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Let’s end polluter welfare

Sen. Bernie Sanders rallies supporters of the End Polluter Welfare Act.

At a time when we have more than $15 trillion in national debt, American taxpayers are set to give away over $110 billion to the oil, gas, and coal industries over the next decade. Clearly, we cannot afford it. The five largest oil companies made over $1 trillion in profits in the last decade, with some paying no federal income taxes for part of that time, so they certainly do not need it.

It is time we end this corporate welfare in the form of massive subsidies and tax breaks [PDF] to hugely profitable fossil-fuel corporations. It is time for Congress to support the interests of the taxpayer instead of powerful special interests like the oil and coal industries. That is why I joined with Rep. Keith Ellison to introduce legislation in the Senate and the House called the End Polluter Welfare Act. Our proposal is backed by grassroots and public-interest organizations 350.org, Friends of the Earth, Taxpayers for Common Sense, and many others.

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Breakthrough Institute gets it wrong on climate economics — again

arrows missing targetOops, missed again.

Why do those at the Breakthrough Institute insist that everyone else besides them who cares about the environment is wrong, wrong, wrong? Their latest, called “The Creative Destruction of Climate Economics,” is a swipe at those misguided souls who think putting a price on carbon emissions would help combat climate change.

Breakthrough, according to its website, aims “to modernize liberal-progressive-green politics” and to accelerate the transition to an “ecologically vibrant” future. It “broke through” into well-funded fame in 2003 with its attack on environmentalists for failing to emphasize the economic concerns of ordinary Americans, such as jobs -- thereby alienating the major environmental groups, who had been talking about jobs and the environment for years.

What’s wrong with pricing carbon emissions? This particular breakthrough rests on a mistaken reading of an academic paper in the American Economic Review, the most prestigious outlet for mainstream economics. That paper develops a simplified, abstract model of an economy that generates carbon emissions. Unlike some climate economics models, it assumes that public policy can affect the pace of innovation. Its conclusion, in the authors’ own words, seems quite balanced:

A simple but important implication of our analysis is that optimal environmental regulation should always use both an input tax (“carbon tax”) to control current emissions, and research subsidies or profit taxes to influence the direction of research.

Compared to exclusive reliance on carbon taxes, they continue, “optimal policy relies less on a carbon tax and instead involves direct encouragement to the development of clean technologies.”

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Why are U.S. taxpayers subsidizing coal mining?

Why are we handing Big Coal our bacon?

The most important thing you can read this week is Joe Smyth's post on federal coal leasing. I realize "federal coal leasing" is not a phrase to quicken the pulse, but it's a Very Big Deal.

A couple of weeks ago, I explained the situation the U.S. coal industry is in: domestic electricity use has leveled off, utilities are switching to cheap natural gas and wind, and the EPA is finally cracking down on dirty old coal plants. All that leaves U.S. coal in a pinch. Their main hope for the future is to increase coal exports. That's why the fight over coal export terminals matters.

Arguably, though, the coal-export fight is secondary. From a climate-hawk point of view, it would be better just to leave the damn coal in the ground.

Is that even within our power as concerned U.S. citizens? As it happens, yes, it is, because we own much of the coal! The coal that companies like Peabody are itching to export comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. And most of the land in the Powder River Basin is owned by the federal government -- that is to say, it's owned by you and me.

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Buzzword decoder: Your election-year guide to environmental catchphrases

bees saying buzzwordsDon't expect the environment to be in the spotlight in political campaigns this year. The economy will be the star in 2012, with the culture wars singing backup.

Still, environmental issues are getting talked about, often obliquely as part of larger discussions about energy -- though the words don't always mean what you might think they mean. And the words politicians don't say can tell you as much as the words they do.

Here's a guide to energy and environmental buzzwords you'll be hearing, or not, this election year:

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Obscure-but-awesome energy law getting shivved by natural gas lobby

This house is extremely efficient.

Wouldn't it be cool if we passed a rule mandating that all new federal buildings had to be carbon-neutral by 2030? The feds buy and build a lot of real estate. An effort to wring fossil-fuel energy out of those buildings -- by increasing their efficiency and supplying them with renewables -- would seriously bolster domestic markets for efficiency and distributed energy. Beyond that, it would serve as a proving ground and an example for the communities where those buildings are located. It would be galvanizing.

"But," you're protesting, "we would never do something so radical. Germany might. Denmark, maybe. Not us."

Hark! I say to you. Hark to this sh*t: We do have such a rule!

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We’re half-assing the clean-energy transition

Photo by Hans Gerwitz.

The International Energy Agency recently issued its annual progress report [PDF] on clean energy. Here's the five-cent version:

The transition to a low-carbon energy sector is affordable and represents tremendous business opportunities, but investor confidence remains low due to policy frameworks that do not provide certainty and address key barriers to technology deployment. Private sector financing will only reach the levels required if governments create and maintain supportive business environments for low-carbon energy technologies. [my emphasis]

Progress is inadequate -- relative to the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees C -- on virtually every low-carbon technology except onshore wind and solar (click for a larger version of this chart):

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Donald Trump still blowing hot air about Scottish wind farms

Scotland’s plan to build offshore wind turbines would curb climate change, reduce the country’s reliance on foreign oil, and create thousands of jobs. But Donald Trump don’t give a f***.

Trump appeared before the Scottish Parliament’s economy, energy, and tourism committee today to speak out against the country’s plan to build offshore wind turbines. His argument? Eleven wind turbines -- located a full 1.5 miles from land -- will “ruin Scotland’s tourism.”

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Obama may blow off the Earth Summit

Photo by porchlife.

When the leaders of more than 100 countries meet this June to discuss the small matter of the Future of Life on Earth, President Obama might be there. Then again, maybe he’s got a golf match scheduled that day. He’s not saying.

Yes, it’s true, the guy who just picked up an early endorsement from Big Green groups like the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, the man who announced in his last State of the Union Address that “America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs,” may be a no-show at the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

When asked about the president’s plans on Tuesday, U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change Todd Stern told The Washington Post, “I don’t have any understanding that the president has any intention of going.” A White House spokesperson was noncommittal: “I don’t have any scheduling announcements at this time.”

Ouch. What ever happened to “Love Your Mother”?

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New climate strategy: Buy the damn coal and keep it in the ground

shovels laying on coal fieldPut the shovels down and leave the coal alone.

I concluded my last post with a slogan: "Keep the damn coal in the ground." Lo and behold, along comes a new paper in the Journal of Political Economy that sketches what that strategy might look like: "Buy Coal! A Case for Supply-Side Environmental Policy." It's fascinating.

Climate change is an enormous collective action problem. Typically the focus has been on demand-side policies -- reducing fossil fuel consumption through taxes or mandates. Any "climate coalition" that adopts this strategy, however, has to worry about free riders that don't. Author Bård Harstad of Northwestern University summarizes: