article

04.19.09

Obama's Environmental Disaster

After banking, autos, and heath care, Obama now wades into the environment. Uh oh, says Robert Bryce, since the administration is making reckless decisions based on shoddy science.

Okay, I get it. Carbon dioxide is bad. It’s a pollutant. Thus, based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed finding on greenhouse gases, everyone is now a polluter.

This includes me. I’ve been polluting since July 19, 1960, and damn it, I’m going to keep polluting until they pull the nostrils from my cold dead body. And don’t even think about trying to cut the pollutants emitted by our family’s hyperactive bird dog, Biscuit. She’s a big time exhaler, particularly when the weather gets hot.

I’ve been polluting since July 19, 1960, and damn it, I’m going to keep polluting until they pull the nostrils from my cold dead body.

Pardon my sarcasm, but the EPA’s plan to equate carbon dioxide, the substance that we emit every minute of every day of our lives, with pollution—a term I equate with noxious substances like benzene, dioxin, and PCBs—seems like something out of a bad science fiction novel.

The agency’s “proposed finding” – there’s now a 60-day comment window before any policy recommendations are proposed -- is key part of the Obama administration’s promise to address climate change. It sets up the president and prominent members of Congress to follow through on their pledges to increase support for alternative forms of energy like wind and solar power. Those stances are politically popular and clearly separate President Obama from the positions of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.

The EPA’s announcement reminds me of a piece I wrote a couple of years ago for Counterpunch, skewering a claim made by Al Gore in his film, An Inconvenient Truth. At the end of the movie, a message flashes on the screen that reads: “You can even reduce your carbon emissions to zero.” As I sat there—watching, breathing, exhaling—I became more and more astounded. (Or, as the English might say, gobsmacked.) Gore won an Oscar, an Emmy, and the Nobel Prize. And yet his movie contains a claim that’s on par with declaring the Earth is flat.

I’ve received plenty of hate mail in my career as a journalist. But the largest volume, and the nastiest, mail I’ve ever received came in response to that Counterpunch piece. (Please, spare me this time. I won’t read it.) The accusations were many: that I don’t understand the carbon cycle, that I work for Exxon, that I’m a moron (certainly plausible). Now, two years later, the EPA is saying carbon dioxide and five other gases “are at unprecedented levels as a result of human emissions, and these high levels are very likely the cause of the increase in average temperatures and other changes in our climate.”

Before you dismiss me as a crank, let me be clear: Global warming may be the most serious threat of our time. Then again, it’s possible—yes, I know, call me a skeptic if you like—that the models being used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others to predict devastating global warming are wrong.

Whatever the case, it’s increasingly clear that when it comes to energy matters, too many people in Washington are more interested in scoring political points than the hard facts. And that’s why the EPA’s finding should be cause for real concern.

Indeed, the EPA’s Friday press release reeks of political calculus, not reasoned science. Consider this statement from EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson: “This pollution problem has a solution—one that will create millions of green jobs and end our country’s dependence on foreign oil.”

Surely you’re joking, Ms. Jackson!

Global warming is one issue, and a serious one. The dreaded scourge of foreign oil is something else altogether. If science truly mattered, then Jackson would have left foreign oil, everyone’s favorite whipping boy, out of the discussion completely. Alas, the Democrats on Capitol Hill are singing from Jackson’s same deranged hymnal. Shortly after the EPA issued its statement, California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman issued his own, saying Congress “should create a comprehensive framework to combat global warming that will break our dependence on foreign sources of energy.”

Fine. So is foreign oil the biggest problem when it comes to carbon dioxide? Let’s do the math. According to the latest data from the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. now emits nearly 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Of that amount, burning coal accounts for about 2.2 billion tons while combustion of natural gas accounts for about 1.2 billion tons. (Keep in mind that nearly all of that coal and natural gas is produced here in the U.S.) Oil consumption is the biggest contributor to U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, accounting for about 2.6 billion tons.

Okay. So given those numbers, foreign oil is the problem, right? Wrong. About 60 percent of our oil comes from foreign sources. Therefore, about 1.5 billion tons (0.6 x 2.6 = 1.56) of the carbon dioxide emitted in the U.S.—or right at 25 percent of the total—is due to the evils of foreign oil.

If Jackson and Waxman are serious about cutting carbon dioxide emissions, they should be talking about electricity, not oil. About 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions come from the electric power sector. Thus, the electricity sector, not the transportation sector (which relies almost wholly on oil) is the biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions. And the emissions from electricity generation are growing faster than are those from transportation.

At the same time, electricity costs are rising rapidly. Between 2000 and 2008, the average cost of residential electricity in the U.S. increased by nearly 38 percent. And power prices will soar if carbon dioxide is capped or taxed. Why? Simple: The U.S. gets half of its electricity by burning coal, which emits far more carbon dioxide during combustion than does oil or natural gas.

But Jackson and Waxman wouldn’t score political points by blaming America’s carbon dioxide emissions on big-screen televisions, would they? And they sure wouldn’t score by telling the truth about a future filled with higher electricity costs. It’s far easier to invoke xenophobia about liquid hydrocarbons.

Of course, the hard data about energy rarely, if ever, seem to matter in Washington. Congress and the White House appear dead set on making energy more expensive at the very same time that the U.S. economy grows more listless by the day.

But I digress. Carbon dioxide is bad. It’s a pollutant. Somewhere, Descartes must be mulling a new declaration for the modern era: I emit carbon dioxide, therefore I am.

Robert Bryce has written for numerous publications ranging from The Atlantic Monthly to The Guardian and The Nation to The American Conservative. His first book, Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enron, was named one of the best non-fiction books of 2002 by Publishers Weekly. His latest book, Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence,” was published in 2008 by PublicAffairs.