The Candidates On (and Off) Energy Issues
Hurricane Sandy and her ensuing storm bore down on us in the rural South, bringing floods in the "surge inundation" zones near the coast and blizzards to our mountains. Things were clearly even direr to the north. Did the storm’s severity bear any relationship to climate change? Democracy Now asked Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the Weather Underground.
“Whenever you add more heat to the oceans, you’ve got more energy for destruction,” Masters explained. “There’s been ample evidence over the last decade or so that hurricane season is getting longer—starts earlier, ends later.” And with a prolonged hurricane season, Masters said, “you’re more likely to have this sort of situation where a late October storm meets up with a regular winter low-pressure system and gives us this ridiculous combination of a nor’easter and a hurricane that comes ashore, bringing all kinds of destructive effects.”
Sandy was actually predicted before the final presidential debate, but even so both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have managed to avoid the topic. Their evasion should especially concern rural Americans: energy production directly affects our lives and the its influence on climate has huge repercussions for rural occupations such as agriculture and forestry.
Energy Production in Rural America
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Coal: Residents of Southern Appalachia face the destruction of the mountains and continuing illnesses from mountaintop removal (mtr) coal mining in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Coal is also at issue in Montana and Wyoming where the Bureau of Land Management auctions off mining rights, it is argued, at below-market prices and on Navaho lands, where the Office of Surface Mining allows the expansion of strip mining. Cases of black lung, a result of both mtr and deep mining, are increasing, not declining.
Gas and oil: Fracking methods continue to raise questions about effects on groundwater, and the Keystone pipeline proposed to carry oil from Canada’s tar sands across the Great Plains to the Texas Gulf Coast has prompted citizens to ask whether the potential impacts on farming, ranching and the water supply have been adequately evaluated.
Uranium: After a moratorium in Virginia since 1982, a company formed by landowners continues to lobby heavily to start uranium mining operations in Virginia, despite threats outlined in a report by the National Academy of Science. In the West, the Navaho Nation has contended with the aftermath of mining. In 2009, the EPA estimated that 30% of the Navaho Nation had no access to drinking water uncontaminated by uranium.
As unemployment remains high and the income gap widens, energy industries downplay the environmental and health risks their companies create and tout the jobs new production will provide. As West Virginia photographer Paul Corbit Brown this week told European bankers who finance coal:
I see all you've given me every day. I watch my father gasping for his next breath, just like my grandfathers did, all of them victims of Black Lung disease. I see children dying of brain cancer and my own mother suffering through two fights with cancer. I see the communities left in ravages after you make your profit and leave. I see the five counties in my state that produce the most coal are among the poorest counties in my entire country. And I see you pointing to the food you have laid upon our tables, for a time, as being merely a distraction to the fact that you have poisoned the vessel from which we drink.
Global Warming a.k.a Climate Change a.k.a Climate Disruption
Global warming was a lead topic in the last presidential race, with both Barack Obama and John McCain supporting versions of "cap and trade" to control carbon emissions. The failure of Congress to pass such legislation seemed to take the topic off the table. Betsy Taylor of Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions has argued, however, that Americans, having faced wildfire and drought, even before the hurricane, want "action to address the threat of climate change, and they strongly support clean energy."
Those who listened to the presidential debate on domestic policy in Denver October 3 (transcript here) may have hoped for something of substance on energy policy. In fact, prior to the debate, writers such as Daniel J. Weiss and Mark Hertsgaard laid out questions which should be asked. Instead moderator Jim Lehrer, concentrated on tax and health insurance policy.
In October, climate activists launched a website, ClimateSilence.org, which tracks the candidates' public statements on global warming over the years. Obama fares better than Romney, who has morphed from an early supporter of clean energy, fuel efficiency and emissions caps to a climate change agnostic who has ridiculed the issue, saying, "I'm not in this race to slow the rise of the oceans or to heal the planet. I'm in this race to help the American people." The Climate Silence site indicts Obama, also, for relegating climate change to an afterthought and exacerbating the problem through his support of drilling and "clean coal.”
Both candidates lack substantial energy plans
As Dan Balz wrote for the Washington Post,
In Mitt Romney’s telling, Obama has slighted domestic production of oil, gas and coal while shoveling billions to alternative-energy companies, some of which have gone bankrupt and some of which are run by his contributors. To hear the president, Romney is a tool of big oil and other energy producers, defending tax breaks for the industry at a time of record profits and not willing to stand up to them on behalf of consumers.
To the extent that we can discern the candidates’ real positions on energy, here’s how they compare.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Obama supports continued use of ethanol by refiners of gasoline, despite criticisms that it raises prices for corn and is inefficient. He has vowed to double the use of renewable energy sources, primarily wind and solar power. The wind industry has doubled its capacity to 49.8 gigawatts, accounting for a third of new electricity generation but faces an end to tax credits. The economic stimulus bill in 2009 included a three-year extension of the “production tax credit” for wind energy, which the president favors extending; he told an audience in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Aug. 13 that “without these wind energy tax credits, a whole lot of these jobs would be at risk.” Solar power is also increasing.
Michael Grunwald writes that the stimulus has changed the direction of energy with very little fraud, despite both the attacks by Republicans and the Democrats’ failure to defend their own energy policies. In addition to the tax credits, Grunwald writes that the Obama administration’s record on energy has included --
*$5 billion for low-income weatherization programs, over $6 billion in grants for state and local governments; and several billion to modernize federal buildings, with a particular emphasis on energy efficiency * $11 billion for “smart grid” investments.
* $3.4 billion for "clean coal" carbon capture and sequestration demonstration projects
* $2 billion for battery research for electric cars, with additional money for loan guarantees
* $500 million to help workers train for “green jobs.”
a tax credit extension for biomass, geothermal, landfill gas and some
* an option for many developers to turn their tax
credits into cash, with the government underwriting
* a $535 million federal loan to the solar panel maker Solyndra, which went bankrupt and defaulted after its proposed technology to reduce the amount of polysilicon proved too expensive (falling prices made traditional flat panels much cheaper to produce).
Romney has criticized the energy lending and grant programs in the 2009 economic stimulus bill and has said he would eliminate tax credits and subsidies for renewable energy. He favors ethanol use by refiners of motor fuel. In general his plan concentrates on fossil fuels, proposing "reforms" to "strengthen environmental protection without destroying jobs or paralyzing industries." His policy statement on energy, which can be found here, says his administration would strengthen and streamline regulation, permitting and lawsuits, concentrate on research and development and "encourage the use of a diverse range of fuels in transportation."
As a condition of bailing out the auto industry, the Obama administration pushed to improve fuel efficiency standards on new cars starting in 2015, to reach 54.5 mpg by the year 2025. The Department of Transportation announced the new fuel standards August 28. Richard Read points out that European car makers will have to work harder to meet the standards and “some foreign companies felt completely left out of the discussion. Volkswagen and others have complained that the new regulations set different standards for different types of vehicles -- specifically, lowering the fuel-economy bar for trucks and SUVs, which are made mostly by Detroit automakers. Moreover, the regs don't recognize diesel as a clean alternative fuel, whihc is a huge blow to Euro companies, who like a good diesel engine.”
Although she doesn't speak to fuel efficiency, Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign told The Detroit News on August 29, “The president tells voters that his regulations will save them thousands of dollars at the pump, but always forgets to mention that the savings will be wiped out by having to pay thousands of dollars more upfront for unproven technology that they may not even want.”
Read writes of the trade-offs between auto prices and fuel efficiency savings, “Estimates of the increase vary significantly. In some scenarios, the $8,000 in fuel savings outweighs the increased sticker price; in others, it doesn't. We don't have a clear answer on this bit, so for now, it's a wash.”
Romney told The Detroit News in June that he believes that the market rather than a government mandate should improve fuel efficiency.
Fossil fuel production and regulation
Obama calls for an all-of-the-above energy strategy, urging operators of electric plants to replace coal with natural gas to lower greenhouse gas emissions. He cites figures from the Energy Information Agency that oil and gas production has increased since he took office.
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Obama calls for cutting U.S. oil imports by a third by 2020. Obama rejected an earlier Keystone XL proposal for the northern portion of the pipeline, saying that Congress had not provided enough time for environmental review, but he reserved the option to approve a revised plan. Obama backed the building of the pipeline's southern section. The president slowed new offshore drilling for oil and gas exploration after the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. His plan includes preliminary work off the coast of Virginia and the south Atlantic states. He has supported Shell’s efforts to drill in Alaska despite protests by environmental groups. Obama has not slowed the use of fracking despite the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed restrictions.
Obama supports EPA regulations setting tougher CO2 emissions thresholds for fossil fuel-fired power plants and for limiting emissions of mercury and other toxins from power plants. He refused to implement regulations proposed under the Clean Air Act to reduce ozone and weakened soot regulations.
Jae C. Hong/AP
Romney says that if elected he would swiftly approve the Keystone XL pipeline. He supports expanded drilling and tax incentives for the same. He would also press to repeal, or dismantle provisions of, the Affordable Care Act. Repealing the Obamam health care legislation would, among its many other effects, remove a new provision of black lung law that has made it easier for disabled miners or their widows to get federal benefits.
Romney's announced energy policy opposes the EPA's regulation of carbon dioxide emissions limitations on emissions of mercury and other toxic substances from coal-fired power plants. Romney argues that the regulations would place an onerous financial burden on operators and “would prevent another coal plant from ever being built.”
Both candidates support nuclear energy. They have both been criticized as failing to outline a long-term plan for safely storing waste from these plants. In addition, Romney has criticized current regulation, telling the Scientific American, " I believe the federal government must significantly streamline the regulatory framework for the deployment of new energy technologies, including a new wave of investment in nuclear power."
Energy issues continue to be contentious. For the latest comparison of the candidates, see this piece in USA Today by Wendy Koch, consider the source documents cited by Climate Silence and by Yale's Environment 360 Project. NPR also has an interesting compilation of fact checks comparing the candidates claims on energy and the environment.
Beth Wellington, a poet and journalist who writes for The Guardian, lives in Southwest Virginia. Her blog is The Writing Corner.