The press release could have come straight out of the utterly disgraced Bush EPA–and if it had, I can well imagine the howls of outrage it would have provoked, because I would have joined the chorus. Its headline read as follows: “Obama Announces Steps to Boost Biofuels, Clean Coal.”
In short, after a flirtation with reason last spring, the Obama EPA has signed off on the absurd, abysmal Renewable Fuel Standard established under Bush a couple of years ago–ensuring that farmers will continue to devote vast swaths of land to GHG-intensive corn, of which huge portion of will ultimately be set aflame to power cars–but not before being transformed into liquid fuel in an energy-intensive process.
As as ethanol factories continue sucking in more and more corn, plantation owners in places like Brazil and Argentina will put more grassland and even rainforest under the plow to make up for the shortfall, resulting in huge carbon emissions. That dire effect of our ethanol program, known as indirect land-use change, likely nullifies any scant climate benefits from ethanol. In downplaying indirect land use in its assessment of the Renewable Fuel Standard, the agency is essentially caving to the demands of House ag committee chair Collin Peterson–who is returning the favor with an all-out assault of the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases at all.
As for “clean” coal, the EPA announced a major push for “Carbon Capture and Storage” for coal plants. But no amount of public cash for such projects can clean up the atrocity of mountain-top removal–or stop coal plants from transforming the oceans into mercury-laden toxic pits. What would carbon capture do to solve the coal ash problem? Nothing.
I can only think of one more ersatz, flimsy way to confront the specter of global ecological crisis than promoting “clean” coal and biofuels, and it would be nuclear power. Unhappily, Obama has been hyping–and putting taxpayer cash behind– that, too.
I realize that Obama’s EPA director, Lisa Jackson, has worked hard to lift the agency from the ignominy into which it had plunged under Bush’s notorious director, Stephen Johnson. In a provocative essay in The New Republic, the veteran liberal journalist John B. Judis makes a case for Jackson. Judis writes:
In her first year at the EPA, Jackson granted California a waiver to impose tougher greenhouse-gas standards for new automobiles, which the Bush administration had denied. She declared that the EPA would set standards for greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. (This means that, if Congress fails to pass cap-and-trade legislation, the EPA could act on its own to regulate carbon emissions.) And she accepted the EPA staff’s recommendations for tougher smog standards–recommendations that had been rebuffed by the previous EPA head. Science, it seems clear, is back in command at the EPA.
That track record makes the EPA’s capitulation over ethanol all the more painful. I could understand such concessions if the President were using them as pawns in a fight to push through effective climate legislation. But climate legislation got hopelessly compromised–before collapsing unceremoniously on the Senate floor. Why is Obama giving this stuff away now?
When the Democrats gained power in 2007, progressives may have assumed that the tide had turned on environmental protection. But the fossil fuel and agribusiness industries were never going to just melt away. They have hundreds of billions of dollars in investments on the ground that can only be leveraged if their products emain paramount. Those investments will be defended.
This is a long-term battle that will require much grassroots pressure from below before it really turns–much more than can be brought to bear in any single election.