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Climate Bill Skirmishes Pt. 1: The Murkowski Amendment June 15, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Politics.
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Energy reform is long overdue for this country and it was on the legislative agenda even before BP sponsored 2010 as “Oil Drilling Risk Awareness Year.”  The House of Representatives passed its climate/energy bill almost a year ago, and the Senate is finally preparing to attempt to follow suit.

The first skirmishes of the climate battle have already been fought in the Murkowski “Dirty Air” Amendment and a much less publicized incident regarding ocean acidification in the House of Representatives (which will be presented in a second post due to the unexpected length of this one).

Let’s start from the beginning.  As you may know, in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that greenhouse gases (GHGs) pose enough of a public health risk (via climate change) to be considered “pollutants” under the Clean Air Act.

That ruling imposed a legal obligation upon the EPA to do one of two things:

1)    Either issue an “endangerment finding” that carbon dioxide poses a public health risk – and then regulate GHG emissions, or;

2)    Provide proof that carbon dioxide is harmless.  Such proof does not exist, so the Obama EPA issued its endangerment finding in November 2009.

There were two years between the Supreme Court ruling and the endangerment finding.  Why?  The Bush administration.

Jason Burnett was a former associate deputy administrator of the Bush EPA.  The Supreme Court ruling came in April 2007.  The following December, Burnett emailed the EPA’s conclusion that GHGs are pollutants to a White House office.  When White House officials heard he was sending that email, they called him and ordered him not to send it.  When he told them he already had, they actually demanded he recall the email (this can be done in some email programs).  Burnett refused and resigned.

In June 2008, the New York Times discovered that because White House officials did not want to act on the information in that EPA email, they had simply never opened it.  They just left it in their inbox, unread, with the justification that they didn’t have to act on the email if they hadn’t read it. That actually happened.  And it was enough to delay climate action in the executive branch for years – until Obama’s election.

When Obama’s EPA finally released its endangerment finding last year, the ring wing threw a fit.  Republicans had been enjoying decades of legislative success in blocking climate and energy reform, and here was Obama’s tyrannical executive branch finally putting the nation’s interests first and actually acting against a grave threat.  How dare they?

Congressional Republicans were particularly angry about the endangerment finding because it could supplant congressional authority [not] to legislate on the issue.  So last January, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced an amendment to reverse the EPA’s endangerment finding.

For a senator with such a proven history of representing the oil industry, it seems like a basic piece of legislation: the endangerment finding gives the EPA the authority and obligation to act, so her amendment seeks simply to overturn the ruling to remove that impetus.  But consider what she was actually attempting to do.

The endangerment finding is a nonpartisan summary of science.  All it says is that a warming climate caused in part by human emissions of GHGs will present a public health and welfare risk.  That’s it.  No policy prescriptions, just scientists warning about a scientific danger.

Obama and Bush have very, very different stances on climate change.  Yet the Obama administration’s endangerment finding is very similar to the one that was produced and then buried by the Bush administration (it was released last October by a Freedom of Information Act request).  The science is settled.  Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) correctly described the Murkowski amendment as, “a choice between real science and political science.

The Murkowski “Dirty Air” Amendment sought to grant Congress the authority to determine what is scientifically true in our world.  It is the most inappropriate piece of legislation I have ever seen.  Moreover, it was a reprehensibly transparent demonstration of the level of industry involvement in our legislature – the Murkowski amendment was literally written by lobbyists for the oil industry!

Another post with no good visuals, so here's Murkowski in a different fishy situation.

“Who elected the Environmental Protection Agency?” asked a furious Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY).  Answer me this, John: who elected the oil lobbyists who wrote this amendment?  Scientists are qualified to address scientific concerns.  If scientists tell us carbon dioxide is irrefutably a pollutant, that point should be legislatively unimpeachable.  I should never have had to make that point.  The only people overstepping their bounds here are the senators who voted for this amendment.  And they’re doing it to preserve their right to continue shirk their duty to that electorate Barrasso pretends to care so much about.

The measure came up for a vote last week.  It failed, but barely: 53-47.  Every Republican and six Democrats* voted for the amendment.  And more Democrats than that expressed support for this resolution before cowing to party pressure.  Sen. Rockefeller (D-WV) even has his own pending version of the proposal that would undermine EPA authority for (at least) two years.

*Landrieu (D-LA), Lincoln (D-AR), Pryor (D-AR), Nelson (D-NE), Bayh (D-IN), Rockefeller (D-WV).

In reality, the Murkowski amendment was never going to become law.  It had very little chance of getting through the House, and even if it miraculously did, it would have met an Obama veto.  Everybody knew that, including Murkowski.  This was grandstanding.

Most people, even within the administration, don’t want the EPA to have to regulate carbon dioxide.  There is general agreement that Congress should be the body to address an issue as big as climate/energy.  Politically, this EPA action just puts a deadline on Congress…a much-needed deadline, as they have postponed this issue for decades.  It also manufactures a talking point for Glenn Beck et al. about Obama’s plan to take over the country.

Conservatives who oppose progress have concluded that delay and doubt are more successful strategies than full denial.  That’s why Republicans always call for “more research” and tell Democrats they need to “go back to the drawing board” whenever we actually try to tackle an issue.  You saw it for healthcare reform and you will see it again for climate.  It lets them pretend to care about the issue in general and claim to just have problems with the specific way that Democrats are doing it.

But, like healthcare and a host of other issues, climate change is a threat that has already been put off for too long.  We must act now if we are to have any chance of preventing this crisis.  Congress has had ample time to act on this issue.  At some point, enough is enough.  If legislators refuse to take action yet again, it is fully appropriate for the EPA to do so. In fact, they are obligated by law.

The Murkowski amendment was the first round of this year’s climate battle.  And it demonstrates what a tough fight we have ahead.

This was not a bill to regulate GHGs.  The implications were clear, but no specific proposals were included here.  There were no numbers to argue about, no regional winners and losers yet.  This was an argument about whether or not to pass a law at all.  And the actual amendment didn’t even go that far – it was basically just a congressional rejection of climate science.  And it nearly passed.

Please Complain January 27, 2009

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress.
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A week ago, I was chatting online with a conservative friend during the inauguration.  Although she was “mourning g dubs,” she told me she was going to be a “good American” and support the president rather than complain as my fellow Democrats and I have for the last eight years.  I told her that it’s her right to object if and when President Obama screws up, but she rejected this idea because apparently silently accepting injustices is “what patriots do.”

President Obama will make mistakes.  Many say he already has.  But the notion that it is un-American or whiney to disagree with a president is disturbing, even when voiced by a classmate rather than Bill O’Reilly.  Theodore Roosevelt put it best: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”  Dissent is a crucial and protected part of the democratic process.  And isn’t being able to complain one of the stated (albeit secondary) reasons to vote?

I am a zealous Obama supporter and worked for the campaign for a full year and a half.  I am also not subtle about my political preference and have my apartment/car/room so shamelessly adorned that my friends across the hall hung a giant Chairman Mao “Change We Can Believe In” poster and named their wireless network “HopeAndChange” (because it too is intangible and frequently lets them down) to mock me.  But even I do not agree with everything President Obama has done.

Very funny, guys.

Very funny, guys.

The House of Representatives is currently mulling over the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the pending “stimulus package.”  While it is wonderful to see money going towards renewable energy and needed infrastructure, the plan revealed last week already saw relevant funding cuts from the earlier proposal outlined by James Oberstar (D-MN), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.  The money allocated to roads remains untouched, but the overall transportation investment fell 25%, with rail in particular cut 78%.  That money will instead fund a tax cut.  It is unclear who made the revision, but if the Obama administration truly prioritized mass transportation and energy independence, they could have prevented this edit.

California has its own plans for a high-speed rail system, but the rest of us will still just have (underfunded) Amtrak.

California has its own plans for a high-speed rail system, but the rest of us will still just have (underfunded) Amtrak.

Overall, there is a lot of good funding in the initiative, especially after the Bush years.   But not everyone thinks so. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) recently went on PBS’s Newshour and was “shocked” by what he saw in the bill.  He singled out one particularly egregious item as an example of the “same kind of wasteful spending we have seen in the past”: $6.2 billion for communities to weatherize low-income housing.

First of all, a government-funded community weatherization program does not sound like any past I can remember (although apparently there was a similar program in the mid-1990s, which the GOP opposed then as well).  As Climate Progress reports, this opposition is all the more ridiculous because such programs not only create jobs, they decrease the deficit!  Exactly what disgusts Boehner about lowering people’s electricity bills, generating work in low-income areas, and even reducing America’s energy needs is beyond me – or would be if he wasn’t such an overt ally of the energy industry.

It is unfortunate that efficiency measures aren’t as “sexy” as building a new, state-of-the-art power plant, because they can provide the same benefit, pollution-free, for less.  Earlier this month, the coalition Wise Energy for Wise County released a major study demonstrating why a new coal-fired power plant is not the energy solution for Wise County Virginia (or America).  As Theo Spencer at NRDC explains, their study determined that investing in energy efficiency instead of a new plant could meet the same electricity demand, yield hundreds of millions of dollars for the state each year, and create at least 2,600 more jobs than the power plant.  And if the federal government does implement a carbon tax or cap and trade system, the comparative benefits of efficiency become even greater.

What’s true for Wise County is largely true for our entire country.  There are incredible opportunities to improve energy efficiency today using technology we already have: insulating buildings, improving mass transit, driving higher MPG, hybrid, and even zero-emission electric vehicles, buying EnergyStar appliances, utilizing natural lighting and compact fluorescent light bulbs…the list goes on.  Even for power production, cogeneration, also known as combined heat and power (CHP), enables us to tap waste heat at power plants to provide industrial or domestic heating and hot water nearby.  Yet all of these cost money before they save it.

I think it is in our government’s interest to heavily incentivize and provide funding for many of these measures, but it is clear that some policymakers have different priorities.  So I will continue to “complain” by writing congresspersons, raising awareness about these issues, and hopefully, by being hired to work somewhere that I can help effect the changes I’d like to see.  And if you disagree with the government, even if we do have an articulate, intelligent president, it is your right and even civic duty to do the same.

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.

That Sinking Feeling November 17, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change.
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In April 2004, President Bush was visibly stumped when asked to name his biggest mistake since 9/11.  Last week, he was asked the same question again.  He is no longer speechless, but he still has no substantive answer – when pressed, he said he wished he’d phrased a few things more “artfully,” without naming a single action he regrets (video).  A certain president-elect may be able to think of a few.

I am referring, of course, to President-elect Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives.  Located off India’s southern coast, the Maldives is composed of 1,192 islets, about a quarter of which are inhabited.  It is also one of the island nations that will be the first victims of rising sea levels.

A resort in the Maldives. Limited-time offer...

A resort in the Maldives. Limited-time offer...

Sea levels have risen about 8 inches in the last century as a result of melting terrestrial ice and the thermal expansion of warming seawater.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific authority on global warming, projects that sea levels could rise up to two feet higher by the year 2100.  That may not seem like much, but for a country whose highest point is 7.5 feet above the water (with most ground well below that), this is cause for concern.  Especially when you consider that after the 2004 earthquake that unleashed tsunamis around the Indian Ocean, 82 people died and the Maldives suffered $375 million in damage – when it was struck by a wave barely a meter high.

As anyone who’s ever tried to defend a sandcastle from the tide knows, the ocean is pretty difficult to stop and normally wins.  And Mr. Nasheed has apparently spent some time playing on his country’s vanishing world-class beaches.  In order to secure the future of his people, he recently announced that he will set aside a portion of the Maldives’ tourism revenue to establish a fund.  With this money, he plans to buy land in India, Sri Lanka or Australia as an “insurance policy” for the nearly 400,000 Maldivians should their country succumb to the effects of climate change.

Who is responsible for this climate crisis?  Many people (myself among them) say the United States.  Although it would be unfair to blame climate change solely on our current president, the Bush II administration has certainly contributed.  In 1988, George H. W. Bush said, “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect.”  But he could not have imagined just how powerful that White House effect could be.  Or that it would be used to preserve the dangerous status quo.

For the last eight years, politics have unequivocally trumped science, even at the Environmental Protection Agency.  In 2001, Bush picked Philip A. Cooney to be his chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.  Cooney, who had no scientific training and previously worked for the American Petroleum Institute (the oil industry’s main lobbying group), was soon discovered to have edited and removed sections of finalized government research to make climate change seem less serious.  Cooney resigned two days after his actions were exposed – and promptly took a job at Exxon. Sadly, this was not an isolated incident.

Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that White House officials consulted with Exxon for advice before Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol.  A House of Representatives committee report in 2007 found that the Bush administration has edited congressional testimony on climate science and key legal opinions, and kept scientists from talking to reporters.  And despite the unanimous recommendation of his advisers, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson denied California’s waiver to implement higher vehicle emissions standards after reportedly being pressured by Bush himself.  This denial was completely unexpected and unsupported; EPA officials scrambled pitifully after the fact to assemble some sort of justification, which is currently under investigation.

But the most incredible story comes from Jason Burnett, a former associate deputy administrator of the EPA who resigned this summer.  In April 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are a pollutant and as such must be regulated.  The following December, Burnett emailed a White House office the EPA’s proposed rule to limit emissions.  When officials heard he was sending that email, they called him to order him not to send it.  When he told them he already had, they actually demanded he recall the email (this can be done in some programs).  He refused.  In June, the New York Times discovered that because White House officials did not want to act on the information in the EPA email, they simply had never opened it.  They just left it in the inbox with the justification that they don’t have to act since they haven’t read it (The Daily Show reports).

This is the kind of administration I cannot wait to see leave.

Bush at the G8 Summit in Toyako.  As he left, he said "Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter" and then "punched the air while grinning widely."  Seriously.

Bush at the G8 Summit in Toyako. As he left, he said "Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter!" and, in the words of Britain's Telegraph, "punched the air while grinning widely." Seriously.

Climate change is real and largely our fault.  I don’t agree with all of President-elect Obama’s environmental policies, but I do look forward to having a leader who actually understands the threats we face and will treat them with the gravity that they deserve.  And just in time: neither the Maldives nor America can afford any more of the same.

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.

Defending Presidential Elitism October 9, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
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It’s debate season, folks, and my oh my has it been underwhelming.  Many have complained that the debates have lacked substance; the candidates aren’t answering the questions.  Personally, I am disappointed that the debates have lacked entertainment.  No gaffes, no real arguments, few jokes or memorable lines…do they really expect us to stay focused through two hours of interlocking stump speeches?  But every once in a while, the moderator asks a question for which a canned response is not prepared.  The candidates deftly pivot away from most of these situations (some more overtly than others), but you can still learn from their answers if you’re paying attention.

On Tuesday night, Tom Brokaw asked the presidential hopefuls (makes the race seem predestined, doesn’t it?) whom they would pick to be Secretary of the Treasury.  Senator John McCain seemed annoyed to be knocked off script, retorting with a grumpy “Not you, Tom” while he scrambled for an answer.  Still fumbling, McCain stalled by laying out his qualifications for a good treasury secretary: “I think the first criteria, Tom, would have to be somebody who immediately Americans identify with (video).”  Really? That’s your first priority in selecting the person to navigate our country through an economic crisis of this (or any) magnitude?  John – can I call you John? – I don’t want to be able to identify with the Secretary of the Treasury.   On any level.  This person should be so far out of my league I can’t even hold an intelligible conversation with him.  I don’t understand the economy.  Sure, I took my macro- and microeconomics.  I even turned some decent grades.  But does my winning personality qualify me to rescue our financial systems?  Hell no.  Pick someone who has the skill set and experience to get us out of this mess!


You shouldn't look at the Secretary of the Treasury (or the President) and think "man, I want to have a beer with that guy." The Secretary of the Treasury should look more like this...but, you know, be good at his job.

My friends, that Senator McCain would fall back on this line (and put it in practice with his vice presidential nomination) is symptomatic of a real problem in our country today.  Why do we so desperately want to elect leaders with whom we can identify?  The fact that I didn’t end the previous sentence with the preposition basically disqualifies me from running for office.  Senator Barack Obama is an academically accomplished man.  After graduating from Columbia University he went on to earn a law degree from Harvard.  He was even the president of the Harvard Law Review – I don’t know how to put this, but that’s kind of a big deal.  After that he became a law professor at the University of Chicago.  You may have known this, but you certainly didn’t hear it from Barack. 

Today’s candidates have to hide their education.  For those who finished in the bottom 5 of their class, that’s convenient (or would be if underachievement wasn’t so mavericky).  Yet McCain and his voluptuous veep didn’t start this trend – there’s no way you can have this discussion and not arrive at our current president.  Even George W. Bush, who actually looks good on paper with his degrees from Yale and Harvard, didn’t point to his past to placate concerns about…“mental preparedness.”  Why? Because his average guy persona appealed to voters (and he only got C’s).  If a candidate flaunts his education today, he is labeled “elitist.” 

Elitism is a strange charge to level against presidential candidates.  At the risk of quoting Jon Stewart too much: “Doesn’t ‘elite’ mean good?…I want someone who’s embarrassingly superior to me.” (Video– the entire segment is great, but the elitism bit starts at 6:50).  On a tangentially related but similarly awesome note, I present the following question courtesy of Kathleen Reardon at the Huffington Post: “Is it sexist to want the person flying the plane to be a pilot?”  Back on track, though, presidential candidates are running to be the most powerful person in the world.  Being President of the United States is like being the CEO of a global superpower (this may not be true by the time you read this, but that’s another story).  Can you imagine someone hiding her educational credentials while applying to lead a Fortune-500 company?  No.  And she wouldn’t even get a moment’s consideration without them, even if you’d want to have a beer with her.  So why are we so comfortable electing “normal” people president?

The average American is not qualified to lead the country.  This should not be debatable (although with enough preparation, one could childishly pivot to talk about job creation instead).  Nor is it contrary to the American Dream.  There are plenty of successful people who don’t live in the White House and unsuccessful ones who do.  Being able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps does not mean that anyone can be president, regardless of what your mother may have told you.  I wanted to be a lion.  Life’s not fair.

Compare Bush (or Sarah Palin) to the early presidents in our nation’s history.  Picture them having a conversation.  It hurts.  I doubt Thomas Jefferson would think highly of our recent selections.  Now I’m not saying that the founding fathers got everything right – for example, I imagine they might be surprised to learn that a black man is now running for more than 3/5 of the presidency.  But they understood the value of a meritocracy.  Or at least that it takes more than an ordinary person to succeed in a decidedly extraordinary position. 

Let Average Joe enjoy his 6-pack.  I’ll drink with him (although the case is my weapon of choice).  Our president should wash down his arugula with a glass of fine wine.