Why Energy Reform is on Shaky Ground
Since national energy reform is on the rocks, ethanol subsidies for the Midwest and ballot propositions to roll back progressive energy legislation in California are the most important policy fights to watch right now.
Neither will revolutionize the way Americans get power, and in both cases, moving forward could actually mean moving away from a sensible energy future. In California, voters could turn back progress the state has made towards holding down carbon emissions. And Washington’s support for ethanol reveals the static thinking that’s smothering our ability to address climate change.
More important than legalizing pot
In 2006, California passed a law that would take effect in 2011 and put an ambitious plan in place to decrease the state’s carbon emissions by 2020. Even after the law passed, however, the debate over its merits continued. This being California, that debate made its way onto this November’s ballot.
The most commonly floated line of reasoning against the law focuses on negative impacts to job growth: Increasing the price on carbon increases the cost of doing business, limiting economic growth and the resources that businesses have to dedicate to expansion. Proposition 23, a ballot initiative that will come to a vote next Tuesday, would delay the carbon bill’s enactment until the state’s economy takes a turn for the better.
But Mother Jones’ Kate Sheppard knocks down the economic argument against the 2006 law (AB32):
While enacting AB32 could cause job loss in some sectors, most independent experts actually forecast growth in jobs in the renewable energy, transportation, and efficiency sectors. In fact, green jobs are pretty much the only sector growing in the Golden State. The number of green jobs grew 36 percent in California between 1995 and 2008. The rate of growth for regular old jobs was only 13 percent.
Activists have focused on shutting down Prop 23 (check out, via The Washington Independent’s Andrew Restuccia, this clever campaign to flip “yes” voters), but as Amy Westervelt points out at Earth Island Journal, that initiative is not the only one that could free companies from their environmental responsibilities.
It turns out another California proposition, Prop 26, could raise the threshold legislators would have to meet in order to make companies pay for their pollution, including from oil spills. As Westervelt writes:
While some companies have steered clear of the Tea Party-backed Prop 23, which seems to be losing popularity every week, California companies interested in slowing down AB32 and maybe ridding themselves of responsibility for pollution altogether have been quietly funneling money to Prop 26.
California has long been a leader on energy issues. If either of these propositions goes the wrong way, it will be yet another troubling sign of the failure of progressive energy policy.
The other ethanol
Although environmentalists have fought hard since 2008 to pass cap-and-trade, the policy was always fundamentally conservative one. The Obama administration has always tried to map out a middle path on energy policy, and so far it has been ineffective. Ethanol is yet another case in point.
As Lynda Waddington reports at the Iowa Independent, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last week that the administration was moving forward with a program that aids farmers producing crops (in addition to corn) that could be turned into ethanol. Switchgrass, the foundation of Brazil’s much-touted ethanol system is one example. Notably, the arguments Vilsack advanced for the program had more to do with the economy than with energy.
Pros and cons
This type of cellulosic ethanol, Brooks Lindsay explains at Change.org, would go mainly towards fueling cars. Lindsay weighs the pros and cons of producing this sort of ethanol in general, and comes down against it. His reasoning: “At best, cellulosic ethanol is just a stop-gap measure while electric cars slowly replace liquid-powered cars….But, a stop-gap fuel does not deserve massive investments and government attention.”
Indeed, progressives across the board have long argued that politicians’ support for ethanol derives from political calculation, not from practical policy. (Ethanol states are swing states.) Ethanol is energy-intensive to produce, and it has a slew of negative environmental consequences that outweigh the cuts in carbon emissions.
Rethinking the politics
Before they rush to back the Obama administration’s policies, however, policymakers should consider this news from Heather Rogers, author of Green Gone Wrong. Rogers reports for The Washington Monthly:
As I discovered on a recent reporting trip through Iowa, many farmers there would welcome a way to break free of the ethanol-industrial complex. The people I met said they’d rather cultivate crops using ecologically sound methods, if they could do so and still earn a decent living. It’s not as if midwestern farmers don’t know — better than the rest of us — that growing crops for biofuels damages their soil and keeps them at the mercy of predatory multinational corporations.
The article is worth reading in full, but fast-forward to the end to find Rogers’ sensible policy proposal. Instead of enlisting farmers in a complicated energy-production procedure that ultimately keeps Americans in their cars, why not aide the work they’re already doing to reduce carbon emissions on their farms? After all, farms are responsible for a huge portion of the country’s carbon burden — they just have lobbyists savvy enough to keep their business from being regulated. As Rogers puts it:
Paying farmers to sequester carbon is sound public policy, but it’s also, and just as importantly, good politics. By helping to preserve farmers economically while also allowing them to be the stewards of land most want to be, it peels farmers away from the agribusiness coalition that is pushing the Obama administration to bet the country on a failed biofuels energy strategy.
Now there’s a bit of thinking that could move energy policy forward.