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

burningmoney
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.

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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.

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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 350.org 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.

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Fighting dirty

Congressional candidates compete over who is most pro–fossil fuel

Republican and Democratic dueling fists
Shutterstock

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.

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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.)

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Democrats are getting greener and Republicans are getting dirtier

left-wing and right-wing signs
Shutterstock

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.

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

obama
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:

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Why liberals like walkability more than conservatives

walkable city street
Urban Grammar
All of the people in this picture are Democrats.

The wonkosphere is going wild over the Pew Research Center’s new report on increasing partisan polarization. It shows that liberal and conservative Americans are more segregated than ever: liberals are now all Democrats, conservatives are all Republicans, and both groups -- although conservatives much more than liberals -- increasingly tend to socialize and get their news only from one another. Conservatives are also found to be totally hostile to political compromise.

To anyone following political news, these findings mostly just reinforce what we already knew. One of the starkest divisions stands out, though, because it is on a topic that is seldom measured or discussed: ideological divisions over walkable urbanism versus suburban sprawl.

Pew asked whether respondents would rather live in an area where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away,” versus one where “the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores and restaurants are within walking distance.” The country is evenly split, with 49 percent choosing the former and 48 percent the latter. But the political divide is dramatic: 75 percent of “consistently conservative” respondents prefer the suburban sprawl model, and only 22 percent prefer the walkable urban design. Among “consistently liberal” Americans, the numbers are reversed.

Read more: Cities, Politics

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Will EPA’s power plant regulations be stopped in the courts?

scales of justice
Shutterstock

The famous adage that nothing is certain in this world but death and taxes should probably be amended. At least insofar as politics and policy are concerned, there is a third inevitability: lawsuits.

Before they even know the details of a major environmental regulation, affected industries start looking for ways to get it thrown out in court. That's definitely the case for President Obama’s newly proposed regulation on CO2 emissions from existing power plants. Republican-controlled states will be joining the legal assault too because the power-plant rule, like Obamacare, would impose mandates on state governments.

Generally, you cannot sue to block a rule until it has been finalized, which in this case is scheduled to happen by June 30, 2015. Lawyers on both sides say they don’t expect any suits to be filed before then. But they're already prepping for them.

Litigants will say the EPA has overstepped its authority under the Clean Air Act. One of this proposed rule’s great virtues is that it is an innovative use of EPA’s rulemaking authority. Traditionally, the agency simply dictates that a source of pollution such as a factory or power plant must adopt the best available technology to reduce its emissions. By contrast, the newly proposed Clean Power Plan offers states the freedom to figure out how to most efficiently clean up their whole power generation system, not just coal plants themselves. That shuts down one common avenue for legal challenges -- that states were not given adequate consultation or flexibility. But when EPA shuts a door, it opens a window. By choosing an approach that is unprecedented, the agency is inviting complaints that it is unauthorized.

Here are five potential legal vulnerabilities in the EPA's proposed rule. Note that this is only the minimum of hurdles the rule will have to jump over -- opponents could still come up with as-yet unimagined arguments against it.

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Why Cantor’s defeat is terrible for the climate — and the country

Eric Cantor
Gage Skidmore

On Tuesday night, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was ousted with a decisive loss, 56 percent to 44 percent, in his party’s primary. The victor, college professor David Brat, challenged Cantor from the right, attacking him for raising the debt ceiling, agreeing to a budget that didn’t defund Obamacare, and pushing for bipartisan immigration reform.

But this is no ordinary Tea Party insurgency. Brat was a low-profile and disorganized candidate, who failed to rally support from national right-wing advocacy organizations and fundraising networks. According to the latest campaign filings, Brat's whole campaign spent $123,000 -- less than the $168,000 Cantor's campaign spent just at steakhouses. Nor was Cantor a tired old incumbent like Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who was forced into a runoff by a Tea Party challenger in last week’s primary. Cantor, 51, raised over $5 million and blasted Brat with a heavy ad campaign.

Most importantly, Cantor was no moderate. He positioned himself as the hard-right leader of the rabble-rousing freshman caucus elected in 2010. That’s why Democrats and establishment Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are chuckling that Cantor got what he deserved: He encouraged the Republican base’s unreasonable demands for bigger spending cuts and tax cuts than President Obama would ever agree to, and now he himself has fallen victim to their rejection of political reality. “What makes tonight’s upset defeat delightfully ironic is that Cantor, who has spent the last three and a half years whipping up right-wing dissatisfaction against Boehner’s alleged moderation, is himself the victim of accusations of collaboration,” writes Jonathan Lawrence, former chief of staff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “Tonight, I imagine, the atmosphere in the Speaker’s Office is unadulterated glee.”