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.

Double trouble

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.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. 

photo credit: thanks to Ryan McD via flickr
by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger


Robert O.
Robert O7 years ago

Thank you. It's so worrisome.

Barbara Erdman
Barbara Erdman7 years ago

Thanx for info.

Grace A.
Grace Adams7 years ago

I thought we already pay some farmers to plant cover crops. More planting of cover crops wouldn't hurt.

Carrie H.
Carrie H7 years ago

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Beth S.
Beth S7 years ago

Stephen says, “I wish that technology could be applied everywhere”

I wish that too. It sounds like you have some really valid concerns regarding its feasibility in bad weather (if these are laid too close to the road’s surface). As with any new technology coming on the market and being implemented, there’s usually an evolving and refining of the product and method employed. We should expect that there will be kinks to be worked out, but as you say, if it can be used and made affordable, and there is a substantial reduction in negative environmental impact, it shows great promise.

Beth S.
Beth S7 years ago

Thanks for weighing in, Stephen.

While I realize that we do have more capacity to grow food, I think the population has put tremendous strains on the overall environmental health of the planet, from polluting and overfishing the oceans, to overtaxing fresh water sources, to destroying animal habitats, to driving to extinction numerous animals, and more.

I think an important consideration is human impact on not only the environment, but on the quality of life in burgeoning populations. Many people in high-density populations go through significant stress (think China and Japan), where Japan has the highest per capita usage of Xanax in the world. China’s overpopulation has led to restrictive population control policies and is predicted to lead to aggressive land grabs in places like Africa. There are other quality of life issues as well, for example that it is increasingly difficult to see the stars in the sky, sleep with one’s windows open and other consequences of highly trafficked areas. There are water quality and management issues due to the paving and building on of vast amounts of land. The tremendous growth of cities and roads have also led to urban and outlying areas heating up, contributors to global warming. And we’re only touching the tip of the “iceberg” here.

There are very good reasons not to push the globe to its utmost limits, and to conserve what we are already destroying.

Stephen Amsel
Past Member 7 years ago

Hi Beth,

I wish that technology could be applied everywhere. Unfortunately, in places with snow, the roads freeze, crack, get water into those cracks which freezes and expands, and the system would be wrecked in its first winter. Still, if it can be used and made affordable, that system seems to show great promise for much of the world. The power would be intermittent but along certain roads should be very predictable, making it much better than wind (and, I suspect, better than solar) if it works.

Stephen Amsel
Past Member 7 years ago

Hey all,

I noticed what looks like a massive oversight in a lot of these comments. We are not even remotely close to Earth's capacity.

Look at how much food is produced by different countries, and then look at how much farmland they have. You'll find that wealthier countries produce an extremely disproportionate amount of food for their farmland. What you will find if you look into it is pretty simple. With better technology and better farming-methods, we produce a lot more food. If developing economies are built up, food will not be an issue.

As for general resource-consumption, look at the European industrial revolution. It changed northern Europe from mostly forests to mostly plains. We have not seen anything remotely comparable since. That, again, comes from differences in methods and technology. For example, most countries ban clear-cutting forests. Regulations exist to get the same wood, from a larger area, without allowing mass-erosion which would prevent the forest's recovery. As for pollution, look again to that same period: The population of Britain was much smaller, but the coal-plants produced a lot worse pollution than exists anywhere today (outside of the sites of major recent accidents). Again, different technologies allow for different capacities.

The estimated maximum human population used to be 100 million. Then it was "updated" to 1 billion. Without information we cannot even begin to guess at, we have no idea what Earth's capacity is.

Beth S.
Beth S7 years ago


I agree that the population is too great for sustainability. Humankind, in myriad ways, is an unmitigated and unprecedented disaster. But with those sentiments expressed, there has to be discussion of HOW to do that, to which populations, how much, based on what formula.

It’s interesting that the very same Care2 site on which people say that the population needs to be reduced, is the very same site that recently had a piece on the tragedy and agony of late-term pregnant Chinese women being forced to abort because they had gone over the one-child-per-couple restriction enforced by the Chinese government.

Can you formulate a way to reduce the present numbers that addresses these issues?

In the meantime, we still need to find ways to minimize and mitigate the negative effects of energy produced by fossil fuels and even the environmental costs of renewable fuels like ethanol. The Israeli approach goes a significant way toward that end.

Geoff W.
Geoff W.7 years ago

1 to the population control ideas.
We are slowly but inevitably poisoning and starving ourselves to death as catastrophe visits overpopulated areas of the world randomly, but increasingly often.
e-cars are a solution only for a fraction of the people due to key components of manufacture; they pose even more serious heavy metal pollution problems when used up, and demand electricity that will ultimately c ome from coal or nuclear power production, each worse than petroleum. I am not speaking merely of N.A. here.