Saturday, June 27, 2009

Reflections on redefining ACES from out in the sticks

Cross-posted from "It's Getting Hot In Here"

While many of my friend in the movement have been in DC and trying to mobilize for, against, or to strengthen the ACES bill t, I've been organizing in Minnesota as part of the Twin Cities Summer of Solutions program - you can read more posts on the programs around the country on solutionaries.net. In my work, I'm continually challenged by the persistent disconnect between the real implications of what we're trying to achieve through bills like ACES, how most people understand it, and the results we get. This morning I wrote a blog post in major metro-wide paper - the Star Tribune - attempting to redefine what ACES means and how we should respond. I'm including it here because I think we really need to get better at saying what we're about and why it is important.

As you read, feel free to check out the posts I'm responding to, remember its written for a Minnesota audience, and please share your thoughts on strategies to end the communications gridlock.

Article starts below the jump.

The American Clean Energy Security Act passed the US House yesterday 219-212. The process has already been long and steady - starting with committee hearings back in February - and there is still a very long way to go - the Senate, conference committee, final passage, so there's no guarantee that anything will get passed. Unfortunately, the provisions of the bill that would go the farthest towards building a solid economic foundation for a sustainable economy that can take America forward have been consistently weakened by those who tend to think of it as a tax, and argue that it will hurt our economy. As a result, the bill that eventually passed has far more incentives for the same old energy sources that have been sucking American wallets dry, and far fewer mechanisms to help build the green economy of the future than Waxman, Markey, and other Democratic authors intended. I understand the fear of additional imposed cost on the American consumer, but the unrelenting conservative attacks on the bill have actually resulted in a bill stripped of most of the mechanisms that would have made it an engine for economic recovery for a 21st century America.

The concern for the negative impacts that the bill could have on consumers are well-meaning, but misguided, primarily because the positive opportunities we could achieve by a strong clean energy bill are so much greater. Consider the following:

* Since the 1970s, the American coal industry has increased coal production in Appalachia by about 40% annually (140% or 1970 production), while CUTTING 94% of its workforce. That's a lot of jobs lost. They have done it by increasing mechanization of mining, which requires gigantic machines and more oil for fuel. Despite these increases in "efficiency" - less labor costs, which means more unemployment, the cost of coal has gone steadily up, leading to steadily rising electricity prices (coal provides about 50% of America's electricity and about 70% of Minnesota's). More coal, more energy, higher prices, less jobs. - Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future (Jeff Goodell)

* Before the 1970s oil crisis, the US produced a majority of its oil consumption within its own borders. Since then, US oil production has steadily declined, and our reliance on foreign oil (increasingly from Middle Eastern nations like Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia) has climbed (though we still currently get most of our oil from Canada and Mexico). The US now sends over $400 billion (and rising) overseas to foreign countries annually for oil - our largest import, in order to burn stuff. Many of the governments that benefit from us forking that cash over are not very friendly to the US, including nations that support many of the terrorist organizations that are our greatest modern military threat. However, if we had continued the energy efficiency practices (note, energy efficiency alone, without the additional necessary sector of renewable energy) instituted in the Carter Era, we would no longer be dependent on oil fron the Middle East. - The End of Oil (Paul Roberts)

* Our overwhelming consumption of material products is the largest market for China's booming manufacturing economy, which is incredibly coal and oil intensive, raising international competition for scarce fossil fuel resources. China and other developing nations are now hosts to most of manufacturing industries that the US has lost over the past several decades. Mass global materials trade is made possible by cheap fossil fuels, meaning that a cheap fossil energy era has made it possible for large industries to leave this country and go overseas while still selling to our apparently insatiable consumer market. This has led to a mass trade deficit, requiring the US to borrow trillions of dollars (much of it from the Chinese) that have weakened our economy further, leaving us vulnerable to the types of threats we are facing now. - you can get most of this from the Economist, though some pieces I've heard put most eloquently in Thomas Friedman's book, Hot Flat and Crowded.

* Clean energy investments create 3-10 times more jobs (reports by Berkeley Energy labs, the US Department of Energy, and other sources vary on the exact amounts) per dollar than investments in dirty energy systems like coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear. This means that taking money out of dirty energy industries and putting it into clean energy industries creates 2-9 jobs for every one lost. True, they aren't necessarily the same skill sets, but ACES and other clean energy bills have tried to use part of the revenues from carbon permits to retrain workers for new clean energy industries - as well as help people from disadvantaged communities enter emerging job markets created by clean energy.

* In 2008, for the first time, global private investment in clean energy exceeded global investment in dirty energy. While dirty energy still makes up the majority of our energy economy, renewable energy is growing at 20-40% annually, even in the economic downturn. This is despite the fact that the federal government gives tens of billions of dollars in subsidies to fossil energy each year, while providing very poor incentive for clean energy - though for some reason, anti-pork fiscal conservatives tend to focus wrath on the much smaller incentives provided to clean energy (Boiling Point - Ross Gelbspan). Its also despite the fact that our current energy regulatory system poses massive barriers to access to small, local entrepreneurs who want to start their own energy systems, as community-based wind developers in rural Minnesota know well.

* The costs of renewable energy are falling annually - wind energy for example is becoming cost-competitive with coal in many parts of the Midwest. Dirty energy sources like coal, natural gas, and especially natural gas and nuclear are rising due to limited supply, increasing extraction costs, and rising demand. This trend is expected to continue. Meanwhile, as I mentioned in my earlier post about efficiency, we are ignoring hundreds of billions of dollars in annual energy savings - and instead are sending that money overseas to foreign dictators - that could give us a first leg up on a revitalized, resilient economy. Basically, linking efficiency and clean energy while working towards the big-picture structural changes in smart grids, better urban systems, and clean agriculture is a strategy for empowering entrepreneurship and innovation while cutting our energy costs and reducing our vulnerability to foreign oil suppliers and unstable energy prices. Continued reliance on fossil fuels is a bumpy, but one-way ride towards rising prices. - several US Department of Energy sources support these claims.

What this all boils down to is that what ACES is actually trying to achieve is investing in a new type of economy. It is trying to move money and private investment away from the dirty energy sources that have been dragging our economy down for the past decade, emptying our personal and federal pocket-books, sending industry overseas, and propping up petroleum dictatorships. Its trying to move that money into new industries, led by scrappy American entrepreneurs who want to create jobs for everyday Americans in new energy industries that will avoid energy waste and generate a new foundation for our economy from clean energy sources that we control. Its trying to break down the old boys club of big energy companies to provide access to innovators who can make clean energy and energy efficiency cheap, and revitalize American manufacturing by creating demand for wind turbines and hybrid-electric vehicles, and efficient houses (new, and upgrades), sustainable, accessible food for all, the transportation infrastructure of the future. Its about taking the huge black hole into which all our energy expenses have gone and turning it around - making it into an agent for investment and innovation in a sustainable economy. Putting a price on carbon-intensive activities like burning coal and oil, and providing incentives for a new universe of clean energy innovation, is just a vehicle towards that end.

My concern is by how much the bill has been weakened by pro-industry lobbyists, in ways that will prevent it from achieving this potential, and block everyday Americans from opportunities not only to avoid the costs of carbon emissions, but to profit from reducing them. As the bill was weakened, more and more permits were outright given to polluting energy companies, potentially allowing the types of profiteering and speculation that have resulted from carbon markets where permits to pollute were given away to polluters elsewhere (Europe under the Kyoto protocol is a prime example). The targets for limiting carbon pollution decreased, and provisions for offsets, where energy companies avoid reducing their own use of fossil fuels by reducing pollution elsewhere - often questionable - increased. With a wide range of other changes, the ways in which the bill was weakened mean more benefits to the same old industries that have been subjecting American citizens and companies to the rising costs of a dirty energy economy, while reducing the opportunities for emerging American entrepreneurs. This could mean bigger profits for energy companies doing the same old business as usual (mostly), higher energy costs, AND very little in the way of empowering the next era of American innovation.

While I try to avoid cynicism, I sometimes fear that this scenario is exactly what dirty-energy lobbyists on Capitol Hill most want. Not only does the bill give much of its financial benefit directly to polluters, it could also generate public backlash from rising energy prices WITHOUT providing the new wave of economic opportunity that could help take America forward. This could create more public opposition to further action in the future, thus delaying our transition to a clean energy future and protecting the long-term interests they have in coal, nuclear, and oil. I hope that all those out there concerned about our economy and protecting consumers avoid being hoodwinked.

ACES is far from over, and we still have opportunities to strengthen the provisions that invest in a revitalized clean energy economy and American entrepreneurship while weakening corporate welfare for foreign oil producers and low-job-creation dirty energy companies. The fight now moves to the Senate - we have just a few more chances to ensure ACES spurs our economic recovery.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

It is trying to move money and private investment away from the dirty energy sources that have been dragging our economy down for the past decade, emptying our personal and federal pocket-books, sending industry overseas, and propping up petroleum dictatorships. Its trying to move that money into new industries, led by scrappy American entrepreneurs who want to create jobs for everyday Americans in new energy industries that will avoid energy waste and generate a new foundation for our economy from clean energy sources that we control. Its trying to break down the old boys club of big energy companies to provide access to innovators who can make clean energy and energy efficiency cheap, and revitalize American manufacturing by creating demand for wind turbines and hybrid-electric vehicles, and efficient houses (new, and upgrades), sustainable, accessible food for all, the transportation infrastructure of the future. Its about taking the huge black hole into which all our energy expenses have gone and turning it around - making it into an agent for investment and innovation in a sustainable economy. Putting a price on carbon-intensive activities like burning coal and oil, and providing incentives for a new universe of clean energy innovation, is just a vehicle towards that end.

I don't know what drugs you are taking, but your solution will hurt America and Americans.

I repeat for the third time, read the article I posted in your previous link. It is not from a right wing news source. You may have gotten a bill passed in the house, but getting 60 votes in the Senate will be very tough.

Be intellectually honest and at least acknowledge your solution will hurt America and drive jobs to third world countries.

You can't even get Senator Kennedy to vote for wind power in his backyard

Timothy DHT said...

The post itself is referring to how the existing bill (ACES) has been weakened in ways that make it more likely to raise costs and send jobs overseas, whereas the original intent of the bill - back when it still included significant incentives for new clean energy industry - was to spark job creation and economic recovery at home. A true investment in job creation and clean energy will obviously help America by reducing our dependence on costly energy sources - lots of evidence in the post - and creating jobs here. If you want to debate the evidence, please read the sources I provided (which include three books, with hundreds of citations each) before comparing it with single research papers. I am critiquing the bill that passed, not championing it, because it doesn't focus much on this investment in a new energy economy.

I hope that clears things up. No need for ad hominem attacks on the side.

michael said...

I don't believe these are ad hominem attacks.

First, the article I posted illustrates what a functioning Cap N Trade system will do to the US.

Second, why regulate a gas that is .04 per cent of the atmosphere, it makes no sense.

Third, if you want clean energy, look at nuclear. Many modern designs have addressed the waste issue.

Fourth, why artificially make other forms of energy more expensive to make wind and solar more attractive? Let science and the market develop alternatives. Government can provide incentives, but not at the expense of the US. Driving jobs off shore to inefficient countries only makes matters worse. I read recently about 2 companies that have devised a system of installing solar panels on houses and helping home owners save money on there electricity. They handle the tax write offs and deal with the electric companies. It is a win for both the customer and the company.

My problem is the government is too heavy handed.