Sunday, July 25, 2010

Climate Legislation: Where Do We Go Now?

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid essentially sounded the death knell for climate legislation this year when he announced that nothing substantive would be addressed until the autumn (and in my estimation, even addressing it at that point is nothing but a big question mark). Instead, the Senate in the coming week will take up a bill that is directed primarily at a response to the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico as well as addressing natural gas technology.

If you look at where the Senate is now as compared to where the House of Representatives was last year, the first question that comes to mind is, "What happened?" Last year, there seemed to be a big push to get a major climate change bill passed by Congress and signed by the President, ideally in time for the beginning of the Copenhagen climate conference. The House passed a bill on a razor-thin vote of 219-212, one which - while well-intentioned - could have been a disaster for business, industry, and consumers.

Despite my misgivings over passing any legislation which leads to higher taxes or increased energy costs for Americans, I still feel that the environment needs protection - and that it will take a mixture of the citizenry, business, and a small bit of government (but not so much as to put the entire onus of leadership on Washington) in order to accomplish that. Taking all of that into account, who do we blame for the current situation? If you are a Democrat, you blame Republicans; if you are a Republican, you blame Democrats; if you are an industry, you blame the environmentalists; if you are an environmentalist, you blame industry and trade groups.

But shouldn't the fault be shared by everyone? In his column in today's New York Times, columnist Tom Friedman addressed that very thing: "I could blame Republicans for the fact that not one G.O.P. senator indicated a willingness to vote for a bill that would put the slightest price on carbon. I could blame the Democratic senators who were also waffling. I could blame President Obama for his disappearing act on energy and spending more time reading the polls than changing the polls. I could blame the Chamber of Commerce and the fossil-fuel lobby for spending bags of money to subvert this bill. But the truth is, the public, confused and stressed by the last two years, never got mobilized to press for this legislation. We will regret it."

Let's get the finger-pointing out of our system - it should suffice that nothing got done, and two years have been wasted on arguments and blame. We should now ask ourselves where we go from here. This session of Congress is obviously a wash, but what about the next? Depending on the results of the November elections and the make-up of Congress beginning in January, will the GOP and Democrats view any changes as any indication that they need to try harder to work together on this issue? Or will they - as most would seem to feel - make the situation in Washington even more divisive and toxic and continue to bog down on all fronts?

As the members of the House and Senate spend their August recess back in their states and districts, I hope they think long and hard on this issue -all of us are waiting to see what they do next...

Friday, June 4, 2010

BP Oil Spill Counter

Mobile, Alabama television station WKRG (the local CBS affiliate) has posted a "gallons of oil spilled" counter on its website. I have pasted it here - it's incredible (and highly discouraging) to watch just how quickly the spill totals roll by...

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Protecting the Environment: It's Not Just for Adults

An article poasted today on the website for Planet Green discussed a series of presentations made to Denver-area high school students by a staff members from the Alliance for Climate Education. According to the article, the staff discussed "the basics of climate change: the role of greenhouse gases, what human behaviors play the greatest role in increasing them—including meat consumption—the sensitivity of the earth to a difference in temperature of just one or two degrees, and how Americans in particular are used to 'living large,' using more resources per capita than any other country in the world."

Based on the results of these presentations, 150 students had submitted cards indicating their interest in doing more - and at a current "rate of return" of 25 percent, ACE is looking for an increase to 50 percent. Student movements have always been a big part of the history of this country, and it appears that dealing with climate change will be no different.

In our house, we have 100 percent interest in doing more - our two preschoolers are already getting involved (yes, we cannot get them to clean up their room, but they're gung-ho about cleaning up the planet), and I'm pleased to see it. I'd like to think that watching my wife and me putting out the recycling each week and turning off lights in rooms that aren't occupied (among other things) has inspired them in some way. I think, though, that much of it comes from the education they are receiving in their own schools (not to mention DVDs like "Wubbzy Goes Green" - why listen to mom and dad when they can listen to cartoon characters??).

A case in point is the conversation I had with my oldest in the car yesterday. She hadn't really been saying much, but then out of the blue she started telling me how using a lot of gas in our cars makes the Earth sick, and how we really need to be sure to clean up all of our trash and make sure the planet is taken care of. Through it all, she got very animated and demonstrated a very strong interest in everything she was telling me.

I'm anxious to see how much more interested the kids get in actually putting what they're learning into action. They can certainly do small things to make a difference, such as the lights and recycling that I had mentioned earlier. But perhaps they'll move into something bigger - and it would help if I could figure out a way that I could convince them that cleaning their room is good for the Earth!!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Kerry-Graham-Lieberman Documents Leaked!

Steve Milloy, creater of the Green Hell Blog, has scored a major scoop by obtaining leaked copies of a four-page summary and 21-page, section-by-section analysis of the Kerry-(Graham)-Lieberman legislation scheduled to be released tomorrow at 1:30. You can read the four-page summary here and the 21-page analysis here.

Could it be an intentional leak? Of course! Does it matter? Of course not!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Climate Change Bill - It's Just Like Driver's Ed

You know, when it comes to the climate change bill and the prospects for action this year, I'm getting a headache. The constant mid-stream switches in the "is you is or is you ain't" plan for the release of the bill are almost dizzying. First Waxman-Markey passes the House of Representatives, and the Senate looks like it's ready to launch out the gate.

Then, there's a delay.

Senators Graham, Kerry, and Lieberman, sensing that they're losing momentum at a time that probably represents the last, best hope for level-headed folks to get together and pass a bill, start a tri-partisan effort at crafting a bill that will get 60 votes. They held hundreds of meetings, consulted with dozens of businesses and associations, and were well on the way to introducing on April 26 something they thought would pass.

Then, there was another delay; Graham backed out because of his outrage that immigration reform was being moved to the front of the line for Senate action.

Kerry and Lieberman pressed onward, and when Senate Majority Leader announced immigration reform may not move this year and that the focus was back on climate change legislation it looked like they would get their release date. Things were set for this week (May 12).

Now, will there be another delay - and will it be Harry Reid's fault?

In a story carried earlier today on the website for Bloomberg Businessweek, Senator Reid was quoted as saying in an interview on Univision's "El Punto" television show that the Senate may take up a "smaller energy bill" in lieu of the larger cap-and-trade bill. In short, he says the votes aren't there on the Republican side.

Are you kidding me? Another mid-stream course correction? Of course there are not enough Republican votes; no one wants to commit to a bill that they haven't seen yet (health care reform and other bills notwithstanding). And what does it say about message coordination when Kerry and Lieberman are saying the votes are there, and Reid says that they aren't.

You have to give it to Reid: he certainly keeps things interesting (substitute words could also include "confusing" or "mystifying"). But with his constant back-and-forth on this, and the stop-and-go technique of the bill's three lead sponsors, it's like watching a teenager in driver's education class who isn't quite sure when to hit the brakes and when to punch the accelerator.

Right now, the Senate is just doing donuts on the Capitol lawn...

Sunday, May 9, 2010

BP Makes Landfall in Alabama

A story in today's Los Angeles Times confirms the beginning of what I discussed earlier this week: oil has arrived on the shores of Alabama. According to the story, a dozen oil balls had been found on the beaches of Dauphin Island and were being analyzed by the Coast Guard - but that they were confident they were part of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

This is one of the three areas that will ultimately be impacted by this spill: the political area, tourism, and the seafood industry. We have friends with property on Dauphin Island, and while they enjoy hosting friends and neighbors for afternoons on the water and evenings on the dock I don't think they planned on inviting BP.

No, like a rude party guest, BP invited themselves...

Friday, May 7, 2010

Big Brother is Watching ... Your Recycling

My family and I are big proponents of recycling, and we have tried very hard to instill that sense of responsibility in our two children. Taking our aluminum, paper, glass and plastic and putting it on the curb every Thursday evening is second nature to us, and hopefully the kids will continue to do this as they get older.

Part of what makes it rewarding is that we do it voluntarily - the county provided the bins, and we have put them to use. What if the circumstances were different, however? What if we were forced to recycle?

Think this is implausible? Well, think again.

In today's edition of the Washington Examiner, reporter Markham Heid discussed a new plan by the city of Alexandria, Virginia, to begin including built-in monitoring prices in new, larger recycling bins. Every resident will have a mandatory $9 increase on their annual trash pickup fee to pay for the new containers, ranging from 25 to 65 gallons (although folks have the option of keeping their current bins). The devices will enable city officials to track who is participating in the recycling program and who is not, and according to environmental director Rich Baier to will enable them to target those who are lagging with direct mail and outreach campaigns.

To me this, smacks of a little bit of Big Brother. Again, we gladly recycle - but having a city (and we don't live in Alexandria) government charge taxpayers more in order to have the funding to put tracking devices out on the streets is a bit disconcerting. Mr. Baier claims the program is to find the folks who aren't participating and bring the city closer to its target of 35 percent participation (from its current 25 percent), but how do we know the information obtained through these means won't be used for something else? The short-term objective may be legitimate, but programs like this can always be "modified" for other things...

Senate Wind Energy Legislation Needs a Push

In the past two months, a bipartisan group of senators has introduced two pieces of legislation designed to provide additional impetus for the further growth of the wind power industry. Unfortunately, I have not seen that either of these bills has received much attention - undoubtedly because of the larger goal of passing comprehensive climate change legislation.

I do think that both pieces of legislation deserve a bit of recognition, as do the senators who have introduced them. Through their efforts, there has been a continuing push to further stimulate an industry that is seen by most as one of the best alternatives to coal-fired electric generation (development and startup costs notwithstanding). Let me take a moment to summarize each bill.

S. 3062, which hasn't been given a formal title, was introduced on March 3, 2010 by Senators Tom Carper (Democrat of Delaware), Sherrod Brown (Democrat of Ohio), and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe (Republicans of Maine). This short, three-page bill would amend the 1986 Internal Revenue Code to extend tax credits for electricity generated by offshore wind facilities to January 1, 2020. The bill, which has since picked up two additional cosponsors - Kay Hagen (Democrat of North Carolina) and Bob Menendez (Democrat of New Jersey) - was referred to the Senate Finance Committee on March 3 and is still awaiting action.

S. 3226, which is also suffering from the lack of an official title, was introduced on April 19, 2010 by the original four sponsors above along with Senator Ted Kaufman (Democrat of Delaware) and totals 17 pages. It would, in shore, require the Secretary of Energy to take action to "stimulate the emergence of an offshore wind power industry in the United States." The brief findings used as the introduction to the bill provide the root cause for the introduction of this bill: (1) The lack of installed offshore wind power projects; (2) The technical feasibility of high penetrations of wind generation through infrastructure expansion; and (3) The identified need (in the Department of Energy's publication, 20 Percent Wind Energy by 2030) to meet this goal by making technological advances to enable improvement in performance and a reduction in cost. As of today, the bill is pending in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Both of these bills appear on the surface to provide great benefits to the wind industry. Both bills, regretfully, are stuck in committee. Is it possible they could move this year? Certainly, but I find it highly unlikely. With the legislative challenges still remaining before Congress - appropriations bills, climate change legislation, immigration reform, further jobs bills - it would be an extremely heavy lift, given the time remaining on the legislative calendar.

I would think a more realistic approach would be to roll either or both of these bills into the soon-to-be-released Kerry-Graham (maybe?) - Lieberman bill in whatever section addresses alternative energy. The goals of both are worthy of merit, and supporters of wind energy should certainly take an opportunity to consider each for themselves and weigh in with their own senators to reqeust additional cosponsors and support - and, perhaps, a push across the finish line.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

BP CEO: Yeah, We'll See...

A story by Mike Soraghan in today's Energy and Environment Daily (subscription required) reports that Tony Hayward, the global CEO of BP, is offering conflicting responses on the lengths to which his company will go to cover the liabilities resulting from the Gulf spill.

Publicly he had stated, "BP is taking very seriously its responsibility. ... All legitimate claims will be paid." In a meeting with Democrat Florida Senator Bill Nelson just minutes after, however, he said in response to Nelson's question about BP's responsibility for economic damages that "That's something we'll have to work out in the future."

As I had mused in yesterday's post on the economic impact on the Gulf Coast region, this looks as if the stage is being set for a series of long and messy court battles - perhaps dragging on for years. And the pending Senate bill retroactively raising the $75 million cap for legal liability to $10 billion - well, is that going to be enough? Following the Valdez accident in 1989, Exxon paid $3.8 billion to cover damages and cleanup costs, and that was just for a portion of coastline in one state - the most expensive spill in history, if not the largest.

With the potential that this spill could impact not just the Gulf Coast but also the East Coast (depending on how the currents direct the oil), what will this figure ultimately be? Will $10 billion even come close?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Could You Go "No Impact"?

When I first watched the documentary "No Impact Man", based on a year in the life of Colin Beavan and charting his family's attempt to make changes in their lifestyle so as to have absolutely no environmental impact, two thoughts crossed my mind. First, I thought he was crazy - here is a man with a wife and a young child who is about to radically change the way they live, and life may be hell for all of them.

Then as I watched it I wondered, could I do this? Would my family be able to make it for twelve months with no electricity (meaning no Noggin' or Sprout for the kids, no "Days of Our Lives" for my wife, and no way to charge my Kindle when it winds down), composting our own trash, eliminating the use of any transportation not powered by our own feet? More importantly, how long into such an effort would it be before my wife contracted out with someone who could make me disappear?

Beavan's project seemed to work well in Manhattan, where things are much more "compact" (a good brisk walk could get them wherever they needed to go, with the exception of a train ride to the country for a five-day stay on a farm). I'm not so sure that it would translate well to life in the metropolitan Washington area, however; it's 10 miles to my office (which I could bike, I suppose), but there are also day care and school transportation issues to consider (while it wasn't covered, would this project eliminate having our kids ride the school bus?) and trips to the grocery store and church. We possibly could do without electricity, although it gets pretty darn hot and muggy during the summer. Recycling wouldn't be an issue, because we wouldn't be able to buy anything that couldn't be composted or reused.

So the thinking on this continues. I'll ultimately sit down and read the book version of this year-long adventure penned by Beavan, and perhaps may pick up more answers to questions that I'm still considering. In the meantime, I enjoy watching others try more scaled-back, one week mini versions of the "No Impact" project, which for many would be a much more realistic or feasible way of eliminating their footprint. There are even some great videos posted on YouTube that show how folks are going about this; here is one that Beavan linked to his blog (which is well worth a visit) that shows how one college is going about their week-long project.

BP and the Gulf Coast: The End of a Way of Life?

Having lived on the Gulf Coast of Alabama for nearly ten years, I am very familiar with the significant impact tourism and the seafood industry have on state revenue. The importance of the oysters, shrimp, crab and fish caught by the men and women of south Mobile County; the beaches and resorts and restaurants of south Baldwin County. Both play a significant role in the sustainability of the state; in fact, 33 percent of the state's total tourism revenue comes from these two southernmost counties.

During those ten years, I made many friends whose livelihoods depend direclty on either tourism or seafood - and in the days following the explosion and capsizing of the Deepwater Horizon platform and the spread of enough oil to equal four Exxon Valdez accidents per week, I have grown quite concerned for their futures. Hurricanes have come and gone and seafood dumping has waxed and waned, but through it all the small communities on the bayous, the rivers and the beaches have recovered and endured.

This time I fear things may be different, especially for the seafood harvesting community.

Beaches can be cleaned, restored and reopened; I've seen it many times. But wetlands, rivers and wildlife - what is the price that is going to be paid by the families who rely on them for survival?

Although I don't agree with the belligerent language of the Secretary of the Interior - keeping a boot on the throat of BP? - I think that BP does bear financial responsibility for the cleanup of the Gulf and its shoreline, and for compensating the families of the 11 workers never found. But will they held accountable for compensating the workers who are in very real danger of losing their livelihoods? I think back to the Exxon Valdez accident 21 years ago; compensation cases were dragged through the courts for years, awards were reduced, and some 600 residents of Alaska who were party to the suits passed away without ever seeing a resolution to the case.

Now, over two decades later, we have a different environmental catastrophe and I cannot help but wonder how the financial compensation and court cases will play out. A new bill has been introduced in Congress that would increase the limit - currently $75 million - for which a company would be responsible with a cleanup. But this doesn't address what sort of compensation there may be - or will be pursued - by the folks impacted by this disaster. How many millions or billions of dollars will BP have to pay out?

Can you really put a pricetag on what is happening in Alabama, or Mississippi, or Louisiana? And if you could, where will the money come from - higher prices at the BP pump?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Wind Farms and the Rural Economy

One of the first aspects of alternative energy that I'm interested in exploring on this blog is wind power. With the news of the approval of the new Cape Cod wind project by the Obama Administration, as well as knowing individuals involved in the manufacturing of wind turbines, this is certainly a very timely topic. However, in the reading I've done to this point, I've noticed that much of the mainstream media seems to focus on the larger projects - wind farms in Europe, the Massachusetts project, and others of immense size seem to draw the most attention. I haven't seen - and again, my exploration is just beginning - much in the way of an examination of smaller wind farms and wind projects.

Today, however, I heard a report on National Public Radio about a former cotton farmer in West Texas who is now branching out into wind farming. From what I have gathered through the report and the accompanying slide show, his home town is a very economically depressed area - which leads to a question: how much of an economic impact can wind farming make? Yes, there are short-term construction jobs, and undoubtedly wind farmers themselves will make a fair amount of money once the turbines are all fully operational. But what long-term benefits can be derived from these sorts of projects for the communities where they are sited?