Environment and Energy

Here's a quick sketch of how environmental policy will get made for the next two years. Congress won't pass any new laws. The EPA will try to use the authority it already has to mop up pollution from coal plants, factories, and vehicles (and the agency has a fair bit of existing authority to do so). Industry groups, Republicans, and more than a few Democrats will moan about the costs. And the Obama administration will then have to decide just how much confrontation it can really stomach.

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The End of Automania

In January 1973, William Ruckelhaus, the administrator of the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency, traveled to Los Angeles to break the bad news to residents: They were going to have to drive less. Automobile smog was choking the city, in stark violation of the Clean Air Act, and the EPA had hatched a plan to clear the air, by promoting mass transit, parking fees, high-occupancy lanes, and gasoline rationing. The reaction from car-loving Californians was a combination of shock and outright rage. "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard," fumed one resident.

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When, exactly, did light bulbs become a conservative litmus test? Back in 2007, if you'll recall, George W. Bush signed an energy bill that tightened efficiency standards for lighting. It wasn't a big deal at the time. The bill just meant that manufacturers would slowly have to phase out their old, power-hogging incandescent bulbs in favor of something sleeker, like compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs, starting in 2012. (This wasn't technically a ban on incandescents—more on that in a sec.) A few disgruntled libertarians complained, but life went on. Alas, that was then.

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This is the third in an occasional series examining how Republican control of Congress might affect policy debates in the next two years. (Part 1, Part 2) First, a question: Have the last two years, with Obama in the White House and Democrats running Congress, really been that great for environmental policy? It depends how you look at it. There was that debacle in the Gulf, which obviously wasn't handled well. Then the Senate failed to pass a climate bill, and the Copenhagen talks dragged along without much resolution.

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In August 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama traveled to Lansing, Michigan, to lay out an ambitious ten-year plan for revitalizing, and fundamentally altering, the American economy. His administration, he vowed, would midwife new clean-energy industries, reduce dependence on foreign oil, and create five million green jobs. “Will America watch as the clean-energy jobs and industries of the future flourish in countries like Spain, Japan, or Germany?” Obama asked.

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Just a Mess

Bill McKibben has penned a more-in-sorrow-than-anger piece (“Hot Mess”) in the current issue of the magazine, shaking his head at conservatives’ failure to adopt his position on global warming. (It is an almost exact recapitulation of Al Gore’s argument in TNR a few months ago, to which I also replied).

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So much for the deepwater-drilling ban. Earlier today, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that he was lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling early, well ahead of the original November 30 deadline. The reason? "There will always be risks associated with deepwater drilling," Salazar explained, "but we have now reached the point where we have, in my view, reduced those risks." It's too early to tell whether he's right about that. What is clear, however, is that Salazar was under plenty of political pressure to lift the ban as early as possible.

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In this week's New Yorker, Ryan Lizza has a long, truly excellent reported piece on how the climate bill died in the Senate. The big question is to what extent the White House deserves the blame: “I believe Barack Obama understands that fifty years from now no one’s going to know about health care,” the lobbyist said. “Economic historians will know that we had a recession at this time. Everybody is going to be thinking about whether Barack Obama was the James Buchanan of climate change.” Now, as Jonathan Zasloff notes, this isn't the most precise historical analogy of all time.

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Over on the main site, Steve Nash has a great piece about how cities in the United States are preparing for sea-level rise. The picture's pretty bleak. Most states and localities aren't doing much planning at all. And when they are taking action, they're actually making things worse. Here's a snippet: There are three broad options for dealing with sea-level rise. We can build walls to ward off the sea. We can put our coastal buildings and infrastructure up on stilts. Or we can plan a slow retreat and move our built environment farther inland.

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It's hard to find a news story that better encapsulates the future of energy/environmental politics than this one. Russia's currently building eight floating nuclear power stations along its north coast so that it can keep drilling for oil and gas under the ever-melting Arctic.

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