Archives For Climate Bill

The E.P.A.’s Lisa Jackson released a statement yesterday that announced the formal findings for carbon dioxide being labeled as dangerous to public health in the United States and thereby exercising its ability to regulate it under the Clean Air Act. An E.P.A. move to regulate greenhouse gases could effectively sidestep Congress which has stumbled with its attempts to pass climate legislation. Undoubtedly, this could mark one of the most powerful and proactive stances of any administration towards addressing climate change, but it could also merely be political noise used as a stop gap to try and bolster confidence both nationally and internationally in the Obama administration’s environmental agenda.

Mrs. Jackson’s speech had a distinctive activist tone, continually remarking on the overdue responsibility of the U.S. to be a leader in addressing greenhouse gas emissions.

This long-overdue finding cements 2009’s place in history as the year when the United States Government began seriously addressing the challenge of greenhouse gas pollution and seizing the opportunity of clean-energy reform.

The findings set out a road map of possibility; a series of steps that the E.P.A. could take to directly intervene in how our country deals with carbon emissions. The first step, set to begin in 2011, includes requiring facilities that emit over 25,000 tons of carbon annually to monitor and report those emissions to the E.P.A. Other measures could include a more direct and hands-on role in curbing the emissions from vehicles and requiring emitting facilities, particularly power generation companies, to employ the best available technologies to deal with greenhouse gases. This could mean that companies would no longer be allowed to sit idle on technologies that exist to improve efficiency and cleaner operation.

Opposing stances were quick to arise from parties like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who argue that strict measures could hinder economic growth due to the added costs associated with carbon regulation. Given our recession environment, this is by far the strongest attack on carbon policy and the worries are not completely unfounded. Some degree of added cost will likely find power producers and industrial manufacturers that could, in turn, trickle down to higher prices for the end user, but I am not one that believes this is a reason not to proceed.

As a country now famous for its deficits, our low priced goods and services are a bit of an illusion that we support either at our own delayed, tax-paying expense or at the expense of the environment. We have been running countless environmental deficits for decades and are only now finding out the degree of what they are and how much they truly “cost.” If regulating carbon means that the price of power increases then maybe that means that producing power the right way is simply more expensive than we have allowed ourselves to believe.

However, planning for widespread, overarching regulation by the E.P.A. maybe a bit preemptive at this point because it is possible that this is merely some fancy political footwork to buy the Obama administration some time. The timing of the release in relation to the Copenhagen Climate Summit is far from coincidental and undoubtedly meant to supplement our lack of ability to create proactive climate legislation. At the same time, the announcement lights a fire underneath Senators and lobbyists to get a finalized bill passed to avoid E.P.A. intervention. Business interests know that compromising on climate legislation allows for their input in reaching a bargain. E.P.A. regulation does not need to ask anyone’s opinion when operating under the umbrella of the Clean Air Act. The President has also already stated that he prefers legislative action for managing carbon over unilateral direction by a governmental agency.

Furthermore, even if the E.P.A. was prepared and willing to police carbon for the country, it would likely be years before any real weight of change would be felt. We are still over a year away from merely reporting numbers let alone forcing companies to implement technologies to change them. When the possibilities of lawsuits are added in, it is much more likely that we will see climate legislation passed before the E.P.A. ever has the chance to draw lines in the sand.

As much as I would welcome a chance to move faster and cut through red tape, I fear it is more likely that this a political threat that the administration has little intention of actually exercising. That is not to say that it will not work. These efforts may help us secure a climate bill in the first half of 2010. If not, I only hope the administration has the brass to call the bluff of congress and the business community if no progress is made.

Coal Power Plant The much debated climate bill is being heralded as legislation with the substance enough to begin to change our lives towards a new path of sustainability. One group that would arguably see the most change is the network of the country’s energy providers as carbon pricing leads to higher stakes for producing electricity from coal, oil and natural gas. Some have set up this confrontation as taking place between greenies and big power companies, but the power generation world is not as uniformly resistant as some might say. Is it possible that some of our biggest polluters could actually help lead our walk into the sustainable promised land?

A series of recent events points to the possibility of utility companies leaving behind the stance of defiance to play a more cohesive role in formulating new climate legislation. One of first steps is acknowledging the issue which, compared to where we have been, is a big step. A trio of large utility companies recently lead a withdrawal from the United States Chamber of Commerce citing disagreements over the Chamber’s stance on climate change. Exelon, Pacific Gas & Electric and PNM Resources all pulled their participation from the organization that claims to be “the voice of business.” Shortly afterwards, Nike resigned its position on the federation’s board. Tech bellwether Apple has been the most recent departure.

New York Times sentinel, Kate Galbraith, recently reported on two more utility companies steering their business away from coal-fired power. Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility, released a new strategy outline for future production to meet an anticipated 50% rise demand with no new coal plants. Similarly, NV Energy, a utility servicing Nevada and California, decided to postpone production of a 1.5 gigawatt coal plant to change its potential opening from 2012 to 2020. As Ed Mazria of Architecture 2030 often notes, the only true solution to make the difference that we need to, as fast as we need to, when it comes to carbon emissions is attacking coal for power production.

So why the change of heart? Could it be that the widespread chanting of environmental advocates are finally seeping in on the highest level, enough to make corporate executives question their means for making profits in our country? Before we start doling out halos and merit badges, there could be a number of reasons why this turn of events is not quite so surprising.

We are moving into a political state of mind where it is a question of when, not if, climate legislation is going to be passed. With the Copenhagen summit on climate change only months away, fewer want the U.S. to appear as the climate dunce of the developed world. Furthermore, Manik Roy, Vice President of  Federal Government Outreach for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, recently pointed out that 23 states and the EPA are all in the process of reforming their own means of combating emissions. “There is a misconception that no legislation means no regulation. This is just not the case.” Utilities could be facing new laws and regulation on local levels regardless of whether or not the Kerry-Boxer bill passes in the Senate. At this point it is simply smart business for companies with the largest stake in the outcome of climate regulation to play a more central and participatory role in how the laws get detailed.

Most of these mentioned utility players hail from the west coast where states already have healthy goals for requiring renewable power generation by 2020. California prides itself on being at the forefront of sustainability. Supporting a more broadly based action and downplaying coal production can create the appearance of being a green crusader while getting more mileage out of things that they may run into on the local level anyway (which does not make it wrong, I say take all the credit that they want.) It is unlikely coincidence that Exelon is the country’s largest producer of nuclear energy. As pointed out by Robert Peltier from energy blog Master Resource, nuclear energy stands to fair extremely well if climate legislation doles out carbon allowances by percentage of current generation—meaning that nuclear companies could get carbon permits for free that can be sold at market price (since they produce no carbon themselves.) With few people asking questions about what we will do with the country’s nuclear waste issue, it is increasingly easier for nuclear companies to claim green roots.

There may be more than a bunch of born again greenies to explain the growing support for change, but so what? For the challenges that we face now of reformatting a number of social norms, supporters do not have time to quibble over whether or not different people are doing the right thing for the right reasons. If the prospect of imminent climate legislation is causing utilities to re-evaluate beforehand, then process is working just as it should and its integration may be even easier. With goals that are even slightly closer to aligning, more progress can be made on getting initiatives to market and implementation. From consumer education, to smart grid test programs, to quicker resolution to NIMBY sentiments for siting new power generation and transmission; all could stand to benefit from having more utilities on board.

Photo Credit: Flickr davipt

I came across a great article on the energy blog Master Resource (of which I have become a regular reader) by Robert Peltier that focuses on some of the intricacies that may result from an eventual passage of H.R. 2454. Peltier notes on how remarks of opposition from the energy industry have been few and far between so far in the discussion of Waxman-Markey and that perhaps, for some, their end of the deal is not quite that bad. One could think the large energy providers will need to shoulder a great deal of burden towards reducing our carbon footprint, but the key of how newly distributed carbon allowances actually get doled out brings a great deal to bear on how how utilities will be affected. The give and take of Capitol Hill negotiating may have left some hands far from empty. Three of Peltier’s seven points include:

  • Given that existing plants will be given new allowances for free, new plants face a considerable barrier to entry in the marketplace having to purchase new allowances in order to gain a permit to build. Existing owners and operators could cement their place on the high ground for years to come.
  • Nuclear providers could end up with amazing benefit given that allowances are doled out in response to the percentage of national generation. Since nuclear provides nearly 20% of our nation’s power they could wind up with 20% of the carbon allowances that are unneeded and could be resold. As Peltier puts it, “For utilities with a lot of nuclear generation, these allowances are a gift.”
  • Original distributions of allowances to older coal plants could encourage them to remain open given that the allowances could be worth more than the plants themselves. As long as a utility provider can keep the plant open (and continue to be spewing carbon) long enough for allowances to be doled out, they will be handed a nice, tax-payer sponsored retirement plan.

I encourage the reading of the entire article.

Even staunch environmentalists like Joe Romm consider this a flawed bill and it is wrought with concessions and exceptions that help make its passage plausible, but in the end it may be worth it. Though large nuclear owners do not need any extra money, rewarding their low-carbon model is not exactly counter-productive (besides the fact that they produce some of the most hazardous material known to mankind.) If entry into the energy market for high carbon producers is more expensive, that seems fine as well. We should be discouraging carbon-intensive models for power. Giving allowances to coal plants on the verge of decommissioning is a more difficult one to swallow given that coal is already responsible for pollution in the country that has either been suffered or needs to be repaired. The notion of buying out the problem leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, but how much can we expect from American legislators.

Peltier does a great job in giving an overview of the issue. Being an advocate for sustainability reform is one thing, but being an educated advocate raises the likelihood of making notable progress. Though some of the contributors and frequent readers of Master Resource may not share my position of the severity of a more sustainable economy, their knowledge of the energy markets is thorough and often provide much-needed points to ground the aspirations of new technologies and bold, but sometimes half-baked, claims.

Given the current economic landscape, the American Clean Energy and Security Act is likely getting a different reception than it would have three years ago. With unemployment still at a twenty-year high, preserving economic stability and preventing job losses is one of the more popular methods of targeting the bill for flaws. While opponents to the bill have claimed that the resulting rising costs of the legislation could add financial burden to families and sacrifice American jobs, the truth is that sustainability is the best source of economic rejuvenation that the country has and according to recent polling, the number of naysayers are dwindling.

Job Poll Graph

According to a  poll released by Zogby International, when likely voters were asked how climate efforts will affect American jobs, 51% believe that new job creation will result while an addition 17% believe it will have no positive or negative affect. More impressively, those who believe that American jobs would be sacrificed were in the minority in all age and income groups, speaking to a sentiment brewing uniformly throughout the population. Numbers like these make me wonder if the range of benefits that sustainability can bring is becoming clearer to more people in the U.S.. Wishful thinking perhaps, but it is a good place to start.

My own goals for helping to spread that kind of knowledge were bolstered in 2007, when I sat in a conference hall with 8,000 others listening to Bill Clinton give the keynote speech at the Greenbuild Expo in Chicago, hosted by the USGBC. The former President spoke at length about the progress made by the Clinton Climate Initiative and their future goals, but in speaking about sustainability’s affect on the economy, Mr. Clinton had a quote that has stayed with me:

“For all the skeptics, I think this is the greatest opportunity our country has had to generate broad-based prosperity since we mobilized for World War II.”

It struck me because it was the first time I had heard a politician asserting the latent job value in sustainability and what it could produce for our country. The result could be a reversal of the exodus of industrial jobs that has plagued America for decades and its opportunities for implementation are widespread leaving few pockets of the economy without a chance for benefit. New job prospects can emerge from three lines of national intervention: restoration, innovation and conversion—all equally necessary and co-supportive.

Restortation – As a society, we we have only recently begun to fully realize how interconnected the workings of the planet truly are, and as a result, the full effect that our actions impose on our surroundings. Naturally, such a realization brings some grim findings. 11 million people live within a mile of over 1,300 Superfund Sites in the U.S., catagorized by the Environmental Protection Agency as some of the worst toxic hazards sites in the country. A proactive, rather than cursory, approach to remedying our own mistakes could sprout a formative industry of trained, specialized workers. Everyday brings new environmental violations released by the EPA, so having supply problems for work in this arena is likely a ways off. The rewards for such efforts are far reaching. Beyond a more healthy natural landscape, the reduction in pollution-damaged land would parallel a reduction in health problems rising from contamination, especially our drinking water–effectively curbing our medical spending while increasingly our livelihood.

Innovation – Our country still operates as a world-renowned center for technological excellence, though perhaps not as uncontested as we once were. Meeting the future’s needs for renewable energy, water purification, recycling, building technology, waste treatment and transportation will take nothing less than technological excellence. In the end, it will get done—the only question is whether we will do it, or pay someone else to do it. Amidst its seemingly endless string of needless opposition, the Cape Wind Project and its resulting turbine factory was slated to create between 600 and 1000 pre-operational jobs and 150 permanent jobs during operation for 420 megawatts of wind energy. We need closer to 200 gigawatts and just as much solar. Creating a new source of American jobs while weening ourselves off of oil and coal offers fewer violated ecosystems, cleaner air, cleaner water and  increased national security.

Global Warming GraphConversion – Numerous parts of our infrastructure are reaching the crest of their lifecycle curve, marking the transition from an asset to a liability for the economy. Power generation, roads and railways, power conveyance and water systems all comprise lingering costs that will eventually become outmoded. Creating a new life for these pieces of infrastructure can allow us to draw out new kinds of latent value from systems that we have already paid for. This is perhaps one of the largest sources of environmental resistance. What are we going to do with all the oil and coal jobs in the country? We will turn them into something else that will evolve into a new staple of the American economy. One 54-year-old plant on the Ohio River is being converted to burn grass and wood cubes to produce 312 megawatts of power, leaving it as one of the largest biomass plants in the country. The retooling of the plant will purportedly turn 105 local (coal) jobs, into green jobs.

Serious Materials became the most recent epitome of scanning the landscape for conversion opportunities before wasting time, money and energy building new facilities. The California-based company produces high efficiency building products like high performance windows and doors as well as insulating drywall. They represent the transition into the next generation of the building industry which new standards will be crafted around. Their search found a recently closed window factories in Chicago, Illinois and Vandergrift, Pennsylvania and purchased their facilities, hiring back workers that would have otherwise remained laid off. Retooled and retrofitted, the plants continue to function producing better products and sustaining employment.

To date, the climate bill is the fastest way to begin the transition to an economy supported by an Environmental Industry base. Environmental commentator Joe Romm recently said that although he gives the bill a “B-“ as an emissions bill, he gives it an “solid A” as a renewable energy bill. The Zogby poll claimed that 71% supported ACES Act passed by the House of Representatives. 22% believed that Congress is doing an adequate amount to address climate change, with 45% saying they are doing too little. Less than a third of respondants (28%) believe that Congress is doing too much.  We will see if growing public sentiment seeps its way into the Senate.

us capitolThe conservative lobby struggling to derail the American Clean Energy and Security Act has recently been accumulating roadblocks to their progress. The bill, which now remains on the floor of the Senate, passed in the House by a slim margin and stands as the most aggressive piece of climate legislation in the country’s history. Opponents to the bill have argued that the goal of regulating carbon–either through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system–would place an undo stress on the economy, adding thousands of dollars to utility bills. Naysayers also claim that there is a large portion of dissenting public vote for the bill. As it seems now, those two lines of critique are waning.

A new report by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) has determined that the bill would indeed raise costs of electricity and gasoline in the country, but the change would be minimal. The estimated increase for the cost of power over the next 11 years was between 3 to 4 percent, far below the claims of middle class power bills being thrust into the stratosphere. Gas prices are estimates to rise 23 cents (only due to the bill, not fluctuations in oil prices) and given that we pay less for gas than most of the world, the addition is negligible.  The EIA becomes the third administration after the Environmental Protection Agency and the Congressional Budget Office to affirm the low public cost of this bill which seeks to lower emissions 17% by 2020 and nearly 80% by 2050 from 2005 levels.

The other gut shot that sank into opponents of Waxman-Markey was the uncovering of forged letters written to congressmen to urge them not to vote for the bill in the House. With the guise of minority, public interest groups, the letters took on the form of copied letterheads and phantom signatures to stir opposition for the bill. Kate Galbraith notes that apparently the letters originated from D.C. lobby consulting firm Bonner and Associates who was in turn working for another firm called the Hawthorn Group. The kicker comes from the final client, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, and suddenly the whole thing makes all too much sense. Of course, blame is claimed by no one, but placed on the lone acts of a purported temporary employee at Bonner who has since been released from duty. Regardless of whose fault it actually is, at worst the event was blatantly dishonest and crippling to the credibility of the lobby. At best, it is an embarrassing scar on the face of the camp.

In this case, I think the damage actually goes beyond the factual events. If the contra-lobby to environmental legislation finds itself in need of lying and fabricating faulty evidence then it must mean that they are short on real reasons for why climate legislation is not a good idea (not that this is altogether surprising.) For those trying to find their way to an opinion about the Climate Bill, think about the danger of a position that needs to use more than the truth to win your vote, and is willing to do it.

Photo Credit: Flickr Truly_U