Energy & the Environment

Barry Commoner's Legacy

(TIME Magazine)
Yesterday brought the sad news that noted environmental advocate and scholar, Barry Commoner , had passed away. As pointed out in the many tributes to his life and achievements, Commoner was one of the founders of modern environmentalism and embraced a more complex, holistic view of environmental issues. Commoner believed in addressing multiple issues, such as racism, sexism, war, and—most importantly—the failings of capitalism at the same time as environmentalism because they were, and still are, all related issues of a larger central problem. Commoner had four informal rules of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else Everything must go somewhere Nature knows best There is no such thing as a free lunch Decades later, these rules still hold true. The first idea addresses the concept that environmentalism is just one piece of a larger picture. For instance, gender rights are not thought of as a traditional environmental issue. Yet, empowering women is one of the best ways...

Corn, Corn Everywhere, But Not a Bite to Eat

(AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) President Barack Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, right, inspect drought damaged corn on the McIntosh farm with members of the McIntosh family including Don McIntosh, third from right, Monday, Aug. 13, 2012, in Missouri Valley, Iowa, during a three day campaign bus tour through Iowa. L ast week, the United States Department of Agriculture released a report on the state of the country’s corn, and the verdict is not good. The report—the first that estimates production based on surveying the fields of U.S. farmers—shows that farmers are on track to produce 10.8 billion bushels of corn this year, a 17 percent drop from last year. This summer’s drought has parched King Corn: some ears have only a few sweet kernels to offer, others droop, brown and defeated. 10.8 billion bushels is still a lot of corn. The USDA report notes that this year’s harvest could be the smallest since 2006. What it doesn’t point out is there are only two years in U.S. history...

Keystone XL’s Beetlemania

How an endangered species barely an inch long could be a big barrier to TransCanada’s pipeline dreams.

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
(AP Photo/St. Louis Zoo) T he carcass of a passenger pigeon weighed in at exactly the size they preferred. Dead prairie chickens did, too. They aren’t so picky about the carcasses they bury: mammals will do as well as birds, but the bigger the carcass—which allows them to produce and feed more offspring—the better for our friend the American burying beetle. The males find the carcasses and send out hormonal signals to attract potential mates. Coupled up, the largest beetles tend to win rights to a particular carcass, which they roll up, bury underground, and coat with preservative chemicals. When the couple’s eggs hatch in an underground chamber they’ve dug adjacent to their carcass, the larvae have a sumptuous feast ready for them. Once, these orange-marked beetles—the largest of the carrion beetles found on this continent—spread up and down America’s east coast and through the Midwest. But now, no one knows quite why there are so few. Humans may be at fault, edging in on habitats...

Mitt Romney Passes Wind

Flickr/Steve Abraham
Mitt Romney was in Colorado yesterday, where some people aren't too pleased with him. This week he came out in opposition to an extension of the wind-power production tax credit (PTC), which is set to expire at the end of the year. The tax credit helps make wind power competitive and is credited with enabling the creation of thousands of jobs in manufacturing and construction. This is almost certainly not going to be a huge issue in the campaign, but it does reveal some interesting things about where Romney is vis-a-vis the Republican Party. On one side, you have the parochial economic interests of many Republican members of Congress and some very well-heeled Republican economic constituency. On the other, you have the purely knee-jerk reaction of Tea Party types to anything hippies might like. Guess where Mitt comes down? Yesterday, the Senate Finance Committee passed an extension of the credit with bipartisan support. The PTC has support from members of Congress from both parties...

Farmers Without Water

George Naylor, a corn and soybean farmer, talks with the Prospect about the drought.

(Courtesy of Food Movements Unite)
A severe drought covers about two-thirds of the country, and America's farmland states are some of the driest. Few expect this year's crops to escape undamaged, so the drought's effects will likely reach out to the entire world, and last through next year. Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 55 percent of the country's pasture- and range-lands were in poor or very poor condition. Congress is set to take up a drought-relief bill Thursday. The Prospect interviewed George Naylor, a farmer and activist in Iowa, who relates below how the drought has affected him and his neighbors, and how the government is at fault. We’ve had no rain. I’ve seen my crop deteriorate day after day. We’ve had week after week of temperatures in the 90s—one week the temperature was over 100 all week—so we’ve seen a lot of deterioration. Soybeans are kind of just sitting there without putting any pods on. One of the worst droughts I experienced was in 1977, but that was my second year of...

Farm Bill on Life Support as Drought Worsens

(Flickr/David Morris)
This month, the House agriculture committee finished its work on the farm bill—a massive piece of legislation that sets policy on everything from government subsidies to food stamps. Even though the Senate had passed its version of the farm bill, which must be reauthorized every five years, no one expected House Majority Leader John Boehner to bring the House committee’s version to the floor before the August recess. Since the farm bill is likely to rile both the Tea Party caucus, which will balk at the huge subsidies that go to some of the nation’s richest farmers, and liberals, who will decry the $16 billion House republican leaders want to cut from food stamps in a time of increased need, most believed Boehner would view it too thorny an issue to bring up so close to election season. As many predicted, Boehner has signaled that he will instead extend the current bill, which passed in 2008, by one year. An extension has the political advantage of allowing Republicans to avoid...

Digging for China

A fight against planned coal-export terminals in the Pacific Northwest is becoming the next big climate battle.

(Flickr/Jeff Arsenault)
(Flickr/Josh Parrish) Bellingham Bay shortly after sunset Few U.S. communities can match the eco credentials of the quaint college town of Bellingham, Washington. Nestled between the glacier-tipped peak of Mount Baker and the rugged coastline of the Puget Sound—the “Salish Sea,” as locals prefer to call it—the area is a magnet for hikers, climbers, and kayakers. The town boasts a vibrant local-food scene, with two summer farmers markets and a pair of organic grocery stores. The City of Bellingham and the surrounding Whatcom County government get 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, a practice that earned both recognition from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Green Power Leadership program. The Natural Resources Defense Council has dubbed Bellingham one of its “Smarter Cities” for the town’s commitment to reducing its ecological footprint. So it’s no surprise that many Bellingham residents are against plans to make the area home to one of the country’s...

Giving Local Food the Raspberry

The Locavore's Dilemma takes aim at the sustainability movement, ignoring the broader problems plaguing our food system.

(Flickr / Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)
(Flickr / Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) The sustainable-food movement has finally been around long enough to face its first cold front. Pickled okra, critics want the world to know, is not as desirable as sales at the Prospect Park farmers market might indicate. The most recent round of attacks has focused on local food and locavorism: In April, Tyler Cowen took a few glancing blows at local food in An Economist Gets Lunch , and last month, Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu—two Canadians trained as economic-policy analysts—released The Locavore’s Dilemma , an all-out assault on local food in which they seek to “slaughter as many sacred cows in the food activists’ intellectual herd as [they] could.” But by focusing on local food, they end up arguing against problems that barely exist or that never will, while ignoring the real environmental costs of our food systems. Desrochers and Shimizu mention that they received support for their work from Mercatus Center at George...

Judges Take On Climate Skeptics

(Flickr / freefotouk)
Three of the D.C. Court of Appeals’ judges delivered climate-regulation opponents what can only be termed a righteous smackdown last week. Their opinion on the Environmental Protection Agency’s work to regulate greenhouse gases is, as much as any legal opinion can be, a delight to read. From the barely tempered exasperation in the court’s opening salvo—“We begin with a brief primer on greenhouse gases”—to the impatience with the lines of reasoning called upon by industry and its allies in state government—“This argument is little more than a semantic trick”—this legal document is a salve for anyone sick of the protestations against taking any action, ever, to tackle the looming disaster that is climate change. The case at hand combined a mountain of complaints about almost every action the EPA has taken to regulate carbon. The agency began the process in 2007 in response to the Supreme Court’s requirement that it consider whether the Clean Air Act covered greenhouse-gas emissions. In...

Yes, America, Global Warming Does Exist

The D.C. Circuit Court says so, despite convoluted industry arguments to the contrary.

AP Images
“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make zero,” Winston Smith, the hero of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four, writes in his secret journal. “If that is granted, all else follows.” Or to paraphrase for the modern era, “EPA is not required to re-prove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question.” The second line is from the per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit announced Tuesday in Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. Environmental Protection Agency . This decision is a massive win for science generally, and climate science in particular, against powerful forces that have spent a decade insisting that two plus two equals four. To understand the background of the case, you must recall that in the 2007 case of Massachusetts v. EPA , the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration’s argument that the EPA had no jurisdiction over greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, the administration...

Too Big to Imagine

Steve Coll's Private Empire tells you every last thing about ExxonMobil—except what to do about it.

(Flikr and AP Images)
E ven granting that testifying to congressional committees is not on the list of an oil CEO’s favorite things to do, when ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond, known to his employees as “Iron Ass,” arrived at the Dirksen Senate Office building one morning in November 2005, he was in an especially reticent mood. Among other things, the Senate Energy Committee wanted to know about the corporation’s role in formulating policy with Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force. Raymond—who was chummy with Cheney and seven weeks away from his retirement, after 12 spectacularly profitable years at the helm first of Exxon and then Exxon-Mobil—did not think the committee needed to know. Thus when New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg asked Raymond whether he or any ExxonMobil executives participated in a 2001 meeting with Cheney, Raymond responded with a single syllable: “No.” The truth of that statement was something only a lawyer or a comedian could love, but it was consistent with how the company...

Will Obama Get Blamed for High Gas Prices?

The good old days. (Flickr/photomatt28)
Everyone involved in politics knows that there is almost nothing the president can do to affect the price of gasoline. Democrats know this. Republicans know this. People in the oil industry certainly know this. But they all, at various times, play a game in which they try to deceive the American public into believing something they know to be false. So right now, an oil industry group is running ads saying the high price of gas is Barack Obama's fault (you'll be shocked to hear that the ubiquitous Koch brothers are involved ). Republican leaders are saying the increasing price at the pump is Obama's fault. And what about the public? Are they buying it? The polls we've seen so far actually show that the answer is, not really. A CNN poll asked how much blame people assigned to various factors, and the oil companies came in first, with 55 percent saying they deserved a great deal of blame. "The policies of the Obama administration" got a great deal of blame from 24 percent, just about...

Wolves to the Slaughter

The reintroduction of the gray wolf to the Northern Rockies was an ecological success story—until big money, old superstitions, and politics got in the way.

(Flickr/sometimesong)
I n April 2001, a U.S. government wildlife trapper named Carter Niemeyer choppered into the mountains of central Idaho to slaughter a pack of wolves whose alpha female was famed for her whiteness. He hung from the open door of the craft with a semiautomatic shotgun, the helicopter racing over the treetops. Then, in a clearing, Niemeyer caught a glimpse of her platinum fur. Among wolf lovers in Idaho, she was called Alabaster, and she was considered a marvel—most wolves are brown or black or gray. People all over the world had praised Alabaster, had written about her, had longed to see her in the flesh. Livestock ranchers in central Idaho, whose sheep and cows graze in wolf country, felt otherwise. They claimed Alabaster and her pack—known as the Whitehawks—threatened the survival of their herds, which in turn threatened the rural economy of the high country. She had to be exterminated. When Alabaster appeared in Niemeyer’s sights, a hundred feet below the helicopter, her ears recoiled...

Faux Federalism

(Flickr/tarsandsaction)
The central fact of American federalism, as I’ve written before , is hypocrisy. Witness H.R. 1433 , the Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2012, passed on February 28 by the House of Representatives. The Act targets Kelo v. City of New London , the 2005 decision in which the Court announced that the Fifth Amendment does not forbid state governments from using their power of eminent domain to acquire—at fair market prices—private property for use in economic development projects. Eminent domain is a power limited by the Constitution to taking property “for public use” and with “just compensation.” But some states interpreted “public use” to mean incorporation in public-private developments like the mixed use development at stake in Kelo —a corporate research facility, shops and restaurants, a hotel, and a park. The right hates Kelo a lot worse than it hates the federal government. Not long ago, in fact, Justice Antonin Scalia compared the case to Dred Scott v. Sandford , the...

Exxon Ain't Cryin' Yet

The victory against Keystone XL is an essential—but insufficient—step to building a powerful climate movement. 

This afternoon, the Obama administration rejected an application from transmission company TransCanada to build the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport carbon-rich oil from Canada’s tar sands, through America’s heartland, to refineries in Texas. That doesn’t mean the pipeline won’t be built. It just won’t be built on the timeline set by Republicans. Far from embracing the coalition opposing the pipeline, President Barack Obama has indicated that the permit is primarily a State Department affair and that he is most concerned about the potential threats to “the health and safety of the American people,” as he said in his November statement. His most forceful statements about Keystone came in response to Republicans’ legislative efforts to bully his administration into a decision. He has had little to say about the climate-change implications of the pipeline project. Republicans in Congress forced this decision with a deadline-setting rider to the payroll tax extension, and the...

Pages