Climate legislation in light of the Gulf spill

Satellite image of the Gulf of Mexico earlier this week, by NASA.

In Washington this week, South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham pulled his support from the American Power Act, the Senate energy bill he created along with John Kerry and Independent Joe Lieberman.  This bill was a compromise from the American Clean Energy and Security Act, passed by the House last June.

In light of the massive uncontrolled oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, coming ashore in Louisiana right now, it is a good time to discuss our energy policy and the way forward.  Oil, like coal and wood before it, used to be a plentiful source of energy.  Where I grew up, in Oil City, Pennsylvania, the corporate headquarters for Quaker State and Pennzoil once stood.  They moved to Texas once the oil was gone in Pennsylvania.  Now, as domestic sources continue to diminish, we must obtain oil elsewhere.  I deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2000 to defend access to Middle East oil, and I can assure you that the price we pay for the United States Fifth Fleet is quite expensive.  The tar sands of Canada are a plentiful source of oil, but the process to extract it is very energy intensive, reducing the EROEI further. Then of course, we have potential deep-sea sources, but the hidden costs in those sources are becoming clear this week.

The concept of Peak Oil is often discussed, and debated, but consider that the oil, along with coal, uranium, and natural gas, were formed over a long period of time.  These resources are not renewable.  Sooner or later, we will have to find a way to keep our economy growing by other means.  Hydrogen is an energy sink, and is not a fuel source.  Right now the only viable renewable sources of energy we have are solar, hydro, and wind.  Nuclear power is another source that with investment can meet a lot of our energy needs.  However, our economy runs on oil.  This oil is difficult to obtain and will only become more expensive.

Additionally, fossil fuels have external costs attached to them that we do not currently pay at the pump.  Fossil fuels emit greenhouse gasses (GhG) like CO2 as a byproduct when they are burned, and those GhG build up in the atmosphere.  Additionally, coal mining and burning results in adverse health impacts from fly ash as well as gasses emitted in the burning process.

Partisans now debate the science of global warming, but it is science, and the scientists who study it have overwhelmingly found that we are changing our planet for the worse.  Even a group of retired Generals and Admirals came out in support of the bill, arguing that global warming is a national security issue.  Skeptics will tell you that pieces of reports are incorrect, or that one glacier will not melt by 2040, but rather a few decades later.  They look at the effect of volcanic eruptions and believe that this will forever mitigate the unprecedented concentration of GhG in the atmosphere.  They are missing the forest for the trees.  The past decade was the hottest on record, according to NASA. Ultimately, the emission of GhG is an externality that is not factored into fuel costs.

So, where do we go from here?  It makes sense to invest as much as possible in new energy technology, right?  What about our current energy waste?   Do you think weatherization and vehicle efficiency are a waste of money?  David Brooks argues that now is the time to pass the sensible energy bill, drafted by both Republicans and Democrats.  Ezra Klein discusses how a climate bill could potentially pass through reconciliation.

The bill does not feature a Cap & Trade system, but it does help to set a price for carbon.  Brooks receives assurances from the CEOs of the FPL group and NRG Energy that the bill would, by setting a predictable price for carbon, help the companies invest in new clean energy products.

Republicans opposed increased fuel efficiency standards in vehicles for years.  Their mantra for energy is drill, baby, drill.  Of course, Sarah Palin has said nothing about offshore drilling this week.  Lindsay Graham went out on a limb, in fact the limb formerly occupied by ex-Maverick John McCain.  He deserves credit.  Unfortunately, moderates like him and Charlie Crist are increasingly being driven out of the Republican Party.  Who is next, the two Republicans from Maine?   Our energy policy is crucial right now.  As Brooks eloquently points out:

“It’s clearly going to take legislative action to catalyze private investment and to increase federal research to where it should be — about $25 billion a year, according to Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution. It’s going to take some equivalent of the Pacific Railroad Acts to kick this into gear. “

The Democrats have a bill that is not perfect, but the right start.  The Republicans have only silence.  With all of the externalities, like Defense Spending, environmental and health costs, and GhG emissions, that are not currently included in the cost of a gallon of gas, as a society we do not grasp the cost of our economy and the path forward.  The status quo is just not acceptable.


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