Give up on passing cap-and-trade in the Senate

I have been ready to pull the plug on the climate change bill for a while now. The American Clean Energy and Security Act, which narrowly passed the House last June, gave too much away to polluting industries and wouldn’t increase renewable energy production beyond what we are likely to see if no bill passes. More broadly, Mark Schapiro’s recent piece in Harper’s Magazine argues persuasively that a cap-and-trade system lets some people make a lot of money selling fake emission reductions.

Climate change legislation can only get worse in the Senate, where too many senators are beholden to corporate interests in the energy and agricultural sectors. Even before the Massachusetts special election brought the Democratic caucus down to 59 seats, key Senate Democrats were either asking for more giveaways to coal-burning utilities or begging the White House not to pursue the cap-and-trade system at all.

This month Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan predicted that the Senate will pass a stand-alone energy bill to expand energy production in various ways without capping greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, you can count on the Senate to throw more money toward boosting fossil fuel production than renewable energy.

I agree with those who say we need comprehensive federal action to fight global warming, but the environmental movement needs to adapt to the realities in Congress.

Last year dozens of environmental groups focused their staff energy and mobilized volunteers to advocate for a sweeping climate change bill. This year we need to focus resources on where the real battle lies. Instead of urging citizens to sign petitions and call their senators about cap-and-trade, which is looking like a dead letter, we need to fight for the strongest possible renewable electricity standard in the energy bill.

More important, we need to block efforts to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Last month the EPA took a big step toward regulating global warming pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski has introduced a resolution to overturn the EPA rules and has three Democratic co-sponsors so far. Stopping Murkowski’s effort should be a top priority for environmentalists.

One complicating factor: some environmental groups have received grants to support advocacy on climate change legislation. I would encourage charitable foundations and other large donors to be flexible about how such money is spent. Cap-and-trade is going nowhere. Let environmentalists focus on the real fights in Congress this year.

Any relevant thoughts are welcome in this thread.

Final note: Murkowski is at war with the EPA even though she represents Alaska, one of the states most affected by global warming. Is she stupid, corrupt or both?

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Lots of links for a snowy day

Many Iowans will be leaving work or school early today, or perhaps not going in at all, as the season’s first big winter blast rolls in. Here’s plenty of reading to keep you busy if you are stuck at home.

Global news first: The United National Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen opened yesterday. To follow news from the proceedings, I’m reading the team of Mother Jones bloggers in Copenhagen. The Open Left blog will also post regular updates from Natasha Chart and Friends of the Earth staff who are on the ground. If you prefer a mainstream media perspective, check out The Climate Pool on Facebook, which is a collaboration among major news organizations.

Also on Monday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson signed off on two findings that will pave the way to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act. This action follows from a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA. More background and details can be found on the EPA’s site. Environment Iowa explains the significance of the EPA’s action here. An expert panel surveyed by Grist disagreed on whether the EPA’s “endangerment finding” would affect the Copenhagen talks.

The most important reason I oppose the current draft bills on climate change kicking around Congress is that they would revoke the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide. Chris Bowers explains why that would be disastrous here.

Uganda is considering a horrific law that would subject homosexuals to long prison terms or even the death penalty. One Iowa is collecting signatures on a petition to Senator Chuck Grassley, asking him to speak out against this law. Grassley’s never going to be a gay rights advocate, but he should agree that criminalizing homosexuality is wrong. Grassley is involved with “The Family,” which is connected to the proposed bill in Uganda.

On the economic front, President Obama is expected to announce plans to use about $200 billion allocated for the Wall Street bailout to fund a jobs bill Congress will consider soon.. The Hill previewed some of the measures that may end up in that bill.

Some economists who met with Governor Chet Culver yesterday think Iowa has already reached the bottom of this recession. I hope they are right, but either way, policy-makers should listen to their ideas for reforming Iowa’s budget process. I’ll write a separate post on this important development soon. Here is the short take:

The state could base its spending on a multi-year average, such as the previous three years, or five years or seven years, said Jon Muller, president of Muller Consulting Inc., a public policy and business development consulting firm based in Des Moines.

“The way it’s always worked, when times are really good, we increase spending and we cut taxes,” Muller said. “And when times are bad, there’s pressure to increase taxes and decrease spending. And that all happens when the demand for government is at its highest,” Muller said.

The multi-year idea would flip, he said.

“In good times you would be squirreling money at way a little at a time. And in bad times, you could continue to increase spending to service the growing demands of a recession.”

It would require state lawmakers to not touch the reserves, even in times of plenty. But it would also reduce the need to tap into reserves just to get by during rainy days, the advisers said.

Regarding budget cuts, the Newton Independent reports here on a “plan to reorganize the Iowa Department of Human Services operations under two deputy directors, six rather than nine divisions, five rather than eight service areas, more part-time offices and the elimination of 78 currently vacant positions” (hat tip to Iowa Independent). Click this link for more details about the proposed restructuring.

On the political front, John Deeth analyzes possible changes the Democratic National Committee is considering for the presidential nomination process. Jerome Armstrong had a good idea the DNC won’t implement: ban caucuses everywhere but Iowa. No other state derives the party-building benefits of caucuses, but just about every state that uses caucuses for presidential selection has lower voter participation than would occur in a primary.

I haven’t written much on health care reform lately, because recent developments are so depressing. Our best hope was using the budget reconciliation process to pass a strong bill in the Senate with 51 votes (or 50 plus Joe Biden). Now that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has taken reconciliation off the table, we’re left with a variety of bad compromises to get to 60 votes in the Senate. I am not convinced the final product will be any improvement over the status quo. It will certainly be worse for millions of Americans required to buy overpriced private health insurance. If there’s a quicker way to neutralize the Democrats’ advantage with young voters, I don’t know what it is.

Speaking of health care reform, Steve Benen wrote a good piece about Grassley’s latest grandstanding on the issue.

Speaking of things that are depressing, John Lennon was shot dead 29 years ago today.  Daily Kos user noweasels remembers him and that night. Although Paul’s always been my favorite Beatle, I love a lot of John’s work too. Here’s one of his all-time best:

Share any relevant thoughts or your own favorite Lennon songs in the comments.

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EPA ruling is blow to new coal-fired power plants (updated)

It may become harder for utilities to gain permission to build new coal-fired power plants while promising to deal with carbon-dioxide emissions at some point in the future, when carbon sequestration technology becomes available.

From a press release circulated on the Sierra Club’s Iowa topics e-mail loop yesterday:

Ruling: Coal Plants Must Limit C02

In a move that signals the start of the our clean energy future, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Appeals Board (EAB) ruled today EPA had no valid reason for refusing to limit from new coal-fired power plants the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming.  The decision means that all new and proposed coal plants nationwide must go back and address their carbon dioxide emissions.

“Today’s decision opens the way for meaningful action to fight global warming and is a major step in bringing about a clean energy economy,” said Joanne Spalding, Sierra Club Senior Attorney who argued the case. “This is one more sign that we must begin repowering, refueling and rebuilding America.”

“The EAB rejected every Bush Administration excuse for failing to regulate the largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States.  This decision gives the Obama Administration a clean slate to begin building our clean energy economy for the 21st century,” continued Spalding The decision follows a 2007 Supreme Court ruling recognizing carbon dioxide, the principle source of global warming, is a pollutant under the federal Clean Air Act.

“Coal plants emit 30% of our nation’s global warming pollution. Building new coal plants without controlling their carbon emissions could wipe out all of the other efforts being undertaken by cities, states and communities across the country,” said Bruce Nilles, Director of the Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign. “Everyone has a role to play and it’s time that the

coal industry did its part and started living up to its clean coal rhetoric.”

The Sierra Club went before the Environmental Appeals Board in May of 2008 to request that the air permit for Deseret Power Electric Cooperative’s proposed waste coal-fired power plant be overturned because it failed to require any controls on carbon dioxide pollution. Deseret Power’s 110 MW Bonanza plant would have emitted 3.37 million tons of carbon dioxide each

year.

“Instead of pouring good money after bad trying to fix old coal technology, investors should be looking to wind, solar and energy efficiency

technologies that are going to power the economy, create jobs, and help the climate recover,” said Nilles.

I don’t yet know how this ruling will affect the proposed coal-fired power plants for Waterloo and Marshalltown. I will update this post as more information becomes available.

UPDATE: Mark Kresowik, National Corporate Accountability Representative with the Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign, provided this comment:

“The Environmental Appeals Board remanded Deseret’s air quality permit for the Bonanza coal plant, issued by the EPA under the PSD program, back to the EPA. They clearly stated that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide and establish a “best available control technology” (BACT) limit for carbon dioxide pollution from significant new sources (like coal plants).

While they did not answer the question of whether or not the EPA MUST establish a limit, they did reject all of the previous excuses the Bush EPA has used to avoid regulating carbon dioxide.  So EPA must completely reopen the air quality permit, decide whether or not to limit CO2 from power plants (and how to limit CO2 if it chooses to), and justify that decision.

The EAB decision is formally binding on all air quality permits issued by the EPA.  However, most air quality permits are not issued by the EPA but rather by state authorities delegated that power by the EPA, for instance the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.  However, those authorities must enforce regulations at least as stringently as the EPA and all of them look to the EPA for guidance on issues such as this.  So it is probable that every coal plant air quality permit in the country from now on (including those issued but still being challenged on carbon dioxide grounds) must address CO2 limits directly, either establishing a limit or justifying their refusal in a new way that the EPA has not previously used.  It is likely a de-facto stay on all air quality permit decisions for approximately the next 6-12 months, including proposed coal plants in Waterloo and Marshalltown that have not been issued air quality permits.

This is an important opportunity for Iowa and the entire country to make significant investments in energy efficiency and clean energy that will lower energy costs, create millions of “green collar” jobs, and stimulate our economy.”

Looks like the DNR is our best hope for stopping new coal-fired power plants in Iowa.

Meanwhile, earlier this week Wisconsin became the latest state to reject an application to build a coal-fired power plant. The whole press release from the Iowa Environmental Council is after the jump. Here is an excerpt:

“Building coal-fired power plants has never made sense from an environmental perspective and no longer makes sense from an economic perspective,” said Katie Nekola, energy program director of Clean Wisconsin. “The transition toward a clean energy economy is beginning, and it’s important for other states not to lag behind the movement by building more coal plants.”

Nathaniel Baer, energy program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, says Iowans need to follow the lead of neighboring states to the west, north, and now east, which have concluded that clean energy makes more economic sense than coal.

“Iowa simply cannot afford to be left behind sinking billions of dollars into monuments to 19th century dirty coal,” Baer said.

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