jump to navigation

Another Day on the Campaign Trail: GOP Lies = News August 17, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Election, Media, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
2 comments

On Monday, a GOP senate candidate in Wisconsin made the following statement:

I absolutely do not believe in the science of man-caused climate change.  It’s not proven by any stretch of the imagination.” –Ron Johnson, six-figure BP stockholder and oil spill apologist.

This “forgotten Tea Party candidate” went on to expound his misguided opinion in detail. He said some other stupid things, but I think my favorite was that a strong economy would keep the environment clean.  Isn’t that cute?

It always angers me to see such baseless denial, especially when excreted by a man who would seek to become among the most powerful decision-makers in our country.  But what really set me off was how this story was covered.

The national press will do what they always do, so for Congressional races, I prefer to take a look at how these stories are covered locally in order to better gauge what effect they will have on the people who can actually vote.  The Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel has more than twice as many readers as the next biggest newspaper in Wisconsin.

This is the article they ran by Steve Schultze.  Suffice it to say that it did not calm me down.

In the ~800 word piece, the word “said” appears 25 times and makes up 3% of all the words used.  This “article” isn’t journalism, it’s stenography.  Worse, in letting Ron Johnson dictate to the newspaper, this reporter just spread blatant misinformation.

Yes, I know this guy was reporting an interview.  I am aware that Mr. Johnson is entitled to his opinion, even if it’s wrong, and that a reporter’s job is, in this case, to present that opinion to the electorate.  But journalists are supposed to pursue the truth, not just balance.

Let me offer a more specific example from the interview.  Johnson is 100% sure that humans aren’t warming the planet.  So how does he explain the rising temperatures?

“It’s far more likely that it’s just sunspot activity,” he says.

That’s Johnson’s opinion, that’s what Schultze reported.  Why is that poor journalism?  Because it is demonstrably false.

Solar output does vary, and that radiated energy does exert some influence on our climate systems.  So at first blush, sunspots do appear to be a valid hypothesis for global warming.  …That is, until you take even a glance at solar output data and discover that we are in a drastic solar minimum; the sun is currently cooler than it’s been in over a century.

Since 1975 the sun has been cooling while our planet warmed. That’s not how cause and effect work. Click for full size | Image credit: SkepticalScience.com

Fact: the sun is not causing our current climate change.  If anything, decreased solar output is masking what would otherwise be even more extreme warming!

After reading Schultze’s article, Wisconsinites know that Ron Johnson thinks the sun is causing global warming.  Don’t the voters deserve to know that he is unquestionably wrong?  Wouldn’t that help them make a more informed decision?  I think so.

In the hallowed name of fairness and balance, Mr. Schultze did offer a counterpoint to Johnson’s falsities:

[Democratic Sen. Russ] Feingold has taken a completely opposite position on global warming, saying that “most people think man had some role in it.”

And that was that.  A difference of opinion, nothing more.

In political news coverage, media outlets strive to maintain objectivity by offering both candidates equal coverage, without appearing to favor one or the other.  That 50-50 coverage, presenting both sides of the story in a “we report, you decide” paradigm, accomplishes objectivity when covering differences of opinion.

However, when the media provide 50-50 coverage to a situation where one party is clearly lying or wrong, that attempt at objectivity becomes what is called the “bias of balance,” about which I have blogged extensively and wrote my honors thesis.

This problem pollutes the debate about every major issue our country faces today.  Gutless, “balanced” media coverage enables conservative demagogues to successfully manipulate public opinion against effective and desperately needed legislative reforms.  And the situation is not improving.

Everyday, critical policy considerations are buried further and further beneath piles of manufactured yet diligently transcribed political drama.  THAT is why I am among the majority of people who think this country is on the wrong track.

And no, Mainstream Media, that is NOT bad news for Democrats – it’s bad news for America.  And it is in no small part your fault.

Case in point a la Jon Stewart and the NYC mosque ridiculousness (as usual, worth watching in its entirety, but most directly relevant starting at 4:00).

Advertisements

Republicans Block Anemic Energy Bill for Oil Industry July 28, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

Despite the weakness of the pending oil spill/“energy” bills introduced in the House and Senate this week, Big Oil and their Congressional allies are doing everything they can to make sure we do not learn from BP’s unforgiveable mistakes.

100 days after the Deepwater Horizon spill began, Republicans oppose each of the small shuffles down the right path that these bills contain.

For example, anti-science champion Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) takes exception with a provision that requires natural gas drillers to merely disclose which toxic chemicals they are injecting into the ground near our drinking water supplies during the controversial practice known as “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking.”

Why does Inhofe oppose the simple disclosure of that information?  Because Inhofe and the industry claim that the dangers of toxic chemicals in drinking water are overblown.

Comprehensive energy reform is already dead, and even these bills, which could only euphemistically be called “half-hearted”, have a slim chance because Republicans claim that there is little room for compromise. That is a disgusting claim.  These bills are already grotesquely compromised.  They were so thoroughly watered down in hopes of attracting the necessary supermajority that they are scarcely progress at all.  To demand more compromise calls to mind a limbo player lying on the floor.

Republicans most vehemently oppose lifting the liability cap on oil companies that defile our nation’s environment.  They say that expecting oil companies to pay for the full consequences of the damage they cause will drive “mom and pop” oil companies out of business.  That is hardly a defense of limited liability: if that claim is true, perhaps mom and pop should pursue less risky projects.

Republicans are fighting to preserve the apparent right of every oil company, big or small, to remain blameless for the oil spills they continue to cause in American waters. That is senseless.

With midterm elections approaching, Republicans are pretending to have solutions of their own; toward that end, they are circulating an even bigger joke of an energy bill.  Their “alternative” bill contains energy “solutions” such as lifting the deepwater drilling moratorium and preventing the administration from blocking offshore drilling again. You know, the change we need.

However, the Republican bill does contain a provision that unfortunately may influence the Democratic bills.  Instead of unlimited liability for oil companies that cause spills (making them pay for all the damage they cause), Republicans have a different idea: ironically, the party of limited government wants to make the Department of the Interior set liability limits on each individual rig based on 13 different criteria, including a company’s safety record and the estimated risks involved with the specific location.

This is just another way to protect Big Oil and make sure that taxpayers are the ones who have to pay to clean up oil spills. Oil state Democratic Senators Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Mark Begich (D-AK) are attempting to broker a compromise on oil spill liability.

There is one additional point that must be mentioned.  Many Republicans are trotting out this line in various forms:

“This is a serious subject and it deserves consideration by the United States Senate on behalf of the American people.  We are ready for a serious debate, but it appears the Majority Leader is not.” –Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN)

This complaint is not just about the bill’s expedited timeline.  It is true that Sen. Reid is trying to have an energy bill passed by the August recess.  Yet perhaps more importantly, Sen. Reid is unlikely to allow any amendments to be added to this bill.

Such a parliamentary maneuver is necessary because Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) is poised with his amendment to delay the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act; the final regulatory bulwark of climate action in the United States.

Rockefeller’s amendment, about which I will write more soon, is similar to Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) “Dirty Air Act” amendment that was narrowly defeated in June.  If amendments were allowed, she too would certainly poison this bill with something similar.  Indeed, Murkowski is considering adding the amendment to an unrelated small-business bill as she tirelessly does the bidding of Big Oil in the U.S. Senate.

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

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

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.

Why the EPA Should Regulate Carbon July 7, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

…because the Senate won’t.

Despite what is shaping up to be the hottest year on record, the ongoing oil spill  and pubic opinion polls showing that Americans are finally ready to address our entwined energy and climate crises, legislation remains blocked by the usual suspects: Republicans, lobbyists and perpetual election year politics.

Most people think that Congress is the governmental entity that ought to address an issue as sweeping as climate change.  I agree.  So do most congressmen – loudly.

Unfortunately, many those congressmen who angrily rant about the importance of congressional authority are the very same people blocking congressional action.

The Obama Administration has made it clear that it does not want to have to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency.  Everybody would prefer that Congress pass a bill instead.  The House has.  The Senate, it seems, cannot.

Yet we must address a threat of this magnitude.  So if Congress won’t, the EPA should.  The Supreme Court agrees; if Congress doesn’t act, the EPA is legally obligated to regulate GHGs as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The EPA will not supersede legislative climate action; it will act in accordance with the Clean Air Act (written by Congress) unless Congress passes a newer law.

As the chances for such a law fade, it is worth examining what EPA carbon regulations might look like.

What Would EPA Regulations Looks Like?

There have been a number of bureaucratic hoops to jump through on the road to EPA carbon regulations.  Next January, when the EPA’s new gas mileage standards for cars comes into effect, greenhouse gases will finally be “subject to regulation” under the Clean Air Act.

First, new polluting power plants and industrial facilities would have to adopt the “best available control technologies” (BACT) for regulating carbon emissions.  The EPA gets to determine which technologies are “best.”  Carbon capture and sequestration technology could fall into this category if it was proven, but that’s a long way off.  In the meantime, the EPA would the mandate the use of existing technologies to reduce emissions and/or increase efficiency.

For example, the EPA could require any and all new coal-fired power plants to utilize integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology.  IGCC plants convert coal into a synthetic gas so that it can be burned more cleanly (in terms of non-GHG pollutants) and use excess heat from the primary combustion and generation to power a secondary steam turbine that generates extra electricity per unit of coal burned.  Or it could require new power plants use natural gas instead of coal.

Natural gas emits much less carbon than coal.  It’s not a long-term solution, but significant short-term gains could be achieved by switching from coal to natural gas.  The EPA could propose this change.

What is the “Tailoring Rule”?

Under the Clean Air Act, anyone trying to build or upgrade a facility that will emit a baseline level of a regulated pollutant (usually 100-250 tons per year) needs to get a permit from the EPA certifying that they are utilizing the “best available control technology” (BACT) to minimize their emissions.

For other Clean Air Act pollutants, like lead, 100 tons per year is quite a bit and well worth of regulation.  The problem here is that carbon emissions are on a much larger scale.  As the Clean Air Act is written, as many as 6 million buildings would need permits for their carbon emissions, including schools, churches, buildings that use heating oil…you get the idea.  Not the real targets of these regulations.

In May, the EPA released its “Tailoring Rule” to limit the focus of the permitting process to facilities that release >75,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year and already apply for other Clean Air Act pollutant permits.  This way, only the major polluters are subject to these regulations. The Tailoring Rule brings down the number of regulated buildings from 6 million to about ~550 of the biggest polluters.

For the record, when originally proposed, the cutoff was set at 25,000 tons per year, but after the comment period, the EPA realized that too many buildings would be unintentionally regulated (like schools and small businesses).

Additionally, any new power plants expected to emit more than 100,000 tons of GHGs per year would need to get a permit.  This would certainly cover all new coal plants, whose emissions are on the order of million of tons per year.

If the EPA does end up implementing these regulations, conservative groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will likely challenge the Tailoring Rule in court so that schools etc. would need be regulated as well.  Why?  Because they hate children.  …ok fine, because if the EPA enacts this policy, conservatives want it to become a regulatory nightmare.  Making the EPA permit the 6 million buildings that emit much smaller amounts of carbon each year would be impossibly cumbersome and cause considerable public backlash – so conservatives hope we would just scrap the whole thing and let them keep polluting for free.  Potential legal vulnerabilities such as this are a weakness of this less than elegant regulatory route.

Benefits of EPA Carbon Regulations

EPA regulations would hopefully be designed with less lobbyist influence than in Congress.

Most climate/energy bills – including the climate bill that pass in the House last year – end up “grandfathering” in some dirty coal plants.  That is, their emissions are exempted from regulation.  Such provisions completely undercut the energy bills that contain them by providing utilities with a perverse incentive to keep their oldest, most polluting plants open as long as possible.  They are written by lobbyists and exist solely as thank you’s from American legislators to their industry supporters.

Disgustingly, even the original Clean Air Act grandfathered in existing coal plants.

Everything Congress touches that is at all energy-related comes out blackened with soot and covered in tar balls.  The EPA is not impervious to industry demands, but it is certainly in a better position to stand up to industry than Congress (which isn’t saying much).

In fact, in many ways,

The EPA is Better Suited to Address this Issue than Congress

In 1997, economist Alan Blinder presented an interesting argument that some governmental challenges could and should be better solved by unelected experts.

Certain types of problems, Blinder correctly argued, are by nature better addressed by experts than by elected laymen in Congress.  These types of problems meet three criteria (discussed below):

  1. The issue deals with technical subjects requiring specialized knowledge.
  2. The issue is long-term, both in problems and solutions.
  3. The issue imposes short-term hardship to avert long-term hardship of much greater magnitude.

Consider the legislative challenges of issues that meet these criteria.  What follows are not critiques of our democracy but rather explanations of some unfortunate effects that institutional design can have upon policymaking.

Congress Lacks Specialized Knowledge:

Everybody knows that our elected representatives are not experts.  They are elected to represent us and cannot possibly be expected to have in-depth knowledge of all the issues our legislature must tackle.

To overcome this deficiency, they summon experts to testify before them.  But most testimony has little impact on legislation, and as anyone who has ever watched C-SPAN (or even the Daily Show) can tell you, sometimes “expert testimony” is nothing short of political theater.

For example, in 2005, the notorious Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK and Congress’s most vocal climate-denier), who at the time chaired the Environment and Public Works Committee, invited fiction author Michael Crichton to advise the Senate on climate science because he had recently written State of Fear, a fictional story about murderous eco-terrorists.  Inhofe also made that book “required reading” for members of the top Senate environmental committee.

Jim Inhofe is the poster child both for senators not being experts and political theater. He once disputed climate science by saying “God’s still up there. We’re going through these cycles.” This man CHAIRED the Senate’s environmental committee for 5 years and remains its ranking Repubican member.

When you hear about the final deal-making and compromises being made to pass a law, it has nothing to do with expert testimony or pure policy considerations – it’s often just about pork barrel politics and a particular legislator’s demands.

It is easy to see why under certain circumstances, our country would be better served if experts in the field at hand were asked to craft sensible and efficient policies to address technical problems.

Congress Cannot Address Long-Term Problems:

It is never more than two years from an election year in Washington.  If congresspersons want to be reelected, they need to deliver short-term results to their constituents.

It is no surprise, then, that long-term problems are not legislative priorities; they appeal to our legislators’ responsibility and duty, but those are not the forces that drive Washington.

Even if addressing a long term problem did not cost anything today, it would present an opportunity cost because a House representative only has 2 years to deliver demonstrably for his constituents.

For long term solutions that have short term costs, the future prospects grow bleaker.  Add a degree of uncertainty and magnify it with disinformation and demagoguery, and it is obvious why climate bills are hard to pass.

Congress Cannot Impose Short-Term Costs for Long-Term Benefits:

Legislators are held accountable for the present, not the future.  Until the end of their careers, the desire for reelection prioritizes short-term considerations.  Think about a Representative in the House.  If a bill in the House could save his constituents money in 10 years but will cost them money this year, he would have to be reelected 5 times before his constituents would feel the actual benefits of that bill, but he would surely be held responsible for the cost.

If that representative’s constituents are totally on board with that bill, they may give him credit for his work in the short term.  But if it’s a contentious law and there is disinformation circulating, that vote could well cost him his job.

If the problem that bill solves is only a small one today, even if it’s going to get much bigger in the future, his constituents may resent him for imposing a cost to solve a problem that was not unbearable yet.  This is why Congress is a reactive, not proactive, body.

Climate change is a long-term threat with long-term solutions.  Unfortunately, we only have a short-term window to address it and it will impose short term costs.

It is the perfect storm of an issue that Congress really cannot handle.  It is exactly the type of issue that Alan Blinder was talking about.  That is why the responsibility of carbon regulation may well fall to the EPA.

Downsides to EPA Action

1. Limited Scope: EPA regulations, at least early on, would do very little to clean up our existing power plants.  Recall from the Tailoring Rule that these regulations apply only to new or upgrading plants (unless they release other Clean Air Act pollutants too).  Obviously, we would need to reduce our current emissions to meaningfully reduce our climate pollution.

2. Cost: Congressional action could achieve emission reductions more cheaply than the EPA regulations could.  If EPA establishes carbon regulations under the Clean Air Act, they will be traditional “command and control” regulations.  The EPA will dictate what emissions-reducing technologies are best, and mandate their use.

Instead of that approach, Congress could use more modern market-based initiatives like cap-and-trade to put a price on carbon.  This would spur innovation and let us achieve our emission reductions for less.  The EPA would mandate the use a current technology, with no incentive to develop better ones.

The cost factor and other differences between market-based initiatives vs. command and control regulations are outlined in this recent post.

3. It’s Not Enough: EPA carbon regulations would provide emissions reductions where we need them most – the energy sector.  But they couldn’t put a price on carbon, which is a vital step to achieving the long-term reductions necessary to avert the worst effects of climate change.

“The only way to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050 is to put a price on carbon, and the only folks who can do that are in Congress.” –David Bookbinder, Sierra Club.

4. Threat of Being Overturned: Legal challenges could slow the EPA process but probably not derail it altogether.  The real threat is that Congress could overturn anything the EPA does, as Lisa Murkowski has already attempted to do preemptively.

Conclusion:

By virtue of not having gone through Congress, EPA climate regulations would likely emerge looking more like a sound policy solution than anything Congress has ever produced.  However, these regulations would not be enough. Combined with a good energy bill, they could be part of a real solution, but we would still need some congressional action to truly address this threat.

A comprehensive climate/energy bill would be preferable to EPA regulations.  But if Senate conservatives block another climate bill, the EPA will take action.  It will at least be a long overdue step in the right direction.

A Eulogy for Cap-and-Trade July 1, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

Although it appears that immigration is cutting in front of energy on the legislative agenda, earlier this week, President Obama told Congress that he wants an energy bill that puts a price on carbon and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this year.

Cap-and-trade is the best way to accomplish this goal.  That is why the House passed the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act over a year ago.  Yet pundits have long ruled this elegant policy tool dead.

At this point, it seems that only a sea change within the Senate could ever bring cap-and-trade back again.  Before it receives its final judgment, it’s worth taking a look back at how this all started, how we got here, why it seemed like a good idea at the time, and why it still is.

Tom Crocker conceived of the cap-and-trade system as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s.  In the 1990s, it was applied with great success to control sulfur dioxide emissions from American coal plants that were producing acid rain.  Our sulfur dioxide cap-and-trade system achieved greater reductions than expected at less than half the projected cost. The Economist dubbed it “probably the greatest green success story of the past decade” in July 2002.

Here in the US, cap-and-trade efficiently reduced sulfur dioxide emissions for a fraction of the projected cost.

The EU implemented a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade system in 2005 with mixed results.  But it is a rare step in the right direction and a valuable first try from which we can learn many important lessons.  To co-opt a Republican oil spill talking point, one plane’s turbulence shouldn’t preclude air travel.  We can rebuild it.  We have the technology.

A number of key Republican senators have stated that they will never vote on any energy policy that includes cap-and-trade.  This is an unabashed flip-flop for which they have not been held accountable. Many of these senators supported cap-and-trade before they started calling it a “job-killing energy tax.”

Point of clarification for Republicans: carbon dioxide is not energy.  It is a waste product and pollutant being dumped into a vital resource.  Cap-and-trade is no more an “energy tax” than charging people who pumped cow manure into our drinking water would be a “beef tax.”  Also, it creates jobs. Other than that though, “job-killing energy tax” is a perfect characterization.

Recent cap-and-trade “debates” have lacked relevant historical context; in 2003 John McCain cosponsored the first climate cap-and-trade bill, for crying out loud.  The theory remains unchanged, the only new development is these senators’ adherence to Republican lies talking points.  Blatant, partisan flip-flops are well-documented by McCain, Richard Lugar, Lindsay Graham, Scott Brown, and even Lisa Murkowski!

For decades, conservatives railed against “heavy-handed” traditional environmental regulations.  Known as “command and control” regulations, these laws mandate one solution for a given problem, regardless of the circumstances.  For example, if a factory emits too much of a given pollutant, by law it must install a specific type of scrubber to reduce that pollution, even if cheaper alternatives could produce that same emissions reduction.

While appropriate in many situations, economists and conservatives have argued against such regulations because they can be inefficient and impose higher costs than necessary upon businesses.  This is a valid criticism.  It is the reason why economists prefer and advocate for “market-based instruments” (MBIs) – such as cap-and-trade.

Market-based instruments, as their name implies, utilize markets for environmental regulation.  They are preferable to command and control regulations because markets enable us to achieve emission reductions as efficiently (i.e. cheaply) as possible.

Command and control regulations stifle innovation.  They mandate the use of a specific technology, and that is that.  In contrast, MBIs foster and catalyze innovation.  Cap-and-trade presents a great example.

Once we put a price on carbon pollution, it is suddenly within industries’ interest to invest in ways to cheaply reduce their emissions.  Instead of dictatorially deciding what technology to use, we unleash our nation’s intellectual resources upon this challenge.

Under cap-and-trade, cheaper emission-reducing solutions are developed and utilized.  And the benefits don’t just accrue for industry.  Third parties stand to gain from developing these technologies for them, so MBIs incentivize the creation of startups and the expansion of small businesses attempting to reduce carbon output and increase efficiency – and obviously spur renewable energy technologies for our future.

But just how does cap-and-trade put a price on carbon?

If you know how a cap-and-trade system functions, you will want to skip to the last paragraph.  If you’ve heard the phrase everywhere but aren’t really sure exactly what is entailed, I have provided a description here.

The Cap:

Regulators determine how much pollution the country is allowed to emit in a year.  Then they distribute permits for emissions up to that amount (the distribution method is a complicating factor that I will discuss below).  Because a fixed number of permits are issued, this system has the benefit of ensuring emission reductions (as opposed to a carbon tax).  Polluters want to emit a given amount of pollution but there are only so many permits available.  This creates a market for carbon pollution.  That market puts a price on emitting carbon and also provides a long-overdue economic disincentive to pollute.

A carbon tax also puts a price on carbon, providing some but not all of these same benefits.  A carbon tax is an inferior carbon control mechanism.  If you are interested in why this is or dispute this point, I could easily throw together a cap-and-trade vs. carbon tax post.

The Trade:

Suppose, for example, that there are two factories (see the graphic below to visualize this example).  One is ancient and spews pollution (Plant A) – making emission reductions at this factory is very expensive.   The other is brand new and could easily be upgraded to drastically cut its carbon emissions (Plant B).

Under traditional, command and control regulation (left example), it would be very expensive to bring the older factory into regulatory compliance.  Yet under a cap-and-trade system (right example), we could let the newer plant reduce its emissions for both itself and reduce its emissions further on behalf of the older plant.

In this cap-and-trade example, our polluters have permits entitling them to emit a certain amount of pollution.  In this scenario, the newer plant emits even less pollution than it has permits for; it has cleaned up so much that it has permits to spare.   So the older plant could pay the newer plant for offsetting its continued emissions (the newer plant sells its unused emission permits to the older plant).

Because paying the newer plant is cheaper than making further upgrades to the older plant would be, the same emissions reduction under command and control regulation is achieved for a fraction of the price using cap-and-trade.  And the system operates efficiently because we allow the market to determine the price of the permits.

Permit Distribution:

How these pollution permits would be distributed is the biggest source of contention within cap-and-trade proposals.  There are three ways to distribute credits:

1) Auction – companies bid for every one of the permits they think they need.

2) Allocation – the government gives away permits to polluters for free.

3) Grandfathering – permits are allocated based on historical emissions.  This accomplishes nothing because there is no incentive to reduce emissions, but it has been lobbied for heavily by major polluters.

Serious cap-and-trade proposals have included a mix of these distribution options.  From a climate change perspective, a pure auction is the best solution.  It raises the most money to help offset costs to consumers and spur research and development of renewable energy technologies while providing the most incentive to reduce emissions.  But direct allocations are attractive to legislators because it lets them in a sense “buy” the support of different groups that otherwise would not support the bill because they would be more greatly affected.

Some of this allocation falls into the realm of necessary political compromise, but it is also this aspect of previous climate bills that has doomed them in the contorted, propagandized public perception.  That being said, instituting a cap-and-trade system without any initial allocation would impose heavy costs on industry all at once.  I’m not saying they don’t deserve to pay for the free ride they have enjoyed for centuries, but helping them make the transition is not an outlandish idea.

Conclusion:

In any case, this all may be a moot point because cap-and-trade’s prospects in the Senate are beyond dim as long as Republicans stick to those guns they love so much and Democrats do not control a supermajority (and probably still even then).

I wrote this post because as this policy dies at the hand of partisan politics, it needs to be said that this was our best vehicle to address climate change.  Study after study have shown that cap-and-trade bills would tackle our climate pollution while reducing the deficit, creating jobs, and increasing our energy security.

But who wants that?  Not Republicans, apparently.

Oil Spill Legislation Pt. 2 June 22, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
3 comments

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.

New Oil Spill Legislation May 13, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
4 comments

***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.

Oil Execs Testify Before Congress…Technically May 11, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
3 comments

In case you didn’t have the pleasure of watching executives from BP, Halliburton and Transocean testify before Congress Tuesday afternoon, I have compiled some highlights and thoughts below.

The testimony in the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources was revealing in how little it revealed.  If we are to learn from and respond to this tragic event, people will have to start changing their tunes.  As of today, they have not.  I mean that in respect to both the oil executives and many of our U.S. senators.  We’ll do the Big Oil execs first, then get into the senators.

First, the Big Oil execs:

If you have watched this kind of congressional testimony before, you know it is the world’s most boring dance.  Senators ask questions, and those testifying carefully choose their words to convey as little as possible – or claim memory loss.  Sometimes a senator will pursue an answer, but rarely does that actually extract the desired truth.

The only questions Big Oil actually answered today were those that Google could just have easily have answered, such as “is your company the largest offshore drilling contractor?”

Corporate legal teams carefully prep their executives to legally dodge the most damning questions.  That preparation, which largely defeats the purpose of these hearings, was on notable display twice this afternoon.

For over a week now, BP has said it is prepared to pay all legitimate claims.” They’ve been talking a big game about how they plan to repay their victims.

Conveniently, BP has yet to define exactly what claims it considers “legitimate.”  They are unlikely to do so until they are taken to court.  In his testimony, when pressed on this question, BP America President Lamar McKay did nothing but repeat that deliberately ambiguous phrase.

When general prodding from several senators went unanswered, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) finally tried to hold BP accountable.  She went down a list of likely claims against BP.  McKay’s response was the same nearly every time: “all legitimate claims.”

“1) Shrimpers who can’t earn their livelihoods?”

“We will pay all legitimate claims.”

“2) Beaches spoiled, tourism ruined?”

“All legitimate claims.”

“3) Children sickened by oil fumes?”

“All legitimate claims.”

Ad nauseam.

To top it off, McKay had the gall to follow up this laughable interaction with a preposterous assurance: “this is not about legal words, it’s about getting it done and getting it done right.”  No, sir, this is PRECISELY about legal words.  Please refrain from lying under oath, Mr. McKay.  It’s frowned upon.

The second most odious exchange of the hearing was when Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman was asked if this type of spill had happened before.  He replied that the only incident he could recall was the Ixtoc spill. To his credit, that spill was the worst of this type, but this answer is incredibly deceitful.

You’re trying to tell me that that Steven Newman, presumably a lifelong oilman, the president and CEO of an offshore drilling company that specializes in deepwater drilling, has to go back 31 years to recall an incident like this one?  I’ve never worked in the oil industry and even I know that THIS TYPE OF SPILL HAPPENED 8 MONTHS AGO (Halliburton is suspected to have caused that one too)!  In fact, even the photographers in that hearing room knew about the Montara spill: Sen. Menendez brought it up earlier in this very hearing!

Note that the response was deliberately and delicately phrased (“the only incident I can recall“) so as to avoid committing perjury.

Even as oil is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the oil industry and their congressional allies are STILL trying to cast offshore drilling as a safe practice.  This spill was not unconceivable and not unprecedented.  Senators and oil executives repeatedly called this accident “unique.”  The only thing unique about this oil well was that it was in even deeper water and even deeper underground than usual, so all the real risks associated with drilling and the complications of containment and cleanup for spills were MAGNIFIED!

It is also worth mentioning the conduct of the senators present:

The oil executives weren’t the only ones choosing their words carefully.  When I tuned in, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) had the microphone.  She was going to great lengths to avoid saying the words “oil” or “spill.”  She even referred to the Exxon Valdez “incident.”  This type of disingenuous wordplay is normally reserved for company spokespeople.  Sadly, this is par for the Murky course.

Lisa Murkowski (R-AK): It is difficult (although sadly, not THAT difficult) to find a U.S. senator doing LESS for the American people and more for industry special interests.

Murkowski is often derisively labeled as (R-OIL) because of her industry ties.  It is her “dirty air” amendment in the Senate that is attempting to strip the EPA of its authority (and indeed Supreme Court-issued mandate) to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act.  It came as little surprise when news broke early this year that the amendment had not been written by the senator’s staff but rather by oil industry lobbyists themselves. She was merely their mouthpiece.  The things money can buy.

In her opening statement, Murkowski, the ranking minority member of the committee, explained why we need domestic oil drilling: “for the sake of our nation’s economy, for the sake of our national security, and this incident not withstanding, for the sake of our world’s environment.”  The economic and national security impacts of domestic offshore drilling have long been shown to be literally negligible, but I am genuinely curious to hear how this congressional oil flack would spin drilling as anything short of toxic for “our world’s environment.”  Too bad Murkowski wasn’t under oath too.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) also took the opportunity to extol the virtues of domestic offshore drilling.  I would tell you more about his questioning, but I really don’t think I could.  When he had the microphone, I almost felt sorry for the industry executives; he never really put together a coherent sentence.  The inflection in his voice was raised when he stopped talking, and he clearly expected them to respond, but I didn’t even understand what he expected of them.  How fortunate, then, that the executives were coached not to give actual answers anyways.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) was talking tough for her state.  She is in a fierce primary against a much more liberal opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.  But all her barking is election-year antics.  No congressperson receives more money from the oil industry than Landrieu, and she continues to push the lie that offshore drilling is vital to our country – even as oil begins to wash up on Louisiana beaches.  Her priority is making sure BP pays her voters quickly enough that she will be reelected to continue to act against our country’s best interests.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) were on point and champions.  They asked piercing questions and did their best to take the executives to task and get actual answers.  Yet there is only so much one can do within this broken system.

Having watched some testimony before, I know that these proceedings were not that unusual.  To me, this is not a defense of what transpired today but rather more proof that business as usual must change if we to move forward as a country, both in the context of this tragedy and more broadly.  Congress is an inertial body, but a catastrophe of this magnitude demands action.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

I’m Back! | Are Campaigns Just Games? January 20, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election, Media, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

I’m back.  I haven’t posted for a few months because I was working in a political internship where I was not allowed to blog.  That has ended, so I will be writing again.  Please read on:

Campaigning and governing are two very different things.  The obviousness of that statement is a serious problem.  Yesterday’s “surprising” special election in Massachusetts is a case study in why the separation between these two processes is detrimental to our country.

State Attorney General Martha Coakley was a terrible campaigner.  Gaffes drive election coverage, and her short campaign had media outlets drooling.  But is she any less fit to govern now than she was when she clinched the Democratic nomination?  No.

Massachusetts is fairly considered a Democratic state.  Currently, voters have elected Democrats into every state executive office, 89.5% of its state legislature and, until Senator-elect Scott Brown is sworn in, 100% of its congressional representatives.  It is safe to say that a majority of Bay Staters embraces the Democratic policy agenda.

Voters favor the Democratic Party in Massachusetts (click for larger)

The first poll after the primaries showed Coakley 15 points ahead of Brown.  Eleven days later, the final poll showed Coakley 9 points behind Brown.  Yesterday, she lost by 5 points. Polls are inaccurate, but during those two weeks a significant portion of voters changed their minds, either about the candidates or about their decision to vote.

In a democratic republic, citizens elect representatives to legislate on their behalf.  It is clearly within a person’s interest to vote for someone who shares his or her policy perspective.  So congressional elections should be about policy, the laws each candidate will support.  Unfortunately, campaigns have lost sight of this because we, the voters, have let them.  The media enable and cultivate this electoral perversion.

The Coakley-Brown campaign was largely devoid of policy.  Yes, Brown was going to (and now will) vote to block healthcare reform.  What will he do after that?  He ran a campaign ad featuring his truck.  Not one of Coakley’s “gaffes” was policy-related.  Some might point to her Afghanistan comment, but that was a defensible opinion.  All we heard about in the news was an admittedly egregious typo of her state’s name.  Not a word about what she would do as a senator.

We as a country neglect policy in campaigns.  Since 2004, it is political suicide to reverse a policy position, even in the face of new, better information; “flip-flopper” is a politician’s death knell.  Brown actually did successfully flip his stance on climate to pander to Tea Partiers, but that was before the primaries, and this election was not about climate change.  None of the drastic poll movement over the last two weeks can be attributed to policy positions because they didn’t change.  So what did?  And can it possibly be more important than policy?

“Reducing carbon dioxide emission in Massachusetts has long been a priority of mine” -Scott Brown in 2008, after voting for RGGI, the regional cap and trade system among Northeastern power plants.

“It’s interesting. I think the globe is always heating and cooling.  It’s a natural way of ebb and flow.”  – Scott Brown in 2010, pandering to the ignorance of the extreme right.

Campaigns have become a sport of their own.  Candidates are being evaluated on a scale separate from how well they would govern.  It’s like drafting a basketball player based not on his skill but rather on how many people would want to come to see him.  Sarah Palin comes to mind.  President Obama does too, but he can dribble and shoot.  Still, campaign prowess and governing ability are not inherently correlated, and we cannot continue conflating the two.

Scott Brown definitively won his campaign.  Or rather, Martha Coakley definitively lost hers.  But I challenge the notion that Senator Brown will represent the majority opinion of the state of Massachusetts.  And if that’s true, the system is flawed.

So what to do?  If most of the state’s registered voters had turned out last night, the state would be more accurately represented.  Perhaps voting should be mandatory, an official civic duty instead of a “freedom” to be celebrated and then apathetically shirked on election day.  A Massachusetts election official projected last night’s “explosive” turnout to be in the 40% range.

It is hypocritical for us to hold up our democracy as the model government while recording unremarkable if not weak voter turnout on an international scale (check out this website for some interesting international election statistics).  Yet unless people take much more time to educate themselves about the issues, mandatory voting would be no solution.   At least today’s voters care, even if some opinions are based on the distortions of demagogues.

If elections are truly about selecting the best people to govern, I propose we completely remove the pageantry from the campaign process.  Congressional representatives, unlike presidents, have essentially one task: creating legislation.  So we should vote for person who will enact the policies we support most.

Therefore, let every candidate write down his or her ideal prescriptions for each major policy area.  Compare and contrast the answers.  Publish and widely circulate that document.  Then let us choose the best person for the job.  Who cares what kind of car they drive?  What does it matter which sports teams they support?  These are unnecessary distractions.  Let the media provide the electorate with enough information to pick an effective legislator and then go report real current events.  Surely there’s a little boy in a balloon somewhere.

We should vote for the right reasons.  And we should all vote.

The Spam We Need February 10, 2009

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

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.