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A Guide to Corn Ethanol July 22, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Politics.
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2 comments

A follow-up post explains the current political attempt to extend $6 billion a year in senseless tax credits for corn ethanol.

What is Corn Ethanol?

Corn ethanol is a biofuel: a fuel made from agricultural crops.  We use it primarily to power cars.  As its name implies, corn ethanol is a grain alcohol produced by the fermentation and distillation of corn.  And yes, that is the same “ethanol” that is responsible for the inebriating effects of liquor.

Corn ethanol is actually very similar to Everclear, if you’ve ever had the misfortune of crossing paths with the 190 proof “beverage” that is, regrettably, illegal in only 14 states.  In fact, the only difference between grain alcohols like Everclear and the corn ethanol used as a fuel is a “denaturing agent,” such as gasoline, that is added after production to render the fuel alcohol [officially] undrinkable – in order to exempt it from heavy alcohol taxes.

This is how corn ethanol is made.

Benefits of Corn Ethanol

Corn ethanol is a renewable fuel source because it is grown from corn.  Although, like gasoline, it releases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, growing more corn removes carbon dioxide from the air, so it forms a cycle with no direct net increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.  This is, in and of itself, preferable to the one-way transfer of carbon from fossil fuels into the atmosphere as in gasoline.

As a fuel, ethanol undergoes combustion much like gasoline.  It actually burns more cleanly than gasoline and other fossil fuels, because unlike coal, corn doesn’t contain large amounts of sulfur and other pollutants to be released when burned.   This industry website touts many of the environmental benefits of burning corn ethanol as a fuel source compared to gasoline.  One of them is decreased direct carbon dioxide emissions*.  I haven’t checked into all of the listed benefits, but they are likely at least based on fact**.

*“Direct” emissions measure the greenhouse gases released simply from burning corn ethanol or gas.  However, if you include “indirect emissions” – the greenhouse gases released in the agricultural production and transportation of corn as well as the production of the ethanol – those emissions likely more than negate the direct benefits.

**Similarly, a 2009 University of Minnesota study found that if you include the entire lifecycle of corn-based ethanol, the other air quality benefits are at least negated as well.

Since 1985, new fuel-injected engines have been designed to withstand the corrosive effects of ethanol at a concentration of 10%.  Per the Renewable Fuel Standards in the 2005 energy bill, ethanol is currently blended into about 50% of our nation’s gasoline. In the U.S., it is most commonly found in 10% mixtures with gasoline or the less used 85% mixture (E10 and E85 respectively).  “Flex Fuel” engines detect the ethanol concentration in the gas tank and optimize performance.

So if ethanol provides all these benefits over gasoline, why aren’t we just using pure ethanol in our cars?

Problems with Corn Ethanol

Ethanol cannot be mixed with water and corrodes many metals, even when mixed with gasoline.  As a result, ethanol cannot be transported through nation’s existing gasoline infrastructure of metal pipelines.  In fact, there are no ethanol pipelines anywhere in the world.  Instead, ethanol must be transported via retrofitted truck, rail, or boat, and that is costly.   That being said, the Department of Energy says that an ethanol pipeline could be feasible in the future under the right circumstances.

There are plenty of other complications.

Depending on local irrigation requirements, it can take over 550 gallons of water to produce a single gallon of corn ethanol.  Another study expressed this a different way: it takes approximately 36 gallons of water to produce enough corn ethanol to drive a standard car one mile.  Think about that.  36 gallons per mile, NOT miles per gallon.

This image shows how much water each state uses to produce ethanol.  States in that darkest red use more than 600 billion liters of water

(158 billion gallons).

At that rate, it would take over 1000 gallons of water to produce enough ethanol to fill the gas tank of a single Ford Explorer.  America’s water resources are already stressed; ethanol production does not provide nearly enough benefit to justify squandering our vital water resources.

Other than water, increased fertilizer used to grow more corn for ethanol is causing even larger dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico (maybe that’s not a problem anymore).  Such dead zones form when excess fertilizer runs off farm fields into rivers.  Those rivers transport the fertilizer to larger bodies of water where, in the presence of massive artificial enrichment, microorganism populations explode and use all of the oxygen in the water, killing off all marine life contained therein.  Water without oxygen is known as hypoxic and cannot sustain life, hence “dead zone.”

Food for Fuel

Another major problem with corn ethanol is that we are using a food crop as gasoline.  If using food to fuel our SUVs while millions of children starve around the world rubs you the wrong way, you are not alone.

As the Economist pointed out in 2007:

“the demand of America’s ethanol program alone accounts for over half the world’s unmet need for cereals.

And they’re not talking about Wheaties, those “cereals” are grains that starving people need but cannot get.

Additionally, basic economic theory dictates that scarcity has effects on the existing supply as well: in the two years following the corn ethanol mandates that began in the 2005 energy bill, food prices jumped 75%.  Yet another reason why corn growers love ethanol.

Ethanol Releases More CO2 Than Gasoline

Numerous studies have demonstrated that the lifecycle production of corn ethanol may release as much as 50% MORE greenhouse gases than gasoline.  You have to drive all those tractors and fertilize the fields and harvest the corn and transport it to the ethanol plant which itself uses more power and then you have to transport the ethanol…all that uses fossil fuels.

As Tom Philpott at Grist put it: “corn-based ethanol is really just a clever way to convert natural gas and coal into car fuel.

There is still debate on this topic, but there is a reason why the industry has repeatedly lobbied the government and EPA to ignore lifecycle emissions and indirect land-use changes (discussed below) in their relevant calculations.  Regardless of the exact numbers, it is clear that corn ethanol does not provide large greenhouse gas benefits over gasoline.

Indirect Land-Use Change

From a climate change standpoint, corn ethanol poses an additional problem.  Shifting American cropland to produce fuel instead of food has consequences that cascade around the world.

First, the world population is always growing.  Second, increasingly more corn is being used to feed cattle as an upwardly mobile global population demands more meat.  This means that barring dramatic increases in crop yield/acre, we would need more cropland than we had before – even if we weren’t using some of our most fertile land to grow fuel.  So with 20% of U.S. corn (as of 2007) going into cars as ethanol instead of into bellies as food, there is a worldwide demand for more cropland.

As a result, landowners around the world are converting land to farmland.  What’s wrong with that?  Well, think about what types of land can be converted to farms.  Deserts can’t be converted to support agriculture.  What can?  Forests.  Rainforests.

High food prices and surging food demand are among the major causes of deforestation.  When forests are cleared, all the carbon that was stored in all that plant life is released – and all the carbon dioxide those plants were going to remove from the atmosphere will remain in the air.

Because we're using our food for fuel, people in other countries are burning down forests to make more farmland to grow food. The carbon emissions from this deforestation can fairly be attributed to corn ethanol.

To make matters worse, the easiest way to convert a dense forest to cropland or pasture is a technique known as slash and burn.  This creates viable farmland for a few years, but has tragic long-term consequences. The absence of roots causes soil erosion, and after a few years, slash and burn quickly leads to desertification; the land becomes unsuitable for either forests or agriculture.

This prompts farmers to simply move deeper into the forest to slash and burn another plot.  Obviously, this is not sustainable.

Ethanol is Politically Attractive

While the environmental benefits have been essentially dispelled, corn ethanol was an attractive fuel source for another reason as well: it is homegrown and can be used to displace [a very small fraction of] our reliance upon foreign oil.  This makes corn ethanol not really an effective energy security policy but rather an effective energy security talking point.

Ethanol is more politically attractive than sensible.  Corn producers have a lot of clout in the sparsely populated Midwestern states, which gives them outsized influence in the Senate.  Additionally, Iowa is a major corn producer, and because Iowa is the permanent location for the first presidential primary, opposing such a major demand of corn producers is political suicide for a presidential candidate.

Conclusion:

Corn ethanol should be used, if at all, as a transition fuel on the way to cellulosic ethanol, about which I hope to post soon.  The corn ethanol industry is mature, yet it has two different layers of federal financial support.  That doesn’t make any sense.

A Canadian oil company is marketing its E10 ethanol blend as “Mother Nature’s Fuel.”  That is terribly dishonest; Mother Nature definitely bikes to work.  Corn ethanol, while derived from a natural feedstock, is neither an energy solution nor an environmental boon.

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CCS: An Energy Wild Goose Chase, Not Silver Bullet July 15, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Politics.
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Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) is the much-hyped “clean” in “clean coal.”  Contrary to industry advertising, as of yet, it doesn’t really exist – so neither does “clean coal.”  If carbon-pricing ever occurs (and at some point it will), CCS will be vital to the survival of the coal industry.

So on Wednesday, a bipartisan pair of coal state senators pushed for yet more funding for this technology.  Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) are seeking $20 billion to support large-scale CCS demonstration projects.

So how does it work?

Burning coal releases a lot of carbon dioxide.  Today, CO2 simply vented into the atmosphere with the rest of coal’s air pollutants. As a greenhouse gas, CO2 emissions are causing climate change, so CCS seeks to capture that carbon dioxide before it gets released and store it someplace other than our atmosphere.  In theory, if we can filter out the CO2 from coal combustion and store it safely, we could burn fossil fuels to our hearts’ content without exacerbating global warming.  CCS technology can potentially remove 80%-95% of CO2 emissions from power plants and other industrial sources.

Cost aside, the major technical issue with CCS is figuring out where to store all that gas.  There are two major options for storage:

  1. Geological storage
  2. Ocean storage

Geological Storage:

The most obvious place to store CO2 is within the Earth.  Our planet is rich with geological formations that naturally hold gases underground; it within these geologic traps that we currently drill for oil and natural gas.  Like helium in a balloon, light gases attempt to rise through the ground.  When impermeable rocks form solid, dome-shaped formations, gases become trapped there, having risen as high as they can.

The most attractive potential CCS sites are deep saline reservoirs, unmineable coal seams, and oil and gas reservoirs.

There are a number of geological formations that can theoretically store CO2 underground.

In regard to that third option, geo-sequestering CCS has been conducted on a small scale since the 1970s.  Subterranean gas injection is one of the techniques known as “Enhanced Oil Recovery,” often abbreviated EOR. Injecting gases into oil reservoirs can artificially increase the pressure within a given well, thus enabling the recovery of oil that would not have otherwise been obtainable.  It helps get a little more oil out of a depleting well. CCS can help us make the most of our existing domestic oil infrastructure instead of drilling in new, sensitive areas.  Whether such operations are suitable for long-term carbon storage is under investigation.

However, CCS took a big hit just two months ago, when researchers at Texas A&M determined that CCS will require 5-20 times more underground reservoir capacity than previous thought.

Ocean Storage:

In theory, injecting CO2 at great depths within the ocean could keep the carbon out of the atmosphere for a geologically significant amount of time.  At depths of over 1000 meters, CO2 will simply dissolve in the water.  At depths of over 3000 meters, CO2 forms a liquid denser than seawater and pools at that depth for a time before ultimately dissolving.  A number of other ocean storage theories exist.

All of them are terrible ideas. Even if we could guarantee that oceanic CO2 never returned to the atmosphere (we cannot), carbon dioxide causes plenty of problems in the ocean as well.  We don’t even understand all of the potential consequences of oceanic CCS, but we do understand that it would cause ocean acidification, about which I have already written an entire post.

Transportation:

Regardless of where the CO2 is stored, a second major technological hurdle is transportation.  After capture at each stationary source, CO2 would need to be transported to whatever storage sites were to be used.  This could be done most economically via pipeline.  However, this is no simple matter.

“That CCS and related legislation generally focuses on the capture and storage of CO2, and not on its transportation, reflects the current perception that transporting CO2 via pipelines does not present a significant barrier to implementing large-scale CCS.”  –Congressional Research Service 2007, p. 2.

…but it does.

The various technologies required to build a CO2 pipeline network are each individually considered mature.  However, integrating them and deploying them at such a large scale would a considerable challenge.

Widespread CCS use would require its own dedicated national CO2 pipeline network.  That network does not exist. Currently, there are approximately 3,600 miles of CO2 pipeline in operation within the US, mostly to support EOR operations.  In contrast, there are approximately 500,000 miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid (such as gasoline) pipelines across the country.

To utilize CCS, we would need CO2 pipelines running across the country from hundreds of major stationary emitters to reservoirs. That infrastructure would have to be built from scratch.

Politicians have not seemed to notice yet, but this contributes to yet another critical problem with CCS…

Very High Cost:

CCS is an expensive venture.  Massive amounts of federal funding have already been funneled into CCS research and development.

The stimulus bill included $3.4 billion for CCS programs related projects.  Department of Energy budgets for fiscal years 2008-2010 included a combined total of $1.26 billion in direct CCS or CCS-related funding.  Federal loan guarantees for CCS were first authorized in the Dick Cheney Energy Policy Act of 2005.  The Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 restated that authority indefinitely and provided an additional $8 billion in coal-related loan guarantees.  The Cheney energy bill also included $1.3 billion in tax credits for advanced coal projects (source).

That’s about $14 billion right there.  This before the $20 billion now proposed by Senators Rockefeller and Voinovich. Why so much money?

A University of California study found that laying the 16 inch diameter pipeline that CCS would require would cost $800,000/mile (in 2002 dollars) although costs for individual pipelines could vary by a factor of 5 depending on location.

Last year, a Harvard study put the future of CCS in serious doubt.  These researchers determined that the “realistic” cost of first-generation CCS will be about $150/ton of CO2.  That price tag would make this technology infeasible.  We emit a LOT of CO2 each year.  Some analysts believe that, if utilized, CO2 sequestration rates could rise to over 1 billion tons of carbon per year by mid-century.  Even if that cost/ton came down as the technology advanced, the annual price tag would be staggering.

For reference, last year, analysts suggested a price ceiling of $35/ton of CO2 for cap-and-trade credits because costs higher than that were deemed prohibitively high.  In 2007, the Bingaman-Specter cap-and-trade bill had a price ceiling at $12/ton of CO2 (although commentators corrected deemed this ridiculously low).  The point is that $150/ton is beyond uneconomical.

Coal’s low price is what makes it so attractive to utilities (it certainly doesn’t have any other redeeming qualities).  Coals’ days without CCS are numbered, but CCS’s high costs make coal an unrealistic fuel for the future.

Safety:

Leakage out of the reservoir is a major concern.  Even stable rock formations shift in earthquakes.  In order for CCS to be an effective climate mitigator, sequestered carbon would have to remain underground for thousands of years.  Seismic activity presents a danger of undoing all that sequestration.

But even beyond climate concerns, if a carbon reservoir leaked near a populated area, that escaping carbon dioxide would pose a significant health risk.

Because CO2 is denser than air, when it leaks out of the ground it forms an invisible, undetectable cloud that pools near the ground and displaces the oxygen, suffocating any life nearby.  This has happened naturally and given us a glimpse of what could occur: in 1986, Lake Nyos in Cameroon released a large amount of CO2, silently killing nearly two thousand people and a large number of livestock.

1,700 people and 3,500 cattle within 16 miles of Lake Nyos were killed when the lake “outgassed” and CO2 displaced the oxygen near the ground.

CCS CO2 reservoirs could pose a substantial threat to nearby life. Pressurized carbon dioxide pipelines present would present a smaller, related risk.

Carbon Dioxide is Dangerous

Yes, carbon dioxide is necessary to sustain life on this planet.  That does not mean that more is better. For the “CO2 Is Green” crowd, I present this paragraph from the CRS report:

“CO2 occurs naturally in the atmosphere, and is produced by the human body during ordinary respiration, so it is commonly perceived by the general public to be a relatively harmless gas. However, at concentrations above 10% by volume, CO2 may cause adverse health effects and at concentrations above 25% poses a significant asphyxiation hazard. Because CO2 is colorless, odorless, and heavier than air, an uncontrolled release may accumulate and remain undetected near the ground in low-lying outdoor areas, and in confined spaces such as caverns, tunnels, and basements. Exposure to CO2 gas, as for other asphyxiates, may cause rapid “circulatory insufficiency,” coma, and death.” –Congressional Research Service 2007, p. 18.

This is what happened at Lake Nyos.

CO2: Pollutant or Commodity?

One additional minor but interesting potential complication for CCS is that CO2 could arguably be classified as both a pollutant and a commodity.  If climate-deniers figure this out, they will have a field day misconstruing this information, but CO2 could be classified as a pollutant by the EPA because of its excess greenhouse capabilities, but classified as a commodity by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) on account of its application for EOR.  Only in this circumstance could CO2 be considered a commodity.

Even if EOR CO2 were classified as a commodity, because it is unlikely that all the CO2 involved in widespread CCS could ever be used in EOR operations, all that excess CO2 not used in this way would probably constitute an industrial pollutant.  This is not just an academic issue; conflicting classifications would have significant impacts on the regulatory process for pipeline construction.

Conclusion:

CCS demonstration plants are under way or planned in at least 10 countries including the U.S..  Our government is pouring money into this technology thanks to the Congressional sponsorship that coal industry campaign donations, lobbyists and jobs have bought.

However, the industry is lying to the public:clean, carbon-neutral coal”is decades away, if possible at all. The billions of dollars spent on this research could be better spent on real climate solutions; put $34 billion into solar and wind etc and we will have the clean, renewable energy infrastructure for our future.

Climate Change: A Snowball of Warmth July 9, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change.
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This is a follow-up to the previous post, which explained feedback loops and their significance within the climate system in much more detail.  Please refer to that post for background information.

“Anthropogenic warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, depending upon the rate and magnitude of the climate change.” -The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fourth Assessment.

That irreversibility is the result of positive feedback loops.

There are a number of self-magnifying positive feedback loops in the climate system.  Like a snowball rolling down a snowy hill, these phenomena grow stronger as they continue.  All of them are triggered by a warming planet and in turn warm the planet even more.

The presence of all these warming feedback loops means that once the planet warms past a certain threshold, we won’t be able to reverse the effects and global warming will be unstoppable.  That is not to say that it will continue forever, but we will not be able to stop the full extent of the warming that will then occur.

As I wrote yesterday about the snowball analogy, a person farther down the hill could theoretically stop the rolling snowball while it was the size of a baseball or a basketball or probably even the size of one of those big yoga balls.  But you wouldn’t be able to stop the snowball once it reached the size of a car or a house.  Once the snowball gets that big, it’s going to roll all the way to bottom of the hill no matter what you do.

There is some point in that progression where the snowball becomes too big to be stopped.  A similar threshold exists for climate change; once the planet warms enough and there is enough CO2 in the atmosphere, we are committed to the full extent of climate change.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure where the threshold lies.  Currently, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 is 392 parts per million (ppm). Some scientists say the threshold is at 450 ppm.  Other say 500 ppm.  A few even say 350 ppm, which we are already past.  Either way, there is a point-of-no-return and it is close.

In this post, I will lay out the specific positive feedback loops that could make climate change unstoppable.

Sea Ice

As you’ve probably heard, arctic sea ice levels are declining rapidly as the oceans warm.  This sea ice decline is itself a positive feedback loop.  “Albedo” is a measure of how much radiation an object reflects.  What radiation isn’t reflected is absorbed (causing that object to heat up).  An object’s albedo is represented in decimal values ranging from 0.0 (0% radiation reflected) to 1.0 (100% radiation reflected)

Ice has a very high albedo, around 0.9.  It is very reflective (hence snow blindness and sun burns on the ski slopes) so it absorbs very little heat.  When solar radiation strikes sea ice, most of it gets reflected back up into the sky.  In the past, sea ice has covered much of the arctic ocean, turning the region into a giant mirror as far as solar radiation is concerned.

With warming waters, however, more and more of the arctic has lost its sea ice, exposing the water beneath.  Water has a very low albedo, around 0.1.  Instead of reflecting that radiation, it absorbs 90% of it and, as a result, heats up.  As sea ice levels decrease, more of the arctic is absorbing heat instead of reflecting it.  This, obviously, warms the water further.

Warming water melts more ice, exposing more water, which absorbs more heat, which melts more ice…you get it.  This is a classic positive feedback loop.

Water Vapor

When you think of a greenhouse gas, you probably think of carbon dioxide.  Most people are surprised to discover that water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas.  In fact, it is the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

As the climate warms, the atmosphere becomes more humid.  Warmer air can hold more water vapor.  As a result, as the planet warms, the air will be able to hold more of this greenhouse gas, which will cause more warming, which will allow the air to hold more water vapor…etc.  Positive feedback loop.

Methane Hydrates

You may recall from BP’s containment dome debacle that the procedure was thwarted by “methane hydrates.”  Methane hydrates are a frozen slurry of – you guessed it – methane (and water). Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

If the oceans warm to a certain point, these hydrates could melt and release their methane, which would rise through the water and enter the atmosphere.  There, they would increase the greenhouse effect, warming the oceans further, melting more methane hydrates, releasing more methane etc.  …there’s a pattern emerging here.

Methane hydrate deposits are found around the world and could amplify global warming.

Permafrost

Permafrost is soil that has been frozen for at least two years.  It contains a lot of dead organic matter that would be decomposed very quickly in warmer climates.  That decomposition releases methane, and global warming is melting that permafrost and making the arctic one of those warmer climates.

Like methane hydrates, as permafrost melts, it releases significant quantities of methane.  This, as you now know, soon enters the atmosphere and causes more warming, which melts more permafrost etc.

Western Siberia contains the world’s largest peat bog.  Its 385,000+ square miles (France and Germany combined) are estimated to contain 100 TRILLION lbs of methane.  It is already melting…

Others

Desertification, Amazon loss, cloud cover, and terrestrial phenomena such as forest fires and soil respiration may also form positive feedback loops for global warming, although they are less well established.

Conclusion

Climate propagandists dismiss this simple science and those who explain it as “alarmist.”  While it may be alarming, raising awareness about these threats is not dishonest or unduly sensationalist.  People need to know why the long-term threat of climate change poses short-term urgency.

Rest assured, though, even without these simple and highly probable positive feedback loops, climate scientists explain that global warming will still be “substantial and critical.”  We cannot afford to put off addressing climate change any longer.

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

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Politics.
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4 comments

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.