First, the good news: One of the most comprehensive pieces of energy and climate legislation ever drafted by members of the U.S. Congress has finally seen the light of day. After lots of haggling among fellow moderate and conservative Democrats, Representatives Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA) released their “American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009.”
Now the bad news: Their bill stinks. I’ll spare you the many odiferous details and just highlight three particularly bad aspects: 1) It won’t protect the poor from price-hikes as the price of carbon is slowly internalized into our energy bills, but will protect polluting industries by allowing them free pollution permits; 2) It opens the door to fraud and shell games instead of real climate action by setting up a huge carbon derivatives market; 3) It makes a mockery of our common understanding of “renewable energy,” favoring dirty smokestacks over truly clean, renewable energy.
Right out of the starting gate, the bill provides a ridiculous number of giveaways to industry — something President Barack Obama campaigned against as unfair to consumers: Upwards of 85 percent of pollution allowances are being given away for free to the electricity sector, with many of these free permits not phasing out until 2030. This means little to none of the revenues coming into the public coffers from this “cap and trade” scheme will be used to protect low and moderate households from energy price increases, as envisioned by Obama.
This bill would open up the single largest market in carbon in the world, with the potential to reach $2 trillion by 2020. Not only would the Waxman-Markey bill allow for carbon trading between industries, it would open up the so-called “sub-prime carbon” market in carbon offsets — whereby industries can claim emissions reductions by investing in various projects around the world that theoretically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The legislation allows 2 billion tons of carbon offsets — half from developing countries and half from domestic sources — which represents almost 30 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet the Government Accountability Office (GAO) claims it’s virtually impossible to verify whether carbon offsets represent real emissions reductions. And numerous other studies have found that carbon offsets in developing countries often subsidize business-as-usual projects such as hundreds of large hydropower dams in China, many of which were already under construction when they claimed to be providing “emissions reductions.”
Industrial hog farms have found ways of tapping the carbon offset market without making the slightest contribution toward getting society off its fossil fuel addiction. The logic is this: If you capture and flare methane from pig manure, you are turning methane (a potent global warming gas) into CO2 (a less potent global warming gas). Pig farms benefit by selling that difference in greenhouse gas potency to big fossil fuel polluters as a carbon offset, allowing them to continue their business as usual.
And if “carbon offsets” are a misleading term, the words “renewable energy,” as used in this bill, have an Orwellian ring. Do you think “renewable energy” means windmills or solar panels? Think again. The windmills and solar panels of our renewable energy dreams are being supplanted by the smokestacks of our nightmares. All it takes is a little imagination — and a high-paid lobbyist — to claim that just about anything is “renewable energy.”
Take biomass burners: There are plans afoot to cut down 100-year-old trees, throw them into a burner, and call this “renewable energy.” Never mind that trees can’t match coal for stored energy, which would make it necessary to plant whole planets of trees to fuel industry. Just focus your mind on the idea that they grow back!
Or consider the municipal solid waste incinerator duplicitously recast as “waste to energy” projects. This waste could otherwise be recycled (generating 10 times as many green jobs as an incinerator, by the way) or composted, providing rich fertilizer. But, in the twisted logic of the Waxman-Markey universe, incinerators are “renewable” because there is an endless supply of waste going to landfills; if one burns that waste and turns the heat into energy — presto, change-o — this, too, becomes a “renewable” form of energy. This in spite of the fact that burning garbage produces more CO2 per unit of electricity generated than the dirtiest coal power plants.
While industry lobbyists may have worked their magic tricks on members of Congress in the name of “bold climate legislation,” Planet Earth is likely to remain unmoved by these sleights of hand. At 385 parts per million CO2 and rising, our atmosphere is on a steady course to climate catastrophe unless these charlatans and their henchmen in Congress get real. Though the pigs may rule in Animal Farm, they shouldn’t be running our climate politics.