Tuesday, May 25, 2010

About that climate bill . . .

What's shaping up to be one of the worst environmental disasters in decades – a disaster caused as a direct consequence of the U.S.'s dependence on fossil fuels – would seem to make it that much easier for Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) to sell their fellow lawmakers on the merits of the “American Power Act,” their chest-thumpingly titled energy and climate proposal that was unveiled earlier this month. However, the worsening oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is actually widely seen as diminishing that bill's chances of passage, which, though seemingly counter-intuitive at first, actually just speaks to the extent to which the bill -- and the government writ large -- is beholden to the very corporate interests it claims to be taking on. Indeed, as an analysis from GOP consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners notes, the proposal “appears far closer than any of its predecessors to a climate bill that corporate stakeholders might actually want to pass.”

For starters, take the Kerry-Lieberman proposal’s subsidies for “clean coal,” a P.R. term that refers to capturing a coal plant's carbon emissions and storing them under ground -- though nobody’s actually doing that at the moment -- while passing legal liability for any problems onto to taxpayers. Despite being the leading contributor to climate change -- proponents of the bill would say because -- coal companies stand to reap tens of billions of dollars over the next few decades in direct subsidies for what is the climate policy-equivalent of cleaning the floors by sweeping dirt under a rug – except sweeping dirt under a rug is technically and commercially feasible. Then there's the fact that, as the Center for Progressive Reform points out, the bill would allow polluters to continue polluting by way of dubious carbon offsets, with the emissions purportedly reduced by the offsets “considered 'additional' even if the activity would receive payment or compensation for another environmental benefit.”

The Kerry-Lieberman proposal might be just enough to assuage liberal guilt, what with its vaunted cap that, assuming offsets are real (they’re not), would reduce U.S. emissions 4 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. But, like that week you rode your bike to work after watching An Inconvenient Truth, it doesn't seem likely to do much in the way of halting that whole catastrophic climate change thing -- a weighty burden, to be sure, with countries like China and India also unwilling to commit to hard limits on their emissions. And then there’s the provisions that would allow for an expansion in offshore oil drilling, dangling more than a third of a new project’s revenue in front of borderline-bankrupt states. Sigh.

Yet despite the reality of the Kerry-Lieberman bill, many major environmental groups -- Environmental Defense Fund (of course), the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) -- are echoing the rhetoric of its promoters, pointing out the flaws of the leading Senate climate proposal only when directly provoked. Speaking at the National Press Club last week, officials with the LCV and NRDC even cited the worsening Gulf spill to argue for Senate “action” on climate legislation (knowing full well what that might look like), with a new ad featuring actor Robert Redford citing the disaster to implore President Obama “to lead America toward a clean energy future.” Beyond focus group-tested talking points, though, the group’s public appeals are vague on what exactly they believe would constitute a sufficiently clean energy and climate policy.

At the Press Club event, I asked LCV President Gene Karpinski to reconcile his organization's call for action on climate legislation in the wake of the Gulf disaster with the fact that the leading climate proposal in the Senate would actually expand offshore drilling and, as Kerry noted at the bill's unveiling, has been praised by “Shell Oil Company, ConocoPhillips [and] British Petroleum.”

“We have not embraced the bill per se,” Karpinski told me, “but we have said now's the time to act. Now's the time to get the job done.” He suggested the Senate could “pass an even stronger bill” than the one endorsed by the House last year, which is a nice sentiment, I guess, but news to anyone passingly familiar with the operations of the august upper chamber. Still, “that's the goal, that's the challenge,” Karpinski said, adding that “the ultimate success of the president's response to the oil spill is whether we can in fact pass comprehensive legislation this year.” (I think if you asked a Louisiana fisherman they may have a slightly different definition of “success”.)

In essence, major environmental groups like LCV and NRDC may not be fond of expanded offshore drilling, but they're unwilling to explicitly oppose any climate bill that would enable such an expansion. Notably, neither Karpinski nor the head of any other major, “mainstream” environmental groups -- excepting the likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth -- has declared its opposition to a climate bill that allows for more offshore drilling. Instead, they prefer vague appeals to the need for “action” on climate change – joined in the call by major energy companies acting through the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, of which NRDC is a founding member – while giving politicians free reign to craft the details. Ultimately, almost any legislation introduced under the auspices of addressing global warming will receive their backing, justified by that familiar incrementalist refrain: it's a step in the right direction!

In the meantime, the proposal isn’t going anywhere at the moment, in no small part due to the incongruity of claiming to save the environment with a bill even BP could love. That said, given that merely “addressing” climate change is conflated with tackling the issue, it's no wonder then that we're left with the absurdity of environmentalists citing the need to take on “Big Oil” by arguing for the passage of a bill . . . endorsed by Big Oil. After all, environmentalists, when politicians know they can take your support for granted, it should come as no great surprise when all the “compromises” come at your expense. But it's not all negative: should there be another offshore drilling-related eco-disaster, at least LCV and NRDC will have plenty of horrifying images to choose from for their next fundraising appeal.

If you want to save the planet, plant a tree. Cut your carbon footprint. Protest a coal plant. Or an oil company. Just don’t wait around expecting a politician or the government – or a major environmental group – to do it for you.

See Also: Why you shouldn't count on a climate treaty, either.

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