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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Pivotal Moment

<With Americans focused on energy prices as never before, a game-changing shift is occurring in the American political climate. The time has come for climate and clean energy advocates to adopt a new strategy and policy agenda. Next year will see the inauguration of a new president, a new Congress, and a new international agreement on global warming. The moment is far too urgent to fall on our swords for a cap-and-trade agenda developed in an entirely different political environment.

There's one thing at the top of Americans' minds these days: energy prices. Prices at the pump have been hitting Americans hard for months now, and an overwhelming majority (87%) do not foresee things getting any better before the end of the year. As of June, concern for energy prices eclipsed the Iraq War as #2 on the Gallup monthly poll of top American concerns (just behind concerns over the ailing economy). And as Republicans and Democrats enter their conventions still sparring over oil drilling, energy is now the #1 election issue.

All of this paints a very clear picture of where Americans are at: they are focused on their pocketbooks, grimacing every time they head to the gas station to fill 'er up.

This new focus on energy prices is a game changer for the world of energy and climate policy.

On the one hand, these developments spell Trouble-with-a-capital-T for politicians and environmentalists pushing a climate-centered agenda and policy solutions aimed at capping and pricing carbon to reduce emissions. At a time of extreme sensitivity over energy prices, we cannot hope to price our way to deep reductions in global warming pollution.

On the other hand, energy now lies at the forefront of the American political environment in a way that it hasn't been since the Oil Shocks of the 1970s. This opens up a unique but urgent opportunity, a chance to advance a robust and bold new policy agenda centered on energy solutions.

Newt Gingrich and his "American Solutions" organization clearly recognized this opportunity. Their "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less" petition garnered over 1.2 million signatures in a matter of weeks. This "drill here, pay less" meme has been so successful, GOP strategists now think energy might be the Republican party's last best hope this election season.

In response, environmentalists and Congressional Democrats scrambled to 'block and tackle' and stop the gathering momentum to simply Drill! Drill! Drill! for more oil. With drilling opponents beaten up by the "drill here, drill now" push, a compromise proposal seems increasingly likely.

Meanwhile, the push for climate policy seems to be on hold, as climate advocates attempt to regroup from the defeat of the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act. Once touted as a bipartisan proposal, the cap-and-trade bill ran into a Republican filibuster in June and failed to secure the support of at least ten Democratic senators. After the repeated failure and declining support for cap-and-trade in Congress, environmentalists and Congressional leaders are surely debating what the next move should be.

It's time to recognize that these two conversations - how do we halt the push for more oil drilling and how do we advance a new climate strategy - are really the same conversation. The question at the heart of both discussions is this: how do we meet Americans where they are at and give them compelling solutions to our mounting energy crisis?

In today's new political context of economic insecurity and energy price spikes, we must provide Americans with what they want: credible promises of affordable, abundant energy.

That calls for a critical pivot away from a focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and halting climate change and towards a new focus on making clean, cheap American energy sources a reality.

It's time to get serious about winning the frame game and make the critical pivot to a new message, a message that sounds something like this:

Oil is hurting our economy. Coal is poisoning our air. Both are threatening our climate and our future. It's time to make clean energy cheap and abundant. Which would you rather invest in? Coal and oil - the old, dirty, expensive stuff? Or clean, cheap, new American energy sources? Which will power America's future?

Americans are crying out for new energy solutions. They are hurting at the pump and ready to turn to anyone who can offer a credible path forward. Gingrich beat us to the punch, but the game isn't over.

Support for drilling as the solution to our energy woes seems to be pretty shallow, especially once alternatives are presented. We want somebody to do something, so in the absence of any compelling alternatives, the "drill here, pay less" meme is kicking our butts. But Americans aren't stupid. We understand that the old stuff really isn't working very well and that more of the same will not relieve the strain on our pocketbooks.

If climate and clean energy advocates consistently position the dirty, old, expensive, poisonous stuff on the one hand and present compelling examples of clean, new, renewable, stable, secure and affordable energy sources on the other hand, I think the choice for Americans will be pretty clear and easy. I also can't think of anything else that will work!

This pivot goes far beyond just fighting off a push for drilling and far deeper than simply adopting a new messaging veneer on top of the same old policies. It goes right to the core of our entire energy and climate agenda.

This kind of message - "make clean energy cheap and abundant" - is incompatible with a policy agenda that expects unrestrained carbon prices to do the heavy lifting in igniting a clean energy future - i.e. a "hard" cap-and-trade program without provisions to control the price of carbon. One could conclude that we should shy away from this new message and find one more consistent with the carbon pricing-based policy agenda that has been the focus of climate advocates for so long.

The conclusion I reach, however, is the exact opposite: we don't need to abandon the "clean, cheap energy" message in favor of cap-and-trade; we need to make this change in focus about more than just our message.

If we want this message to stick - and I believe the success or failure of our entire effort to advance a clean energy future may hinge upon that success - we need to adopt a policy framework that's actually in synch with our message. We need a policy agenda focused on developing clean and cheap energy for every American. If we don't, we'll soon find ourselves incoherent and inconsistent, and our message will fail when the public sees that.

The time has come to advance a compelling and effective set of solutions focused on making clean energy cheap and abundant, not making dirty energy expensive and scarce.

Gore's clean energy "moon-shot" speech was (almost) dead-on. He shifted the focus from climate change to the energy challenge and from reducing emissions to increasing clean energy production. Whether we make this transition to 100% clean energy in ten years, twenty, or longer, I think the timetable is far less important than the overall thrust of the message: we're going to make your energy cheap and clean and secure. And who wouldn't want that?

I'm sympathetic to arguments that failing to price global warming pollution at it's full societal cost is simply economically inefficient. And I understand that principles of justice would call for a push to make "polluters pay." However, as we develop our new suite of clean energy solutions, we must make sure that our policy is built as if politics actually mattered. Our ultimate success depends less on appeals to economic efficiency and principles of justice than it does on our ability to meet Americans where they are and overcome the vagaries of the U.S. Senate.

This new policy platform should be centered around a new national project of strategic investments necessary to spark a clean energy economy and develop cheap and clean energy for every American. Carbon pricing and regulation play a role here, but they cannot be the top-line items when it comes to messaging, nor are they likely to do the heavy lifting that unlocks our clean energy potential.

A policy like this is really the only way we're going to pass something in a political climate of high energy prices and economic insecurity, and the only way we'll enact a solution set that gets the job done.

Next year will see the inauguration of a new president, a new Congress, and a new international agreement on global warming. The moment is far too urgent to fall on our swords for a cap-and-trade agenda developed in an entirely different political environment than the one that exists today. Nor do we have time to just make Americans care enough about global warming to act.

What we have is a unique moment of opportunity when Americans are overwhelmingly concerned about energy and about energy prices, and hungry for new solutions. If we can credibly advance "make clean energy cheap and abundant" as an alternative to the "drill here, pay less" crowd, we can win the battle. In fact, it's probably the only way we can win.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Google To Tap Underground Energy Sources

I can't really think of a better headline for this article than one I came across earlier today: "Looking for energy, Google goes to hell." Except, maybe: "Google goes to hell (in search of energy)."

Google's philanthropic arm,, is in fact sinking $10 million into the advancement of technology that harnesses energy coursing deep below the Earth's surface.

While this technology, advanced geothermal technology (AGT), has not received as much attention as solar or wind, its potential is simply enormous. According to MIT, by investing $1 billion in AGT over the next 40 years, the U.S. could develop 100 gigawatts of electricity that emits zero air pollution and provides even more reliable power than coal-fired power plants.

Scientific American reports that more than 2,000 times the entire annual energy consumption of the U.S. is available deep underground.

With AGT, engineers drill shafts down to hot rocks and pump in water to create steam to power a turbine. Check out this U.S. geothermal resource map to get a sense of the scale of potential power.

Dan Reicher, Google's head of climate and energy initiatives, said that new technology could make extracting heat from beneath the ground a massive contributor to US electricity supplies.

"It's 24-7, it's potentially developable all over the country, all over the world, and for all that we really do think it could be the 'killer app' of the energy world," says Reicher. "Killer app" is a term used in the tech industry to describe an application that revolutionises a field and creates new opportunities.

And is keeping the money in California, at least for now. The bulk of its first geothermal investment - $6.25 million - will help finance AltaRock Energy of Sausalito. The other $4 million will go to Potter Drilling in Redwood City, which employs a hard rock drilling technology.

AltaRock hopes to develop technology that can generate electricity in a wider range of geographies than conventional geothermal ones. "If you drill deep enough anywhere you can get to hot rock," says Reicher.

With Google's high profile announcement and investment, perhaps more of our country will pay attention to the clean energy potential of advanced geothermal.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Gang of 10 Senators Could Upset Energy Debate

Cross-posted from the Breakthrough Blog

For the past two weeks, Democrats have been losing the energy debate -- badly. Poll after poll showed Democrats losing major ground in the fight over new oil drilling, and some declared that energy could be a turning point in the run-up to November. At the Breakthrough Institute, we ran a series of responses: here, here, here, and here.

But a "New Energy Reform Act" proposal from the "Gang of 10" -- a group of five Democrats and five Republicans in the Senate -- is starting to gain serious traction and could upset the debate.

The proposal has three basic components: 1) Tens of billions of dollars in federal investments to support the transition to advanced non-petroleum fuels, vehicles, and infrastructure; 2) Extension of renewable energy tax credits and incentives; and 3) Expanded offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic states, while preserving ANWR and the West Coast.

The proposal represents a bi-partisan approach that could sweep aside Republican dominance of the energy debate, gain significant bi-partisan support after the August recess (likely to rally more support than the insistent and inflexible "Drill Here, Drill Now" sloganeering), and secure passage through Congress. It combines limited offshore drilling with major investments in new advanced alternative vehicle technology and the critical extension of renewable energy tax credits -- and its $84 billion in funding would come from repealing tax breaks on oil and gas companies and increasing their licensing fees.

The reactions so far have indicated that most see this as a saving grace for Democrats and climate advocates. Here's a short roundup:

Peter Keating, "Obama's Energy Edge," in the the New York Magazine:

McCain's ground game was working in the pre-Gang of 10 environment, and he was looking forward to keeping Obama uncomfortable on drilling. Because he has supported tax breaks for oil companies, and has opposed repealing them to pay for investments in clean energy, McCain now faces an uncomfortable choice. He can oppose the Gang of 10 plan, which will force him to defend his past votes and to explain how his stance fits into the "all of the above" approach on energy that he says he advocates. Or he can change his position and support the plan's tax increases and limits on drilling.

For Obama, in contrast, the Gang of 10 plan is a Hail Mary of a godsend. It might let him not only get past drilling and refocus on energy efficiency, but also highlight his willingness to work with Republicans at a time when the congressional Democratic leadership has been particularly inept. That's why Obama was willing to risk charges of flip-flopping on another issue and support the plan. "I am not interested in making the perfect the enemy of the good, particularly since there's so much good in this compromise," he said last Monday.

Sam Stein, "Has McCain Walked Into An Energy Trap?"
The energy debate took what could be a significant turn this past weekend: a bipartisan effort in Congress has created headaches for both Barack Obama and John McCain. But while the presumptive Democratic nominee has been criticized for acquiescing to the idea of some off-shore drilling, his Republican counterpart finds himself in a more tenuous position: cast as an unwilling-to-compromise defender of big oil, on the wrong side of public opinion.

Nate Silver, "The Gang of 10: Obama's Checkmate?":

Stay tuned for more on the debate of the century.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Happy 3rd Birthday, Watthead!

Woohoo, Watthead turns 3 today! And to celebrate, here is a globe-shaped cake!

Watthead has published more than 600 posts in its three years of existence, received hundreds and hundreds of comments, and witnessed many very exciting energy and climate-related events in the Pacific Northwest, our country, and the world.

Most recently, we have seen energy emerge as the number one election issue in America. Both major presidential candidates are constantly speaking about their plans for America's energy future, and even celebrities like Paris Hilton are taking a stand on energy. As the energy and climate debate continues to evolve, Watthead will be there both covering and contributing to this exciting conversation.

A big THANK YOU to Watthead's hundreds of readers. We look forward to your continued comments as we move forward into the sustainable, just and prosperous future we know we can create together!

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Democrats Are Losing the Battle of the Century

Cross-posted from the Breakthrough Blog...

No, it's not the 2008 election. It's the fight over the future of American energy policy. And Democrats are getting trounced by a disciplined Republican offensive on oil drilling.

According to a statewide survey released on July 30th, a slim majority of Californians now supports expanded oil drilling off our state's treasured coastline. Support for offshore drilling is even up six percent among the state's Democrats. In a land where offshore drilling has been a third-rail of politics for decades, this new surge in support for drilling is as sure a sign that Democrats are quickly losing ground to the vigorous GOP offensive to Drill! Drill! Drill! for more oil.

GOP political operatives, buoyed by their newfound success on the energy front, are digging in on this issue as their last best hope to defend vulnerable Congressional seats - not to mention the White House - in November. And their strategy is working. Democrats are losing ground in poll after poll and party leaders are scrambling to respond. They've yet to mount a successful counterattack, and the Republican's "Drill Here, Pay Less" mantra is getting louder and louder each day.

All of this is a rude awakening for progressives: we're losing. Bad. Democrats are getting trounced on the biggest election issue and quickly losing the most important political battle of the new century: energy.

How in the world did we get here?! Democrats have been pushing progressive solutions to our oil addiction for decades. Yet somehow Republicans are beating Democrats over the head with the record high oil prices they helped create with years of energy policy written in closed-door meetings with oil company lobbyists. Democrats have been on the right side of the energy issue, how can they suddenly be losing to a cynical push for more oil drilling?

The answer lies in a notion Democrats have always had a hard time accepting: American's don't always vote with the logical side of their brains. They vote with their guts. When Republicans chant, "Drill Here, Pay Less," it appeals to basic common sense. Energy prices are high, so the answer is more energy. The Republicans' argument is simple, concise. There's an easy connection from problem to solution.

The GOP is wrong, of course - the Department of Energy itself reports that "any impact [of new offshore drilling] on average [oil] prices is expected to be insignificant"- and at the logical level Americans are smart enough to know that more drilling does not translate to lasting relief. But "Drill Here, Pay Less" sounds pretty good right now, as evidenced by recent polling, and it taps into and reinforces commonly held misconceptions and biases.

What the Right is doing is jacking into the political equivalent of Americans' limbic system and getting an immediate, reflexive response. Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to get people to just listen to them long enough to make them understand they're right.

What do Democrats have to counter "Drill here, Pay Less?" I can already hear the response from Democratic leaders: "We've got plenty of good answers: Strategic Petroleum Reserve ... tire gauges ... efficient cars ... renewable energy ... hybrids ... biofuels ... windfall profit tax ..." and on and on. Of course, that's just the problem: Democrats have plenty of answers. But they don't have an answer.

While the Democrats' alternatives are clear on a logical level, they doesn't cut it because the power of reductive thinking is so seductive and strong. "Drill Here, Pay Less" is simple, powerful and compelling, and that plethora of Democratic policies offered in response just sounds like noise.

It gets even messier when Democrats do not offer a single, unified alternative and instead attack the faulty logic of "Drill Here, Pay Less," arguing that drilling will provide little benefit in the long term and no benefit in the short term. Americans simply respond, "yeah, but could it hurt?"

If Democrats start arguing on Republicans' terms - as they have come dangerously close to doing by talking about drilling in some areas while fighting drilling in more environmentally sensitive places - this debate will quickly become one between the party for lots of oil and lots of savings (GOP) and the party for some oil and less savings (Democrats). Democrats are further destined to lose if they become the party that's asking people to put aside their kitchen table issues to save sea otters or caribou at a time of record high energy prices and economic stagnation. One guess which party Americans choose on Election Day if those are the options...

So what will it take for Democrats to win the energy battle? A simple, concise, and intuitively compelling response to the Republican's "Drill Here, Pay Less" chant. Determining what that new mantra is should be the top priority for progressive political operatives, and Democratic party leaders, political candidates, and allied message machines need to unite around this new common sense mantra with as much fervor, unity and discipline as the Right has on drilling. And as they launch this new offensive, Democrats can't forget to frame this debate on their terms. Anything short of that, and we'll lose the energy battle, and maybe even the election with it.

It's time to get serious about a powerful alternative to "Drill Here, Pay Less." So what's it going to be?

[A special tip of the hat to Jim Barrett, Executive Director of Redefining Progress, for his contributions to the development of this post.]

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"Like, Totally Ready to Lead"

By Adam Solomon Zemel, Breakthrough Generation

Dark horse third party presidential candidate Paris Hilton released an online campaign ad taking on allegations about her connections to other 2008 candidates, and formally announcing her energy policy. Hilton's announcement is an effort to put an end to speculation about how she would lead our country to energy independence. Like many others, I'm not surprised to see Hilton proposing a plan that will garner support for both sides of the political spectrum (and one can only assume it is part of a larger strategy to carry the votes of centrists from both parties):

"We can do limited offshore drilling--with strict environmental oversight--while creating tax incentives to get Detroit making hybrid and electric cars. That way the offshore drilling carries us until the new technologies kick in which will then create new jobs and energy independence. Energy crisis solved!"

See more Paris Hilton videos at Funny or Die

However, I have two issues with this ad, what it says about the overall campaign, and the likelihood of a Hilton presidency:

- According to this ad, energy solutions are at best a second priority after getting a good tan. We need a president who will be dedicated to getting the ball rolling on energy legislation within the first hundred days. After seeing this ad, I'm not sure that Paris Hilton would be that president.

- My second issue is probably more important--the solution is a political winner, but there are gaps in the logic. While walking the fine line of partisan politics with a finesse that could push it through both houses and into law, the "Hilton Solution" places too much faith on offshore drilling as a short term solution.

The Energy Information Administration's Annual Energy Outlooks 2007's analysis of the outcomes of drilling on the outer continental shelf (OCS) "indicate[s] that access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030." The report also said that come 2030 "any impact on average wellhead prices is expected to be insignificant."

On the surface, the Hilton Solution seems like a platform worth rallying around. Overcoming the energy crisis in America is of utmost importance and any solution must be a political winner so that we can legislate and act with confidence and effectiveness.

However, our energy solutions also need to be real winners that can lead us to energy freedom and ever increasing levels of security and prosperity. And unfortunately, the plan that Paris Hilton put forth today cannot. Ultimately, the Hilton Solution is just more political posturing from a candidate who, frankly, seems a little over her head.

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