. We just, you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing so you knew you kind of wanted to go with the economy.”

Dismissing the effect that climate change has our economy is one thing, but excluding climate change from a debate on foreign policy, effectively ignores U.S. military planners’ warnings that climate change poses massive threats to global security. Ignoring it does an enormous disservice to Americans and all those “climate change people” like:

  • Navy Secretary Ray Mabus – “Our responsibilities, our concerns, have to be tied into the effects of climate change” and;
  • U.S. ally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel – “A failure to take action against climate change will have dreadful consequences for the whole world” and;
  • Nobel Prize-winning scientist Mario Molina – “It’s important that people are doing more than just hearing about global warming. People may be feeling it, experiencing the impact on food prices, getting a glimpse of what everyday life may be like in the future, unless we as a society take action.”

But so far, instead of heeding the pleas of our own military, world leaders and a Nobel prize-winning scientist, we’ve had to watch our presidential candidates vie for the hand of the fossil fuel industry to see who gets to be the next Mr. Coal.  The energy-focused portions of the previous debates have been like watching a bad episode of the Bachelorette. The good news is, it’s not too late to call the wedding off.  The final debate offers a chance for the candidates to renounce this destructive relationship and address how they are going to use their position as a global leader to reduce carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere and manage the already clear and present climate change threats.

But again, that opportunity will present itself only if the moderator also acknowledges climate change as a national security threat, as has been widely acknowledged.

In addition to the 2010 report, an October 2011 report by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense’s Defense Science Board task force warns that failure to anticipate and mitigate these changes in climate patterns, “increases the threat of more failed states with the instabilities and potential for conflict inherent in such failures.”

Recent events like the droughts that affected almost 61 percent of the lower 48 states this summer, the raging wildfires in the northwest and new government data that suggests show that the Arctic sea ice could be gone by the end of this decade clearly demonstrate the domestic challenges we face as a result of unmitigated climate change, but addressing these issues is going to take a global effort with strong leadership from the president of the United States.

So, if discussing domestic energy without mentioning climate change is like “discussing smoking without discussing cancer,” then discussing foreign policy without discussing climate change is like, well, discussing foreign policy without discussing climate change.

Public Citizen’s petition urging Bob Schieffer to ask the presidential candidates to tell us their plans to address climate change.

Photo courtesy of NASA commons

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This is a repost of my blog at National Journal.

As I wrote in the Expert Blog at the beginning of this year, the primary attraction of natural gas today is its price advantage over competing fuels. Sure, the emissions benefits over coal and petroleum are nice and important, but pricing dynamics are driving the market. And it’s imprudent policy to assume that gas will remain cheap, or even affordable for that matter. While we most likely have a few more years of moderately-priced natural gas, we will see a return to the Bad Old Days of natural gas price volatility as soon as emerging and proposed infrastructure changes accelerate. Natural gas’ emissions benefits are no match for zero-emission competitors, but today’s cheap gas prices are luring crucial support away from the long-term renewables solution.

In the power sector, decisions are being made based on today’s low prices that commit significant parts of our electricity infrastructure to gas for the next generation. This will come at the expense of renewables, which, unlike natural gas, will only have a future cost curve that will continue to plummet. I can predict a future Energy Expert Blog after five years’ time bemoaning the natural gas price trap and “is it too late to ramp up renewables and efficiency?”.

Remember that natural gas, for all of its emissions benefits to its fossil fuel cousins, remains a messy extractive product. The folks that argue that all natural gas drilling pollutes drinking water are as correct as the industry folks who claim, always with a straight face, that fracking has never contaminated a single drinking water source (let’s start opening up those hundreds of nondisclosure agreements households have been forced to sign with drillers in exchange for getting their hands on trucked clean water to their rural homes). There is no such thing as benign fossil fuel extraction. There are risks and environmental costs associated with fracking, and there can be no doubt that the vast fracking revolution, complemented with weak federal (and, for the most part, state) oversight is a recipe for disaster. Water wars will define the next generation’s resource fight (it’s actually already beginning). Let’s not hasten that with natural gas’ inherent risks.

The recent revival of multilateral international trade talks with visions of using the 1992 Energy Policy Act requirement forcing approval of natural gas import/export facilities to countries with which we have a FTA requiring national treatment for trade in natural gas is fallacious. Sure the extreme price gap between North American and European/Asian markets is tempting, but the minute we become a significant exporter the fuel will no longer be affordable to fill our power plants and T. Boone Pickens’ patented trucks.

Natural gas will continue to be a part of our energy mix for the foreseeable future. But it must not―and cannot―serve as our foundation. That must be reserved for renewables and efficiency. The technology revolution is not fracking, but in solar PV and other renewables.

Tyson Slocum Directs Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on twitter @tysonslocum

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This week National Journal reports that former Senators Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. and Trent Lott, R-Miss “are working together on a blueprint for energy legislation” through their role as co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Strategic Energy Initiative, and plan to release it in January. NJ notes that “their effort could gain traction: Both are held in high regard by their former colleagues, and the BPC is a serious player in the energy debate.

What NJ fails to mention is that both Dorgan and Lott are also lobbyists getting rich taking special interest money from a who’s who of major energy corporations, which raises the question: will their energy blueprint serve as yet another veiled, sophisticated sell for their high priced energy corporate clients? When does their respected “high regard” begin and their shilling for their corporate clients end?

Lott’s Breaux Lott Leadership Group represents ExxonMobilEntergy, GE, energy trader Goldman Sachs, National Propane Gas Association, Plains Exploration and Shell Oil. In addition, the Breaux Lott group is a subsidiary of lobbying giant Patton Boggs, so you should also include PBs list of energy clients: ATP Oil & Gas, the Mining Awareness Resource Group, Oil States International and the oil giant TOTAL.

Dorgan co-chairs Government Relations for Arent Fox, where his corporate energy clients include oil companies Denbury Resources & Noble Energy.

I’m sure there will be some good recommendations in the Lott-Dorgan energy report. And I’m sure there’ll be policies that will be controversial. At the end of the day, we just don’t know what made it into the blueprint because of policy merits or the special interest paycheck.

Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on Twitter @tysonslocum

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The Obama Adminitration’s announcement a while back to “streamline” the permitting process for 7 major electricity transmission lines in an effort to “create jobs” and promote wind energy is proble"power lines"matic. While the projects would benefit proposed wind farms, the fact is that existing coal-fired and nuclear power plant infrastructure appear to be the big winners. And at least two of the projects get to charge consumers hundreds of millions of dollars in rate incentives authorized by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 under the expectation that investors needed the extra money because of the implicit difficulty in getting the necessary approval to build.
A recent analysis by Roger Bezdek in the February 2012 issue of Public Utilities Fortnightly argues that new transmission needs to link proposed new large scale, centralized renewable energy projects (mandated through a proposed federal Renewable Energy Standard, under Bezdek’s assumptions) “could enable expansion of coal-fired generation by the equivalent of about 30 new coal plants by 2020,” mainly because the added transmission, coupled with coal’s continued price advantage, will make more existing coal capacity available, since “utilization of the existing coal fleet is currently about 72 to 74 percent. However, this can be increased to about 85 percent if there’s enough transmission to transmit the added coal generation to the load at nights and weekends.” Now, Bezdek’s analysis is not specifically applied to the “fast-tracked” 7 transmission projects, but you get the idea.
For a swirling debate that often pits the Chamber of Commerce and multinational corporations against Obama on regulations, it seems strange that Obama’s proposed gutting of transmission siting regulations has received a collective yawn from environmentalists and many in the pro-regulation community. These days it appears as though Obama governs through press release, wrapping any initiative with “jobs” or “green energy” no matter how tenuous the claim. Touting transmission line projects as vehicles to “create jobs” is not efficient, and a close analysis of the transmission lines clearly show that coal-burning power plants will be the big winners.
Siting towering, multi-state transmission lines has been the traditional job of states. But with NIMBYism giving rise to NOPE (Not on Planet Earth) – due mainly to millions of new people now living in broad swaths of These United States where once only cows and tumbleweeds reigned, as evidenced by an increase of population density of 105% between 1950 and 2010 (from 42.6 people per sq mile to 87.4), it can get awfully difficult for corporations to build large projects sometimes. Not that that’s a bad thing. Unlike China, which can forcibly remove 1.3 million people to make way for giant energy projects at the drop of a hat, here in America we have the 5th Amendment protecting us.
In contrast, we ought to be focusing on YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard!) microgrid projects serving rooftop solar.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 supposedly granted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commisison (FERC) new “backstop” authority to site transmission lines, in Section 1221, but only if states “withheld approval for more than one year.” But in 2009 the 4th Circuit rejected FERC’s interpretation of this authority. Courts also struck down FERC’s Section 368 authority to establish National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors that would have usurped existing state authority. However futile FERC’s efforts have been, Section 1221 of EPAct 2005 designated the Department of Energy as the “lead agency for purposes of coordinating” transmission projects on Federal lands. And it is this Section 1221 authority that Obama is utilizing with these 7 projects, as all cross major chunks of the public’s land.
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