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It’s time for Obama to stop selling off our land and water to fossil fuel companies

protest sign: "Obama: This is your crude awakening"

In its ongoing effort to make life difficult for environment reporters, the Obama administration once again announced major environmental news on a Friday. This time, however, it was not a measure to protect the environment, but to destroy it. The Department of Interior decided to allow seismic testing off the southern Atlantic coast from Delaware to Florida. This is a precursor to possible oil and gas drilling, to determine what fossil fuel resources are there.

It is an illustration of one of Obama’s biggest failures on climate change. And it points to the direction that environmentalists need to go next: call for a moratorium on all federal leasing for fossil fuel development.

Green groups and green leaders in Congress attacked Interior's move. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a top climate hawk, issued a statement saying, “it just doesn’t seem worth putting our oceans and coasts at risk.” The NRDC called the decision “a major assault on our ocean.”

There are four big reasons to oppose this seismic testing:


Fracking fight headed for the ballot in Colorado

fist fight

Colorado voters will likely get a chance to weigh in on fracking in November -- and that puts Democrats on the ballot in a tight spot.

The fracking boom has bolstered Colorado's economy, and twisted its politics. Even many Democrats advocate for oil and gas interests, including Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall, both of whom are up for reelection this year. But many people living near the wells complain of contaminated air and water, noise, health problems, and other adverse effects.

As Colorado cities have begun trying to ban fracking, the state government has sued them, arguing that only the state has that authority. Rep. Jared Polis (D), whose congressional district includes many of those communities north of Denver, is spending his own money to promote a ballot initiative to outlaw fracking less than 2,000 feet from a residence, up from the currently allowed 500 feet. The gas industry says that would amount to a fracking ban in many areas. Polis is also supporting an initiative that would make more stringent local environmental regulations override conflicting weaker state rules, which could allow communities to outlaw fracking.

Hickenlooper and other state lawmakers were trying to broker a legislative compromise that would keep the initiatives off the ballot. The governor's proposal would have placed some additional restrictions on fracking but made it clear that localities couldn’t ban it altogether. But last week, the negotiations fell apart and Hickenlooper announced that there would be no special summer legislative session to pass a fracking bill. Polis then declared that he will move forward with collecting the signatures needed to place his proposals on the ballot.


Past gas

Living next to natural gas wells is no fun

fracking protestors holding hands
Brett Rindt/Erie Rising

Driving around the rural back roads of Garfield County, Colo., you don’t see many cars. But one type of vehicle keeps popping up, often the only one you’ll see for hours: the white pickup trucks favored by gas drilling companies. Here in the central western part of the state, the rolling fields of scrubby yellow-green vegetation are frequently punctuated by natural gas wells. Even after a well has stopped producing gas, big cylindrical tanks of waste water and natural gas condensate remain, sitting behind low fences by the roadside. Too often those tanks emit toxic substances into the air or leak their contents into the ground, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene and toluene.

Are these ones leaking?
Are these ones leaking?

People who live on or near properties with gas wells say they have experienced an array of health effects from exposure to high concentrations of these chemicals. The known immediate effects of exposure to high concentrations of benzene, according to the Centers for Disease Control, include headache and drowsiness. Long-term exposure can cause cancer, as well as fertility problems in women.


Thanks to the fracking boom, we’re wasting more money than ever on fossil fuel subsidies

Mike Poresky

You probably know that the U.S. government subsidizes fossil fuel production. But here’s something you probably don’t know: Those subsidies have recently increased dramatically. According to a report released last week by Oil Change International, “Federal fossil fuel production and exploration subsidies in the United States have risen by 45 percent since President Obama took office in 2009, from $12.7 billion to a current total of $18.5 billion.” We are, as the report observes, “essentially rewarding companies for accelerating climate change.”

At first glance, this seems strange. Why would there be such a big increase under a Democratic president who has committed his administration to combatting climate change, and who has even repeatedly called for eliminating exactly these kinds of dirty energy subsidies?

The short answer: fracking. The fracking boom has led to a surge in oil and natural gas production in recent years: Oil production is up by 35 percent since 2009, and natural gas production is up by 18 percent. With more revenues, expenditures, and profits in the oil and gas industries, the value of the various tax deductions for the oil industry has soared. So, for example, the deduction for “intangible drilling costs” cost taxpayers $1.6 billion in 2009, and $3.5 billion in 2013.


Triple threat

Cowboys, hunters, and enviros team up to fight natural gas drilling

If you take off in a plane from the airport in Aspen, Colo., you'll soon see exactly what natural gas drilling looks like -- and exactly why so many residents of the surrounding region, from ranchers to business owners to greens, are fighting to keep it in check.

Fly north over the Thompson Divide, a region mostly contained within the White River National Forest, and all you see is green, lush mountains and valleys. This is a habitat for migratory species from birds to elk.

Thompson Divide
Bruce Gordon / EcoFlight

Continue on, and tilt a bit west, and you enter the Piceance (pronounced “Pee-once”) Basin. There you see patches of denuded brown dirt with long thin lines leading to them, like the pitcher's mound on a baseball field. These are some of Colorado’s roughly 30,000 active gas wells, and the roads built to service them. (Many thanks to EcoFlight, a nonprofit environmental education group, for showing me the views.)

Grassy Mesa
Bruce Gordon / EcoFlight

Gradually, over the course of recent years, the drilling has spread eastward, over each successive hill. Now residents in the Thompson Divide area are worried it will come down to their communities and soon their pristine landscape will look like their neighbors' to the west. The threat has been hanging over them for a decade, but they are now trying to round up the votes in Congress to roll it back.


Why Tom Steyer is not a hypocrite

Tom Steyer
Shutterstock / Debby Wong

Here’s a clue for newspaper reporters: If the loudest people criticizing an environmental activist for not being pure enough are fossil fuel–loving Republicans, that’s a sign it’s not a legitimate criticism.

Consider, for example, The New York Timestakedown of Tom Steyer from Saturday. The Times solemnly informs us that when Steyer ran the Farallon Capital hedge fund, it invested in fossil fuels, including substantial investments in building coal-burning facilities abroad. Steyer resigned from Farallon in 2012, founded NextGen Climate to support activism on climate change in 2013, and just recently completed his personal divestment from fossil fuels. But, the Times reports, some of those coal plants built partly with Steyer’s former firm's money will keep spewing CO2 for decades. The Times writes:

Over the past 15 years, Mr. Steyer’s fund, Farallon Capital Management, has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into companies that operate coal mines and coal-fired power plants from Indonesia to China, records and interviews show. The expected life span of those facilities, some of which may run through 2030, could cloud Mr. Steyer’s image as an environmental savior and the credibility of his clean-energy message, which has won him access to the highest levels of American government.

Note the passive construction: Farallon’s past investments “could cloud Mr. Steyer’s image,” the Times notes, as if it weren't the Times itself doing the clouding. But cloud it among whom? The article admits that several leading environmentalists don’t hold Steyer’s past work against him. Bill McKibben, founder of and Grist board member, points out that seeing the error of one’s ways and divesting is exactly what they want capitalists to do. You can’t say that only people who have never participated in the dirty energy economy can help clean up the environment. If you did, you couldn’t work with any energy utilities on greening their portfolios, or raise money from any hedge-fund multimillionaires.


Fighting dirty

Congressional candidates compete over who is most pro–fossil fuel

Republican and Democratic dueling fists

Politico has helpfully provided a roundup of Senate and House races in which environment and energy issues are a major factor. If you click on the video expecting to find that climate change is finally moving voters, you’re going to be disappointed. In all four races -- the Louisiana, Kentucky, and Colorado Senate races and a West Virginia House race -- the Democratic and Republican candidates are arguing over who is more supportive of fossil fuels.

The only partial exception is Colorado: Democrat Sen. Mark Udall supports the state’s large natural gas sector -- though his Republican opponent Rep. Cory Gardner claims he isn’t supportive enough -- but Udall also calls for climate action. That’s because Colorado has a different political terrain than the others -- it's purple, not pure red. Colorado is much richer than Kentucky or West Virginia, has a more diversified economy, and has a lot of liberal voters who came for the high quality of life.

In Kentucky and West Virginia, coal is king and the candidates are competing over who will more faithfully serve its narrow interests. In Louisiana, the same model applies, but with oil and gas instead of coal.


PAC mentality

Now climate hawks have their own super PAC

Climate Hawk T-shirt
T-shirt design by Joe Imman

A realization has been gradually dawning on climate change activists: Too many Democrats vote the right way on their issues but never lead on them. Yet every big legislative victory requires lawmakers who will publicly argue for an issue and aggressively push legislation.

And so activists have started launching political action committees (PACs) to identify and aid candidates who will be outspoken, active climate leaders. In California, the new state-level PAC Leadership for a Clean Economy endorsed its first two State Assembly candidates earlier this year. And now a national counterpart, Climate Hawks Vote, has gotten going as well, starting to build support for climate leaders in congressional races. (Tom Steyer's NextGen Climate Action super PAC is also aiming to influence elections, but it's mostly focused on knocking out bad actors rather than finding and supporting good ones.)

Last Thursday, the Climate Hawks super PAC announced its first endorsements: Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz (D), who is facing a primary challenge from Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, and Stanley Chang (D), a Honolulu city councilman running to replace Hanabusa in the House of Representatives. Climate Hawks has hired two field organizers in Hawaii to knock on Democratic voters’ doors and raise awareness about Schatz's and Chang’s environmental credentials. (As a super PAC, Climate Hawks can endorse candidates and run ads and "education campaigns," but it cannot donate directly to a candidate or coordinate with his or her campaign.)


Democrats are getting greener and Republicans are getting dirtier

left-wing and right-wing signs

Increasing partisan polarization, which was widely discussed last week after the release of a major Pew survey, is driving the two major parties farther apart on environmental policy.

Consider, for example, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who will replace Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) as House majority leader this August. As The Wall Street Journal reports, McCarthy has a staunchly anti-environmental record. He does not accept the science of climate change. As House majority whip, he has rallied votes to overrule the EPA’s proposed regulations on power-plant CO2 emissions, and he is planning to try to prevent the regulations' implementation through the budget appropriations process. He also wants to make it easier for states to open federal land within their borders to fossil fuel exploration. But, until very recently, McCarthy supported the wind energy production tax credit (PTC), which has helped spur growth in the wind industry. He voted for its extension as recently as 2012 and boasted of his district’s thriving wind sector. Now, though, as McCarthy ascends to a more powerful role in the GOP, he's decided he opposes the PTC.

Cantor’s primary loss to a far-right challenger last week was itself a testament to partisan polarization. I predicted it would be bad for the prospects of any remotely pro-environment bill, and McCarthy is already proving me right.


Obama calls out climate deniers, asks young people to force climate change issue

UCI UC Irvine

In giving the commencement address at the University of California-Irvine on Saturday, President Obama called on young people to push the climate change issue past its current partisan divide. The speech was particularly notable for Obama’s forthright confrontation of climate change deniers.

He took oblique shots at the silly pseudo-scientific proclamations of Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). (Inhofe claimed last year that “We're in a cycle now that all the scientists agree is going into a cooling period," while Rohrabacher previously raised the possibility of dinosaur flatulence causing warming in the Mesozoic Era to argue that the causes of climate change are unknowable.) Obama also implicitly went after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who recently ducked a question on climate change by saying he’s not a scientist. As Obama points out, one doesn’t need to be a scientist to act on scientific issues while in public office. One simply needs to believe the overwhelming majority of scientists.

From Obama's speech: