"Drill, baby, drill," said Sarah Palin. "Energy independence," say Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It seems to mean more or less the same thing. (If Romney wins, it will be more, if Obama wins less.) Both advocate more oil and gas drilling on land and sea, more use of "clean coal." Both avoid muddying the — rising — waters with talk of climate change. Nagging people about greenhouse gases won't win many votes in coal country or among citizens focused on gasoline prices, so neither candidate does it.
"The issue of being energy independent is more attractive to a lot of people and politicians than the issue of overcoming climate change," says Howard A. Latin, a Rutgers law school professor who has recently published a book entitled Climate Change Policy Failures: Why Conventional Mitigtion Approaches Cannot Succeed (World Scientific, $29.95). People often confuse the two, Latin says, but energy imports and climate change are "two different problems that don't really align."
The only countries really serious about halting climate change are the island nations that will disappear if sea level rises, and the nations of northern Europe. And even in Europe, the left hand doesn't necessarily know what the right hand is doing. Looking at European nations that do the most to combat climate change, Latin notes it's "ironic that the leading one, Norway, is paying for its cleanup with North Sea oil."
It wasn't supposed to work this way. Just four years ago, President-elect Barack Obama said: “Now is the time to confront this challenge [of climate change] once and for all. Delay is no longer an option." Virtually everyone expected Congress to pass a hefty carbon tax or a rigorous cap-and-trade system some time soon. The Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council's Sixth Regional Plan, adopted at the start of 2010, assumes a carbon tax of $47 per ton. Now, no one expects Congress to pass a carbon tax, establish a cap and trade system, or do much of anything else. Delay has turned out to be an option after all.
In the meantime, the media have been full of bad news about manufacturers of solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars, good news about fossil fuel production. U.S. oil output is up. Alberta tar sands output is up. We are now so awash in cheap natural gas that the industry must worry about oversupply driving the price down. Conversely, wind turbine manufacturers suffer from competition with that cheap natural gas, a slow economy, competition from China, the pending expiration of a crucial federal tax credit. Chinese manufacturers, which have come to dominate global production of turbines and solar panels, have created a manufacturing glut that has plunged them into financial crisis. There's a lousy market for electric cars.
The Pacific Northwest has, of course, become a focal point for plans to preserve and expand the fossil fuel economy worldwide. Major coal and oil companies are laying plans to ship coal through ports on Puget Sound, the Oregon coast, the lower Columbia, and oil through the ports of British Columbia. They have already shipped huge tanks for processing bitumen up the Columbia and then by highway from the Pacific to the Alberta tar sands. They hope to pipe oil from the tar sands to an oil port in Kitimat, B.C. Exxon/Mobil had planned to barge giant modules for processing Alberta tar sands up the Columbia to the port of Lewiston, Idaho, then truck them — partly on a narrow road along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers — to Canada. After court challenges, they were forced to break the modules down at Lewiston and Pasco and haul them over a slightly different route. But the modules have gone north. And the tar sands oil has come out. The controversial Keystone XL pipeline would enable oil companies to refine it on the Texas Gulf and export it. The controversial Northern Gateway pipeline would enable them to pipe it to Kitimat on the B.C. coast and export it.
From Kitimat, B.C., some 250 giant tankers a year would carry up to 2 million barrels of dilute bitumen to foreign refineries, probably in China. Potentially, some could go to California or just about anywhere else. If a tanker were bound for Asia, it would negotiate Dixon Entrance, between British Columbia and southeast Alaska. If it were instead bound for California and its refinery capacity, it might head south, reaching the open ocean through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Up to 60 vessels a year would be Very Large Crude Carriers of 320,000 deadweight tons. The project is controversial in British Columbia — thousands of people gathered recently at the B.C. legislature in Victoria to protest the plan — but the companies and the Canadian government have huge financial incentives to push ahead.
And then there's coal. If all the plans to export Powder River Basin coal through ports in Washington and Oregon actually bear fruit, up to 150 million tons will flow through the region en route to the furnaces of east Asia every year. The first scoping meeting for the proposed Pacific Gateway coal terminal at Cherry Point was held at Bellingham's Squalicum High School on Oct. 27. Hundreds of people lined up in the rain, waiting to get in. Pacific Gateway still has a long way to go.
The Cherry Point plan is only the tip of a very large iceberg. No one knows whether or not government agencies will even consider the potential combined impact of all the proposed coal ports or the climate impacts of burning all that coal in China. When the Port of Morrow, on the Oregon side of the Columbia, applied for permits that would allow it to build facilities for unloading coal, storing it, and loading it onto barges that would carry it downstream to St. Helens, where it would be loaded onto ocean-going ships, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and citizens groups who oppose the construction of coal terminals argued that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should do a "cumulative-impacts analysis." For the time being, the Corps will merely do an environmental assessment. The Corps left the door open to reconsider the issue. Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles says that the Corps won't discuss a cumulative impacts analysis right now, and neither will anyone else; Boyles says she can't even get a meeting with agency officials and doesn't expect to until after the election.
Most, if not all, of those fossil fuel exports would — or will — presumably be burned in the cars and furnaces of east Asia. Without enlisting the large and growing economies of China and India, Latin says, any effort to control climate change will fall flat. And neither of those countries will agree to anything that limits its development or slows its population's rise from poverty. Therefore, the world won't move closer to a solution until technologies that give them the same opportunities to keep developing are widely available and competitively priced. (In fact, if not rhetorically, it's the same for the U.S. and the rest of the developed world; virtually no one will screw today's voters for the sake of future generations, will sacrifice the short term for the sake of the long.) "Until we have technologies that can increase development and reduce poverty," he says, "we're never going to get those countries to support us. And without their support, there's no hope."
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