Slocum: Beware of Polluters Claiming to Have Converted to Green

Posted March 26, 2009 at 2:30pm

When oil companies spend millions of advertising dollars to proclaim their “green— allegiance (think Chevron’s “I will consider buying a hybrid— pitch), then you know the craze is official: Being green is in. But in Washington, D.C., policymaking, it’s getting more difficult to decipher between public relations spin designed to cash in on the fad and legitimate initiatives that will actually clean the planet.

Plenty of powerful corporations are promoting false promises such as “clean coal,— nuclear power or ethanol as solutions to the energy and climate crisis. As Kermit the Frog once said, “It’s not easy being green.— In this case, it’s not always easy figuring out whether green refers to saving the environment or making a handful of companies very rich on public money.

A perfect example is ethanol. President George W. Bush touted his 2005 Energy Policy Act (for which then-Sen. Barack Obama voted) in part because of its mandate to boost America’s ethanol production.

When he signed the bill into law, Bush said: “Using ethanol and biodiesel will leave our air cleaner. And every time we use a homegrown fuel, particularly these, we’re going to be helping our farmers and, at the same time, be less dependent on foreign sources of energy.—

As a result of this legislation, by 2007 the United States produced 425,000 barrels of fuel ethanol every day — surpassing Brazil’s daily production of 390,000. American taxpayers shell out billions of dollars a year in tax credits to companies blending ethanol into gasoline to make the United States the biggest ethanol producer in the world.

American farmers may be the most productive on the planet, but they can’t work miracles — our oil imports haven’t dropped and the life-cycle emissions of corn ethanol make the climate worse, not better. Dedicating crop acreage, water and fertilizer resources to fuel rather than food production increases prices at the grocery store and threatens to tie food prices to the price of crude oil.

A better solution? Plug-in electric hybrids that can get 100 miles to the gallon using existing technology, complemented with aggressive expansion of mass transit and compressed natural gas for government fleets. Legislation passed in 2008 and 2009 gets us started in the right direction, with a new tax credit for consumers seeking to buy hybrid cars, inducements for natural gas vehicles and $13 billion in mass transit spending in Obama’s stimulus package. But more needs to be done in comprehensive energy legislation that Congress will put together this spring.

It’s much easier to green the electric grid than alternative liquid fuels. Heck, even the Bush administration’s Department of Energy concluded in the summer of 2008 that America could generate 20 percent of its power needs from the wind by 2030 (up from the current 1 percent).

Same with solar, particularly if we vastly expand incentives to help households and small businesses install solar panels on millions of American roofs. When combined with aggressive efficiency programs for new construction and retrofits for existing ones, not only will we create good contracting jobs, but America can begin addressing the fact that the country use double the energy per person compared to our economic competitors in Europe and Japan.

The less energy we use through efficiency, the easier it is for wind, solar and geothermal to meet our energy needs. Former Vice President Al Gore got it right when he said we can achieve 100 percent of our energy from renewable sources in a decade.

But we don’t have time for expensive diversions like nuclear and “clean coal.— These financial behemoths will cost billions of dollars per facility — if they can even work. The Congressional Budget Office in 2003 assigned a 50 percent default rate for new nuclear power plants, acknowledging the huge risks involved and the $9 billion price tag per reactor. A recent Wall Street Journal article, “Coal Hard Facts: Cleaning It Won’t Be Dirt Cheap,— outlined the billions of dollars and huge energy inputs that implementation of “clean coal— will require.

Clean coal and nuclear energy are far too expensive for corporations to pursue on their own, which is why they embarked on an all-out lobbying campaign to have taxpayers — not their shareholders — bear the risks of these boondoggles-in-waiting. Loan guarantees and a proposed “Clean Energy Bank— (file that one under “Mae, Fannie—) are ingenious and expensive efforts to provide the largest energy subsidies in American history that will largely be kept off the appropriations books to hide the looming risk to the public when these massive projects fail.

Allocating this much capital to two technologies controlled by a small handful of corporations makes perfect sense if you’re the CEO of one of the companies involved but is a bum deal for the American people who are putting up their capital for these projects.

For two generations, federal energy subsidies have promoted centralized energy production in the hands of a relatively small group of corporations. Addressing the climate and economic crises demands that we rethink this concentrated model in favor of a decentralized one where energy generation and energy savings are increasingly in the hands of families and small businesses.

If we are going to get out of this financial crisis and move toward a more sustainable, greener world, the days when the coal, oil and nuclear energy corporations grease the wheels of our political system to gobble up the lion’s share of subsidies must end. Obama’s budget got a lot right, including repealing more than $30 billion in subsidies to the oil industry over the next decade.

But with Senate stalemates apparently stalling climate legislation, a comprehensive energy bill will provide the initial framework for this new energy future. Congress must resist the millions in campaign contributions from industries promoting the false promises of ethanol, coal and nuclear power.

Instead, we must listen to the scientists and engineers and urban planners who tell us that households can generate more of their power needs from solar panels on their roof and can benefit from incentives to make their buildings and transportation more efficient.

Families respond to incentives. New Jersey became the second-largest market for home solar panels in the United States (after California) solely because the state enacted a generous grant program to help families install solar panels on their roof.

Families need the help, and taxpayers simply cannot afford expensive mistakes like “clean coal— and nuclear power.

Tyson Slocum is director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program.