"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.
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