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Watered-Down “Energy-Only” Climate Bill Approaches July 14, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Politics.
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Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he will introduce energy legislation in two weeks.

Sen. Reid said he will push a bill that accomplishes four goals:

  1. Enhance oil rig safety requirements
  2. Create clean energy jobs
  3. Boost alternative energy/reduce oil consumption (read: increase efficiency)
  4. Reduce “pollution” from electric utilities

An aide later confirmed that the “pollution” to which he referred was in fact GHGs, but that he would not even mention GHGs or carbon dioxide explicitly is indicative of the political volatility surrounding this issue.

On the one hand, it is heartening to hear that the Senate will attempt to pass a climate/energy bill this year.  Just this week, four leading climate scientists explained in Politico that “The urgent need to act cannot be overstated.”

Even if a bill cannot pass, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) correctly opined that merely having an energy debate is advantageous for the Democratic energy agenda because it forces the “Party of No” to again block necessary and largely popular reform, with its job creation and increased energy security.

Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel signaled last month that a utility-only bill would have the White House’s blessing, which is not surprising given their track record of centrist compromises.

However, many in the environmental community are less than thrilled that Sen. Reid has decided on a utilities-only approach.  After all, the House or Representatives passed an economy-wide cap last year.

But the Senate has a different political climate, and with the filibuster in place, senators representing just 10.2% of the nation’s population can block any bill they choose (go down to the “SPECIAL RANT.” Also I’d like to take this moment to profess my love for Gail Collins to the world). The prospects of even just a utilities-only bill passing are slim, so the comprehensive energy reform this country so desperately needs is simply not possible at this time.

Power plants burning fossil fuels unsurprisingly release large amounts of GHGs. A utility-only bill would limit the amount of carbon dioxide they can emit.

So, what would a utilities-only bill look like?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced a utilities-only energy over a year ago: S.1462.  It passed out of his committee in June 2009 with bipartisan support.  This bill, the America Clean Energy Leadership Act of 2009, aka “ACELA”, would reduce energy-sector emissions by 17% in 2020 and by 42% by 2030.

Environmental groups hate this bill.  David Roberts at Grist has been covering this bill for over a year now.  His two-word summary: “ACELA sucks.” Why?  A number of reasons outlined here.  But I will explain the major ones that are the result of the utilities-only approach and apply to any bill of this type.

Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) have abandoned their earlier cap-and-trade bill (the American Power Act) in favor of their own utilities-only approach.  One thing their new bill has in common with Bingaman’s is the emissions targets.  Both bills seek to lower electric sector emissions by 17% in 2020 and 42% in 2030 (Kerry/Lieberman also set an additional target of 83% by 2050.)

As Joe Romm, a former Assistant Secretary of the Department of Energy and arguably the nation’s most authoritative commentator on energy policy put it:

“Meeting such a 17% target [for 2020] in the utility sector alone, as in the latest incarnation of the watered-down bill, would be utterly trivial.” -Joe Romm, Climate Progress.

This is because we are currently underusing our natural gas power plants.  American utilities have built an excess of relatively efficient natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) plants over the last 20 years.  Currently, the NGCC fleet operates at an average of 41% of its capacity.

In that absence of carbon-pricing, utilities choose to meet increased electricity demand by ramping up their dirtier, more inefficient coal plants because coal is currently cheaper than cleaner natural gas.  A recent MIT study found that ramping up production at existing natural gas plants instead of coal plants could cut U.S. power-sector CO2 emissions by 10% today, and without any additional capital investment.

In other words, utilities could meet over half of their emission reduction obligations for 2020 simply by pulling back the coal lever and pushing forward the natural gas lever and not changing a single thing.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t make this switch: it would reduce not only GHG emissions but also those of other coal air pollutants like sulfur and nitrogen oxides.  But a 17% utility-only decrease is barely even a step in the right direction and hardly constitutes energy reform.

More information on our underutilized natural gas capacity here.

Note that even the Waxman-Markey climate bill that passed the House last year had the same 17% target.  It is also far too weak.  However, that was an economy-wide reduction.  Limiting that reduction the energy sector guarantees that this bill will be largely ineffective in the short term.

Grist’s David Roberts and CFR’s Michael Levi wrote good pieces explaining the pros and cons of a utility-only approach a few weeks ago.  A note for reading Mr. Levi’s piece: it defends a utility-sector cap-and-trade program.  Bingaman’s bill caps the energy sector without a trading program.  We do not yet know whether the upcoming Senate bill will contain cap-and-trade, but I personally doubt it.

The morale of the story is that a utilities-only would be a very small step in the right direction.  Like potential EPA regulations, if paired with strong followup bills that address manufacturers and transportation etc, this could potentially be part of the solution.

Electric utilities release about 1/3 of our GHG emissions, and even in an economy-wide cap-and-trade program, roughly half of the emission reductions are expected to come from utilities.  When we generate roughly half of our electricity with a fuel as dirty as coal, switching off of it offers major reductions.

This graph shows the relative emission reductions in different sectors that would be expected under an economy-wide cap-and-trade program. Energy is by far the biggest column.

However, a 17% target, which is highly likely, is too weak, and a utility-only bill is, on its own, not a climate solution.  For those people who support incrementalism to achieve reform in this political climate, such a bill is a tiny increment.  But it is a short shuffle down the path to a sustainable energy future.

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Oil Spill Legislation Pt. 2 June 22, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Now that I have devoted two recent posts to what Congress isn’t doing, it’s time once again to look at what little they actually are working on.  There are a couple of interesting pieces of oil spill legislation that have been introduced recently.  These are the most noteworthy:

Let’s start with the bad ones.

S. 3461, introduced by David Vitter (R-LA) on 6/9.  This bill would create a system for resolving claims against BP, which is fine.  But it also seeks to renegotiate BP’s lease on “Mississippi Canyon 252” (where Deepwater Horizon was drilling when it sank).

Lease renegotiation is the Republicans’ preferred vehicle to increase BP’s liability. It has two main problems:

1) It requires BP’s cooperation. In order for this to work, BP would have to say, “Ok, we admit unlimited liability.”  As TPM reported, BP could refuse or even simply walk away from the renegotiation talks.  Public pressure might prevent them from doing this, but there is no guarantee.  And certainly no good reasons to choose this over just lifting the liability cap, which takes us to the second point.

2) Lease renegotiation establishes no future precedent for oil spills.  It is the legislative embodiment of not learning from our mistakes.  If we pass this bill and no other, the $75 million liability cap will still be on the books when the next catastrophic oil spill occurs.  This is why the only cosponsor on this bill is oil industry lackey Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).  Her co-sponsorship indicates that this bill is supported by the oil industry, which in turn indicates that this bill is far too weak.

Also, it could violate the Constitution.

S. 3497, introduced by Scott Brown (R-MA) on 6/16.  This bill would “require leases under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to include a plan that describes the means and timeline for containment and termination of an ongoing discharge of oil.”  The actual legislative text is not available yet, so I don’t know exactly what this bill would require, but that this seems weak to me.  Oil companies saying “and it’ll take us 4 months to fix this thing if it blows” would seem to satisfy the requirements of this bill, nor does this appear to address the strength and efficacy of the oil company plans – is there anything in here to prevent them from submitting plans to protect walruses in the Gulf of Mexico again?

Scott Brown has offered no evidence that his is to be trusted on energy/environmental issues.  That being said, he has found a bipartisan cosponsor for this bill in Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), so we will have to wait and see what is actually in this bill.

Now, the good stuff:

S. 3514: Amends the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to prohibit anyone from buying an oil or gas lease unless they pay into an Oil Spill Recovery Fund (unspecified amount so far) or post a bond equal to half of their outstanding liability related to oil spills or cleanups.  If the payment into the recovery fund is low, then what appears to be the intent of the bill – prevent companies in BP’s current situation from expanding their operations before paying up for oil spills – may be undercut.  But the legislative language is not available yet, so we’ll see.  Introduced by Mark Begich (D-AK) on 6/21 with 2 cosponsors.

S. 3492: In light of negligent emergency planning and the failure of all other containment options, this bill would amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to require leaseholders to prepare for and actually drill at least one relief well concurrent to the drilling of any exploratory well in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).  The bill allows for “alternative measures” at least as effective as a relief well to be employed instead of a relief well as authorized by the Secretary of the Interior.  Probably unlikely to pass, but an interesting idea. Introduced by Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) on 6/15 with no cosponsors yet.

H.R. 5513: “Spilled Oil Royalty Collection Act.”  Oil companies pay royalties on each barrel of oil produced.  In the “unforeseeable” event of a deepwater oil spill (defined as depth > 200m), this bill would charge oil companies royalties of at least 12.5% on every barrel that comes out of the well, regardless of whether that oil is recovered, burned, “dispersed”…anything.  This bill would come into effect retroactively, right before the Deepwater Horizon explosion.  Were this to become law, it would further highlight the importance of accurate flow estimates for gushers.  Those royalties would certainly not offer much more deterrent than legal liability, but can you think of any reason that spilled oil should be exempted from royalties?  I can’t.  Especially because they are recovering and selling some of it.  Introduced by Chellie Pingree (D-ME) on 6/10 and has 2 cosponsors.

H.R. 5503: Amends the 90-year-old “Death on the High Seas Act” to make it easier for those such as the families of the 11 workers who died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion to sue for non-pecuniary losses such as pain and suffering.  The bill was introduced with a statement that read, “We should not allow reckless corporations to use 19th century laws to shortchange their victims.”  Sounds right to me.  Introduced by John Conyers (D-MI) on 6/11 and has 12 cosponsors.

The companion bill in the Senate (S. 3463) was introduced by Patrick Leahy (D-VT) first, on 6/8, and has 5 cosponsors.

S. 3478: Would repeal parts of the Limitations of Liability Act of 1851, which Transocean has invoked to attempt to cap its liability at about $27 million.  This bill wins my personal award for Most Forced Acronym as its name is the “RESTORE Act,” which is supposed to stand for “Remuneration for Ecological and Societal Tolls Occasioned by Reckless Errors.”  Introduced by Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on 6/10 and has 3 cosponsors.

Bills to raise the liability cap:

S. 3472: “Big Oil Bailout Prevention Unlimited Liability Act.”  Completely lifts the standing $75 million liability cap for oil spills.  Introduced by Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on 6/9 and has 24 cosponsors.

H.R. 5520: Requires BP to pay at least $25 billion to a fund like the escrow the White House negotiated, but goes further by excluding this spill from the liability cap.  Introduced by Steve Kagen (D-WI) on 6/14 and has 32 cosponsors.

Bills to lift the deepwater drilling moratorium, which I fully support and have defended at length.

Senate:

S.3489: Introduced by David Vitter (R-LA) on 6/15 and has 1 cosponsor.

House:

H.R. 5499: Introduced John Mica (R-FL) on 6/11 and has 13 cosponsors.

H.R. 5525: Introduced by Pete Olson (R-TX) on 6/15 and has 28 cosponsors.

H.R. 5519: Introduced by Bill Cassidy (R-LA) on 6/14 and has 43 cosponsors, including some notable Gulf Democrats such as Charlie Melancon (D-LA).  Apparently Bill is more popular than John and Pete.

Sanders Amendment Defeated

Also worth mentioning but filed again under what Congress isn’t doing: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced an amendment to cut $35 billion in oil and gas royalties that don’t even add anything to the industry and would instead use $25 billion to reduce the deficit and $10 billion to encourage energy-efficient buildings.  The amendment was first blocked by climate-denier Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-KY) and then defeated in a vote, 61-39.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

Ocean Acidification (Climate Bill Skirmishes Pt. 2) June 21, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Politics.
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Fossil fuels threaten our oceans with dangers beyond just catastrophic oil spills.   Many people understand that carbon dioxide warms our atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.  It is much less publicized that carbon dioxide is also a critical pollutant in our oceans.

We are entering a period in which the very ocean services upon which humanity depends are undergoing massive change and in some cases beginning to fail.”  -Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia.

Some people may be more familiar with ocean acidification than others, so I will start with the basics.

Because carbon dioxide is a gas, one might think that it resides predominantly in the atmosphere.  In actuality, about 93% of the world’s carbon dioxide is found in the ocean – 50x more than in the atmosphere.  In fact, the oceans are estimated to contain approximately 10x as much carbon as our remaining fossil fuel deposits. We don’t release it into the water, but it gets there nonetheless; like other gases, carbon dioxide can move easily from the air into the water.

When the atmospheric pressure of carbon dioxide is greater than the local pressure of carbon dioxide in surface water, molecular diffusion will transport the gas from the atmosphere into the water.  Therefore, as more carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere (and the atmospheric pressure increases), more carbon dioxide ends up in our oceans.

Upon entering the water, CO2 undergoes some significant chemical reactions.

When carbon dioxide dissolves in the ocean, much of the gas reacts with water to form carbonic acid (H2CO3).  Carbonic acid is a weak acid that is not dangerous in and of itself – after all, we drink carbonated water and carbonic acid is actually formed in an intermediate step of human respiration.  However, if enough of it accumulates in the oceans, it can have severe indirect effects.

Carbon dioxide forms carbonic acid when dissolved in water.

On the 0-14 pH scale (in which lower numbers = higher acidity), ocean water has historically had a pH of about 8.16.  As a benchmark, “neutral” solutions like pure water and blood have a pH of 7, so our oceans are less acidic than pure water.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the oceans have absorbed almost half of the CO2 we have released into the atmosphere from fossil fuels and cement-manufacturing, and the pH has dropped by almost 0.1.  The pH scale is logarithmic, so each 1 point on the scale indicates an order of magnitude change; 0.1 may not sound like much, but it indicates about a 25% increase in ocean acidity so far.  It is estimated that the pH will drop another 0.4 by 2100.

That acidity would decrease the availability of the vital shell-building compound by 60% (explained below).  While the current pH levels are not record-breaking, the damage has already begun and the rapid rate of change is unprecedented and foreboding.  Ocean systems are remarkably sensitive to water acidity (which had remained relatively constant for millions of years), and marine biologists are very concerned that many species will not be able to evolve quickly enough to cope with this sudden, drastic change.

Ocean systems are remarkably sensitive to water acidity (which has remained relatively constant for the last , and marine biologists are very concerned that many species will not be able to evolve quickly enough to cope with this change.

Ocean acidification is occurring at an unprecedented rate. The scale of this graph is millions of years, that's why the last 2 data points and projections for the next century appear like a vertical line. Anywhere else in this record, 300 years would look like one overlapping, unchanged dot.

Sediment cores reveal that our oceans are acidifying at a rate not seen in 65 million years (since the dinosaurs roamed the Earth).  55 million years ago, virtually all shelled creatures in the ocean disappeared so quickly that geologists would consider it “overnight”.  Scientists attribute this die off to ocean acidification.  It took hundreds of thousands of years for shellfish to return to the oceans, and scientists estimate that we are now acidifying our oceans at a rate 10x faster than that which caused the last mass extinctions of shellfish.

How does ocean acidification affect marine life? Increasing acidity most directly affects aquatic organisms that form shells, such as corals, some algae, and the whole range of shellfish – as well as all the organisms and habitats that rely on those creatures.

Warning: chemistry content!
Shells are created out of calcium carbonate (CaCO
3).  Calcium carbonate structures can actually dissolve in water unless the surrounding water is saturated with carbonate ions (CO3).  If the carbonate concentration of ocean water is too low, shells will be deformed.  It’s like osteoporosis for shellfish.  If the carbonate concentration drops enough, their shells will literally dissolve, and the animals will not be able to survive.

Shellfish require carbonate to build and maintain their shells. In acidic water, they can't get the materials they need.

If you’ve ever taken chemistry, you may recall that acidic solutions undergo “partial ionization” – acidic reactions are reversible and form an equilibrium between the intact acid and its separated ions.  That’s why acid formulae use that double arrow (as in the formula above).  When carbonic acid dissociates, it breaks down from (H2CO3) into:

1)    hydrogen ions (H), which cause acidity, and;

2)    carbonate ions (CO3), upon which shellfish rely.

Carbonate ions can also bind with single hydrogen ions to form the bicarbonate ion (HCO3), which cannot be used for shell construction.

The amount of carbonate available in water is determined by the pH of the water. In more acidic solutions (lower pHs), there are more free hydrogen ions to bind with carbonate to form bicarbonate – and therefore there is less carbonate available in the water.

This is what is happening to our ocean water.  As you now know, that is very bad news for shellfish.

As water becomes more acidic, there is less available carbonate (CO3) for shellfish to use. This is happening today. The black line compared to pH is the one we care about.

A 2005 study examined the impacts of ocean acidification:

“Sea creatures such as corals, shell fish, sea urchins and star fish are likely to suffer the most because higher levels of acidity makes it difficult for them to form and maintain their hard calcium carbonate skeletons and shells. For example, even under the ‘low’ predictions for future carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, the combined effects of climate change and ocean acidification mean that corals could be rare on tropical and subtropical reefs, such as the Great Barrier Reef, by 2050. This will have major ramifications for hundreds of thousands of other species that dwell in the reefs as well as for the people that depend upon them, both for food and to help to protect coastal areas from, for example, tsunamis.”

The “tipping point” for reefs, ensuring reef erosion and even eventual extinction, could come as soon as 2050.

Mind you, this will be a separate, additional stressor on vital coral reefs (albeit with the same cause) as coral bleaching in warming waters.

Ocean acidification presents a clear threat and a compelling economic argument, even independent from climate change.  U.S. commercial fishing brought in $4 billion in 2006.  Coastal tourism just in the Florida Keys, which is driven by coral reefs, contributes $1 billion to the economy every year.  These are all jeopardized by ocean acidification.

So, in December of last year, Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced House Resolution 989:

“Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the United States should adopt national policies to prevent ocean acidification, to study the impacts of ocean acidification, and to address the effects of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems and coastal economies.”

Simple enough, right?  It finally came up for a vote this month.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who clearly has a lot at stake in regard to our nation’s oceans, voiced his objections: Why, he asked, do we need this resolution if Congress allocated $76 million to researching and monitoring ocean acidification as part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009?

Because, as Rep. Inslee explained, merely monitoring is not enough.  A threat we see coming will materialize whether we watch it arrive or not. We need to act.

Now, H. Res. 989 was never going to be that action we need.  Such nonbinding resolutions are largely inconsequential.  If passed, H. Res. 989 would have done nothing but publically acknowledge that this is a problem we need to address and possibly raise some needed public awareness.  But it’s difficult to rationally oppose such a motion because it has literally no drawbacks.

Mr. Chaffetz finally arrived at the crux of the conservatives’ concern:

“It talks in the very first sentence, ‘Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the United States should adopt national policies.’ By ‘national policies’ does the gentleman mean the cap-and-trade?”

I could relay to you the rest of the congressional debate about this resolution, but I don’t think I have to.  Earlier this month, 241 representatives voted for the resolution, including 19 Republicans and those from the vast majority our nation’s oceanic coastline.  However, such resolutions require the support of 2/3 of the House to pass.

A minority of conservative representatives (including 20 Democrats) defeated H. Res. 989 – about ocean acidification – because they didn’t want to be bound to a non-binding resolution that could potentially be interpreted to offer written encouragement for a cap-and-trade solution to our global warming emissions.  Partisan politics at its finest.

I wrote last week about one of the first skirmishes in this year’s congressional climate battle: the Murkowski Dirty Air Amendment.  This debacle was another.

Like climate change, ocean acidification poses a threat that we must essentially address now or never.  In blocking urgent energy reform, irresponsible congressional conservatives are imposing unprecedented costs and burdens upon younger generations.  As a member of one of those younger generations, I would very much like to take this opportunity to tell those conservatives what they can go do to themselves.  …But I’ll restrain myself for now.

Just for the record, ocean acidification and climate change have more in common than just the same cause: ocean acidification is actually one of the amplifying positive feedback loop that will accelerate climate change if we do not stop it now.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ocean Acidification, check out this great video by the Natural Resources Defense Council:

New Oil Spill Legislation May 13, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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***UPDATE***

It looks like I missed one relevant Senate bill in my sweep yesterday: S. 3309.  On May 6, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) cosponsored legislation with Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) that would raise the tax on oil producers that feeds the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to 9 cents/barrel (ooooh, 9 whole cents!).

Then, having made her token gesture of rebellion against her oil industry sponsors, Murkowski (R-OIL) single-handedly blocked the vote for Sen. Menendez’s bill that would raise oil company spill liability from $75 million to $10 billion.  Way to look out for everyday Americans/Alaskans, Lisa.

For a second there I thought I might actually have to praise Murky for taking a small step in the right direction.  Dodged that bullet.

Original Post:

As slowly as Congress acts, 11 relevant pieces of legislation have been introduced since the Deepwater Horizon rig sank on April 22, 4 in the Senate and 7 in the House of Representatives.  I have compiled a list of these bills and their stated purposes beneath this post (legislative text is not yet available).

The most significant bills are the three House bills seeking offshore drilling bans, one to protect the entire Pacific coast, one to protect all of the Atlantic and [whatever will be left of] the Gulf of Mexico, and one to prohibit new offshore drilling anywhere in U.S. waters.

Three more bills (2 Senate, 1 House) attempt to raise the liability cap on what oil companies can be made to pay for the oil spills they cause.

Two more bills fall under the “disaster response/assistance” category (the latter being sponsored by Sen. Landrieu to aid cleanup because that is the only aspect of this disaster that matters to the Senate’s “Handmaiden to the Oil Industry”.

Two more bills essentially penalize the oil industry.  I could phrase that more delicately, but I think it’s justified (and, given their current, monstrous subsidies, Big Oil still comes out way ahead).  One bill proposes a fee on all oil leases to create a fund that will be used for pollution control and “to reduce our dependence on oil” which presumably would fund research or renewable energy.

The other, called the “USE IT Act,” puts a “production incentive fee” on idle leases that oil companies hold but don’t drill on.  This seems like a great idea and has been suggested before 75% of all offshore leases lie unused. Between 2004 and 2008, oil and gas companies received 28776 permits on public land.  They drilled 18,954 of them. During Bush’s second term, Big Oil stockpiled nearly 10,000 leases.  That is why calls for more lease sales are so ridiculous; Big Oil is sitting on plenty of untapped reserves.  Each additional sale is just a land grab.  Why not incentivize them to develop the reserves we have given them?

If you’ve been counting, you know that leaves 1 remaining bill.  To paraphrase Sesame Street, “one of these bills is not like the others.”  Only one of these bills was sponsored by a Republican.  And it shows. Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao (R-LA) introduced a slightly twisted bill on Wednesday.  In a letter explaining his bill, he calls upon Congress and the administration not to repeat Bush’s mistakes and mount an effective response to this threat:

“Five years ago, the federal government failed us during Hurricane Katrina.  I will not stand by and let the government fail us again.”

So far so good.  Then he makes a questionable leap:

“An effective response will require both short-term emergency action and long-term investment. That is why I am drafting legislation to call for accelerated oil revenue sharing with the federal government.

When he says, “sharing WITH” he really means “sharing FROM.”  Revenue-sharing is the legislative mechanism through which Big Oil buys off coastal states (with federal money) so that they will accept the now obvious risks of offshore drilling.  I understand the argument that the states, in foolishly accepting these risks, may deserve a cut of the leasing money.  That is not my primary point here.

Unless this bill explicitly stipulates that transferred oil revenues will be earmarked for disaster mitigation or preparedness, it is a pretty despicable money grab and decidedly untimely gift to the oil industry. The only definite impact of this bill will be to shore up the currently threatened political support for offshore drilling in Gulf states.

The underfunding of state governments is not what will make this disaster so catastrophic.  BP has claimed it will foot the bill and all available state and federal resources are already being brought to bear to do what can be done.  I could be reading this wrong, but this seems pretty low.

Finally, I have not yet written about the new Senate climate bill, but I would be remiss not to mention here that champions like Sen. Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Nelson (D-FL) made it clear that they will not support a climate bill if it supports offshore drilling.  The current draft allows states to veto federal plans within 75 miles of their shores.  It also allows neighboring states to veto the project IF a government study concludes that an oil spill could cause them “significant adverse ecological harm,” which looks pretty likely now, doesn’t it?  This, at least, is a good sign.  (Source: E&E Climate Wire, subscription required).

Also, Gov. Crist is calling for a special session to discuss a proposed constitutional amendment to ban offshore drilling off Florida’s coast.  This move is part of his recent dive to the left now that he is running as an independent, but it would be an important move regardless of his motivations.


These are the bills that have been introduced so far:

Drilling Bans:

  • West Coast Ocean Protection Act of 2010” (H.R. 5213): to amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to permanently prohibit offshore drilling off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.  Introduced by John Garamendi (D-CA) May 5.
  • No New Drilling Act of 2010” (H.R. 5248): to amend Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to prohibit new OCS leasing for any drilling or mining.  Introduced by Frank Pallone (D-NJ) May 6.
  • H.R. 5287: to amend the OCS Lands Act to permanently prohibit offshore drilling on outer continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.  Introduced Corrine Brown (D-FL) May 12.

Raising the Liability Cap:

  • S. 3345: to remove the cap on punitive damages established by the Supreme Court in Exxon Shipping Company v. Baker.  Introduced by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) May 11.
  • S. 3346: to increase the limits on liability under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.  Introduced by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) May 11.
  • “Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act of 2010” (H.R. 5214): to require oil polluters to pay the full cost of oil spills.  Introduced by Rush Holt (D-NJ) May 6.

Drilling Penalties:

  • S. 3343: to direct the Secretary of the Interior to establish an annual fee on Federal offshore areas that are subject to a lease for production of oil or natural gas and to establish a fund to reduce pollution and the dependence of the United States on oil.  Introduced by Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) May 11.
  • USE IT Act” (H.R. 5102): to direct the Secretary of the Interior to establish an annual production incentive fee on onshore and offshore lands that are leased but where production is not occurring.  Introduced by Edward Markey (D-MA) Apr 27.

Disaster Response/Assistance:

  • S. 3337: to establish a program to provide technical assistance grants for use in assisting individuals and business affected by Deepwater Horizon.  Introduced by Mary Landrieu (D-LA) May 11.
  • H.R. 5241: to establish a commission to investigate the causes and impact of Deepwater Horizon and evaluate and improve the response to such disasters. Introduced by Lois Capps (D-CA) May 6.   More info here.

Republican Bill:

  • H.R. 5267: to accelerate the amount of Gulf of Mexico oil and gas lease revenues shared with States.  Introduced by Anh Cao (R-LA) May 12.

The Spam We Need February 10, 2009

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election.
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For at least the next two years, the impotent Republican minority in the House of Representatives will produce nothing but drama and headlines.  And the theme of this show will be partisanship.  President Obama promised us a new era of bipartisanship, so whenever he supports a Democratic policy, Republicans are crying foul.  Disregarding the fact that liberals got “partisan-ed” pretty hard during Bush II years, let’s examine what bipartisanship really means today.

First, “partisan” does not deserve such a negative connotation; it describes how our legislature functions.  Two parties with widely differing ideologies will obviously support the solutions they believe will work, as they have for centuries.

When Obama won, the phrase ‘mandate for change’ surfaced – the sense that a clear majority of Americans trusted that this Democratic president had a better platform to fix our country.  For Obama to now embrace Republican plans for a stimulus package (mainly tax breaks) would violate the trust of every person who voted for him.  Americans elected Democrats into the White House and clear majorities in the House and the Senate.  This is not a product of random chance.

2008 election results with states scaled by population.  See all the blue?

2008 election results with states scaled by population. See all the blue?

Worthy or not, Republicans successfully cast themselves as the party of “tax breaks.”  And if that is your single, shortsighted priority for our government, it seems clear you should vote Republican.  But in November, America did not.  So last month, when Obama was asked why there weren’t more Republican ideas in his stimulus plan and he replied “I won,” his response was not only delightfully honest but informative.

Bipartisanship means understanding, respecting, and listening to the opposition.  Obama is doing that.  Sometimes it means making compromises too, but not on everything.  I’m no economist, so let’s try this from a civics perspective: in a democratic republic, citizens vote for the people they think will choose what is best for their country.  Because Republican policies and leadership failed us so spectacularly during the last eight years, we voted them out of power.  We already tried pure tax breaks – they didn’t work. And there’s a reason Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  So maybe this time our government should actually govern?

But no, Republicans want to give tax breaks another whirl.  All 188 of them in the House voted against the stimulus bill (which still passed easily).  But they are quite proud of their completely ineffective yet unanimous opposition.  They even view it as a victory because Obama spent time meeting with them.  Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) explained, “if he comes and meets with us like that and it doesn’t have an impact, it begins to hurt his credibility.”  …Or alternatively, one could interpret that to mean that Republicans are equally unwilling to compromise on their core beliefs and voted with their party.  What’s that called again?  Oh yeah, “partisan.”  Bipartisanship is a two-way street, not the unilateral acquiescence of a ruling majority.

While Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) proposes a $3.1 trillion tax break “stimulus” alternative, his fellow Republicans oppose the current $838 billion plan as wastefully large.  Highlighting minor expenditures (like the efficiency measures I last wrote about), they’ve framed the bill as a giant helping of congressional pork.  But this label doesn’t quite fit.

Legislative “pork” is normally funding for projects that benefit only a small constituency, frequently within a single congressperson’s district.  Most of the “controversial” stimulus expenditures fund broader objectives, such as anti-smoking campaigns.  These seem more like “riders,” unrelated and often contentious provisions attached to a larger, important bill that is likely to pass.  But this comparison doesn’t work either, because these expenditures themselves are the bill.  That would make the stimulus package some kind of conglomeration of self-propelling riders, or maybe “meta-pork,” but that’s a little confusing.

Given the difficulty of classifying this project and our penchant for labeling legislation as meat, I propose that this bill is most like spam: nobody really knows quite what it is, it’s probably a lot of different things mashed together, and whatever it is, it’s going to be around for a while.  It’s not your first choice, but you’d certainly eat it if you were starving.

Looks...yummy, doesn't it?

...yum.

This stimulus spam is not perfect, but our economy is famished.  Barring a government-wide “kumbaya” moment, continued debate will accomplish little.  I concede that some of the proposed expenditures would not provide short-term economic stimulus and perhaps should be removed, but the Democratic agenda has long been stifled and a crisis is indeed a terrible thing to waste.  And it’s worth mentioning that many of the “jobless” investments, like the anti-smoking campaign or computerizing medical records, would surely save money in the long run.

Regardless, the performance of our economy during this administration will be attributed to, or blamed on, Democrats; if we’re shouldering all the risk, we might as well do this our way (if we can get the votes in the Senate).  Claims of partisanship are the crutch of an intellectually bankrupt Republican party that has nothing new to offer.

Last week, Sen. John McCain sent an email to his supporters with an anti-stimulus petition.  He wrote, “With so much at stake, the last thing we need is partisanship driving our attempts to turn the economy around.”  But is partisanship really worse than a prolonged, deeper recession?  I don’t think so.

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

Offshore Drilling: They’re Lying. September 17, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Yesterday the House of Representatives passed the “Comprehensive American Energy Security & Consumer Protection Act.”  This bill has a lot of good policies in it, such as renewable tax credit extensions, repealing oil company subsidies, and establishing a national renewable energy standard.  It also compromises a lot (read: bad policies).  The most notable of these is the opening of the outer continental shelf (OCS) to oil companies.  In light of this development, I have decided to write my long overdue post on offshore drilling.

Over the last few months, offshore drilling has been all over the media, largely is response to a major propaganda push by the GOP.  Republicans would have you believe that science is a political debate, but there are some things that just cannot be spun.  In this post, I will attempt to clearly explain why this gimmick will not help our country both to help clear up any uncertainties and, with any luck, to arm you with the facts to help explain this to people you know.  Because we need to talk about this – the Republicans certainly are.  And they’re winning.  So we begin:

1) Domestic drilling cannot lower oil prices.  We, the US, represent 25% of world oil demand and <3% of the world’s supply (EIA International Energy Outlook 2004). Oil prices are determined on the global market, and we produce so little that we simply can’t affect prices from the supply side. Gas price fluctuations in response to regional disruptions in refining capabilities (such as we see in the wake of hurricanes) are an exception, but they just raise prices even higher and cannot drop prices below the floor set by the global market.  And since OPEC is a cartel, even if we were miraculously able to significantly affect prices, OPEC could just reduce their supply to negate that effect.

Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2004

We don't have enough oil to drill ourselves out of this problem.

2) Drilling won’t lower gas prices.  Even if we were to tap all of our resources, including OCS and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), according to Bush’s own EIA and EPA, drilling would not have a significant impact on prices.  We’re talking gas prices lowered by about 4-6 cents/gallon in 2030.

If you listen to what Bush, Gingrich, McConnell, Boehner, and now McCain/Palin, are actually saying, they even admit that increasing supply can’t bring down oil prices. They are saying things like “the market signal will ease pressure on gas prices.” What that translates to is “drilling won’t bring down prices, but we’re hoping people are stupid enough to believe that it will and stop speculating oil futures so high.”  Which won’t work for long if at all.  They are choosing their words carefully, but even the biggest drilling advocates tacitly admit this is a political gimmick.

3) Drilling is a long-term proposition.  This is not at all a short-term idea (I refuse to use the word ‘solution’ in this context). Even if we opened ANWR and the continental shelf tomorrow, oil wouldn’t begin to flow for 10 years and maximum production wouldn’t be achieved until 2027. Only THEN could we get our prices lowered by less than 6 cents/gallon.

4) We don’t have nationalized oil companies. In many other countries, oil companies are government-run.  A country taps its own resources and distributes them as the government sees fit.  That, for better or for worse, does not happen here.  “Our” oil companies are giant, private companies that span the globe and act in the interest of their stockholders.  Just because American companies get oil does not mean we do.  Does anyone else find it suspicious that the oil companies tell us we just need to increase supply in the same year that American petroleum exports reached a record high?

Our oil companies are exporting record amounts of petroleum products.  But really, we just need more supply.  They swear.

"Our" oil companies are EXPORTING record amounts of petroleum products. But really, we just need more supply. They swear.

Industry front groups try to set up cost-benefit analyses to show us how much money we save/earn by drilling domestically, but the American people (who do not own stock in Exxon) don’t benefit from US oil company profits.  We still pay the same money for the same gas.  I’m not endorsing foreign oil, I’m just saying that US oil companies are not our saviors or even our friends.  They are just companies trying to make as much money as they can.

5) Big Oil profits from our suffering. With soaring gas prices in recent years, the oil companies have been posting record profits while the American public has struggled.  The fanatical support oil companies enjoy from the rank and file Republican is sadly ironic as these companies profit at the expense of regular people.  While they do contribute handsomely to campaigns, these companies do nothing for the everyday people who champion their cause.  It really is a testament to the expertise with which the GOP and industry advertising/lobbyists manipulate the public.  And to add insult to injury, the Big 5 are spending most of their profits on buying back their own stock.  They are spending under 4% of their profits on exploration for new oil and even less on research and development.

This makes me pretty angry, but I’ve had people tell me “well, they’re private companies making a profit.  Good for them.”  Just because I am a Democrat does not mean I automatically begrudge businesses for their success.  This is different for one fundamental reason: the oil industry is very heavily subsidized.  Oil companies receive millions and millions of taxpayer dollars and tax breaks each year.  If they are going to continue to be supported by the American people, they must act on our behalf.  Their expenditures clearly indicate that they do not.

6) They can increase supply without offshore drilling. There is plenty of oil available to oil companies even without this new bill.  There are millions of acres across the country currently available for purchase or not being utilized.  Furthermore, there is a great deal of oil still sitting in the ground beneath tapped wells.  Conventional drilling techniques by no means empty a reservoir; there are numerous Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOC) techniques that could help us get more oil out of our existing wells right now (for example by injecting steam into the ground to increase pressure in the well and draw oil out of the surrounding rocks).  But the industry rarely employs them.  Some of these techniques could even sequester carbon underground (click the EOC link above) and help us fight global warming even while we make the most of our current drilling infrastructure.  If the oil companies really wanted to increase supply they could; this is a last ditch land grab before Bush leaves office.

Conclusion

So there it is: offshore drilling is not the answer.  It just isn’t.  There is no substantive debate on the issue.  In fact, more drilling isn’t even part of the solution.  The “All of the Above” scam the GOP is pushing is terrible for so many reasons it would require its own post.  So what IS the solution?  A comprehensive strategy of clean energy in conjunction with increased efficiency and conservation.  It may not be sexy, but that’s what we have to do.  The Natural Resources Defense Council outlines the plan in this fact sheet and the graph below shows how such a plan could actually help us in the short term and dwarf the “benefits” of increased drilling in the long term.

Mother Knows Best August 7, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling.
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As you may be aware, while most of Congress is away on its August recess, a few Republicans have remained in DC.  They are currently engaged in what they have dubbed the “Shadow Session,” lending some credence to the evil-Republican connotation that has been developing of late.  Yet these shadows, unlike the election woes their party currently faces, are not of their own creation.  Instead, this “session” is actually being held the dark. 

Let’s go back to the last Friday to set the scene.  The House of Representatives faced a routine vote to adjourn for their recess, but the measure squeaked by on a slim 213-197 margin.  Those voting against the congressional summer break wanted to capitalize on the increasing support for offshore drilling, and thought that the House should not take its vacation until they voted on drilling.  While saving the merits of offshore drilling for a later post (preview: there aren’t any for you or me), what happened next was somewhat comical.  After the vote passed, the vast majority of the members left the building, threw the papers from their briefcases into the air as they ran out onto the Capitol steps, and went back home to their respective districts.  However, a few members remained on the floor.  These selfless public servants decided to do what they do best – talk.

There was only one small problem with their plan: school was out for summer.  I don’t know how many of you have a mother, but if you do you may remember that they like to constantly remind (nag) you about the things you’ve forgotten to do, those little bad habits they are trying to correct.  You know, make your bed.  Eat your vegetables.  Turn out the light when you leave the room.  Well House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) not only is a mother, but she clearly had a mother as well, because she did what any good girl does when she leaves her Capitol building for the summer – she turned out the lights.  And the C-SPAN cameras.

So now the GOP is all up in arms because Pelosi left them in the dark.  In the meantime, they have turned this into an historic PR stunt, and what started as a handful of congressmen and has swelled to a whopping 18 members, all of whom are essentially filibustering their own vacation.  It’s a free for all for Republicans trying to get out a message.  John McCain (R-AZ) is calling for an emergency session and scolding his colleagues for their inaction (despite being the least active Senator in Congress and the tiny detail that he hasn’t cast a vote in 4 months.  House Minority Leader John Boehner (R–OH) is pressuring his fellow R’s to head back to DC – from the golf courses of his native Ohio.  Even Newt Gingrich has crawled back onto scene to threaten to shut down the government again if we don’t give our country’s ailing oil companies another hand out.  And believe it or not, none of these men have anything nice to say about Ms. Pelosi.

But if the Republicans can twist oversimplified economic principles to support their positions (look for my upcoming post on Offshore Drilling), so can I, and if a shortage of supply is causing high energy prices right now, you could get the same relief of an increased supply by decreasing demand.  And what easier way to reduce demand than to turn off unneeded lights as you leave?  So what our Shadow Congressmen see as a partisan move to silence their protest, I see as an energy solution that mom would be proud of. 

The Capitol is a big building.  Nancy is just saving a little energy to reward hard-working Americans with a little relief in their energy bills.  Perhaps she should turn off the A/C too.