Clean Energy

Just Hope or Real Change?

By Art Cullen

President Obama has been wounded by the public’s perception of a lethargic response to the Gulf Oil Spill by the federal government and the oil industry. He tried to change the terms of the debate last month in a major speech at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh by talking about building a clean energy future. Excerpts are worth consideration:

“We consume 20% of the world’s oil, but have less than 2% of the world’s oil reserves. So without a major change in our energy policy our dependence on oil means that we will continue to send billions of dollars of our hard-earned wealth to other countries every month — including countries in dangerous and unstable regions. In other words, our continued dependence on fossil fuels will jeopardize our national security. It will smother our planet. And it will continue to put our economy and our environment at risk.

“… The time has come, once and for all, for this nation to fully embrace a clean energy future. Now, that means continuing our unprecedented effort to make everything from our homes and businesses to our cars and trucks more energy-efficient. It means tapping into our natural gas reserves, and moving ahead with our plan to expand our nation’s fleet of nuclear power plants. It means rolling back billions of dollars of tax breaks to oil companies so we can prioritize investments in clean energy research and development. …

“But if we refuse to take into account the full costs of our fossil fuel addiction — if we don’t factor in the environmental costs and the natural security costs and the true economic costs — we will have missed our best chance to seize a clean energy future.”

It was a good speech, except for the nuclear energy part. Clean energy should not involve storing radioactive waste in a mountainside, or suffering the consequences of another power plant meltdown.

Obama used the speech as a pretext to move Congress to pass a climate change bill that imposes a cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions. Democratic leaders embraced the speech and said it could provide a path forward on a new energy bill.

Don’t hold your breath.

The public, through polling, has expressed its horror in the BP/Deepwater Horizon/Halliburton mess, but still favors off-shore oil and gas exploration despite the dangers. Americans are addicted to cheap gas, and the loyal opposition understands this. Holding up an energy bill is part of the November general election game plan.

Meantime, Iowa’s wind-energy development is stalled waiting for new production tax credits. Northwest Iowa already has witnessed the bankruptcy of four Vera Sun ethanol plants, now operated profitably by oil refiner Valero. Tate and Lyle abandoned its ethanol production plant near Fort Dodge after spending $360 million on it because of the uncertain future of the corn-based fuel. The biodiesel industry in Iowa has one foot in the grave. People were aghast when farmers started to get a decent price for corn because of the short-lived ethanol boom. They like cheap food as much as they do cheap gasoline.

Alaska is dealing with the environmental consequences of the Exxon Valdez oil spill 20 years after the fact. On any given day, you fly down into Phoenix through an acrid brown cloud of air pollution; Los Angeles is even worse. Iran, which is selling oil indirectly into US markets, is financing rebel groups in Palestine that make Israel violently insane. We are fighting two wars over a root cause of oil. The Gulf fishing industry has been all but destroyed.

“I want you to know the votes might not be there right now, but I will find them in the coming months,” the president said. “I will continue to make the case for a clean energy future wherever and whenever I can. I will work with anyone to get this done — and we will get it done.”

This is what Obama campaigned for. He must deliver by whatever means necessary. That’s the only way for him, and the nation, to recover from the pathetic response so far to the most recent energy/environmental crisis. There will be more such crises. Which one will it take to awake the sleeping giant of American good sense and innovation?

Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake (Iowa) Times. He also is managing editor of The Progressive Populist. email:

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2010

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