Environment and Energy

Public Good

On a slow Friday afternoon, I settled in to read two lengthy reports—one from the West Virginia Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel on the Upper Big Branch/Massey Energy explosion that killed 29 miners, the other from the Urban Land Institute on the slow-motion crisis in U.S. infrastructure. On the surface, these reports seemed to have nothing in common. But as I plowed through them, I realized that they were addressing two sides of the same question—namely, what government does that nothing else can or will.

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It’s not exactly the Rapture, but the tornadoes that have been tearing through the Midwest and South this year certainly have an end-times feel to them. Just this past Sunday, an EF-5 level tornado (that’s as fierce as it gets) plowed through Joplin, Missouri, killing at least 125 people, flaying the bark off trees, crumpling cars like aluminum cans, and basically flattening everything in its six-mile path.

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Politicians in Washington are grappling with how to address rising gasoline prices, but most of their answers—from repealing tax breaks for oil companies to expanding offshore drilling—are unlikely to make much of a difference any time soon. The Arab awakening, coupled with Iran’s accelerated pursuit of nuclear weapons, ensures that energy prices will likely remain elevated for a long time. In the near- and long-term, those events are leading to less energy produced and exported from the Middle East and North Africa than there otherwise would be, as well as greater risk to their transport.

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Pumped Up

Oil is up around $110 per barrel; the price of gas at the pump is approaching $4 per gallon. It’s clear the White House is nervous about this: Barack Obama has started mentioning gas prices everywhere he goes. There are two big questions here: Are rising gas prices going to sink Obama’s presidency? And, either way, is there anything that can actually be done about them? High gas prices are unquestionably a pain for many Americans.

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Just how necessary is nuclear power? Lately, politicians around the globe have been asking themselves that question as they watch a small handful Japanese technicians race to prevent three reactors from spewing out radiation at the quake-ravaged Fukushima Daiichi plant. In recent years, a consensus had taken hold that the world needed many, many more nuclear plants to meet its low-carbon energy needs and avoid drastic global warming.

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Spend enough time listening to doubters and deniers of climate science speak, and you start to recognize certain familiar tics and tropes. There's the personal conversion story, for one. The skeptic explains how, once upon a time, he, too, blindly accepted everything climatologists have to say about how human activity is heating the planet.

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Here's how Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) explains his big about-face on climate change over the past year: "The consensus behind the climate change bill collapsed and then further deteriorated with the personal and political collapse of Vice President [Al] Gore," Kirk said in a brief interview last week. It was Gore's fault! Once upon a time, Kirk was one of the handful of Republicans who believed in climate change.

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Last week, shortly before Christmas, the EPA posted a quick item on its website announcing a timetable for new climate regulations on power plants and petroleum refineries. This, in turn, provoked all sorts of outrage and confusion. Industry lobbyists blasted the move. James Inhofe predicted Armageddon and pledged to do whatever it took to thwart the agency. And some commenters framed this as a fresh power grab by the Obama administration. What was harder to find, though, was an explanation of what the EPA was actually doing. So let's roll tape.

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Cancún, Mexico—Another year, another round of U.N. climate talks. This year's discussions in Cancún are likely to end much as last year's haggling in Copenhagen did—without a firm global treaty to stop drastic climate change. But the stalemate has led to an intriguing side development: Large, multinational corporations are starting to play an outsized role in the negotiations. If world leaders can't agree on how best to cut carbon emissions (and, so far, it's not clear they can), then the world's CEOs may start taking the lead.

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There have been all sorts of drastic proclamations about the tax deal Obama struck with congressional Republicans earlier this week. Here's another to chuck on the pile: The agreement might end up killing what little momentum the U.S. clean-energy industry has picked up over the past two years. Some background. Back in 2008, Congress extended (yet again) tax credits for solar and wind producers, which now cover 30 percent of upfront costs. But when the recession made it tougher for firms to get financing, the credits were no longer working as advertised.

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