Drilling in the Arctic vs. the Clean Power Plan

Cognitive dissonance seems to be running rampant in politics these days, achieving near epidemic levels. Chris Christie accusing Donald Trump of not having the “temperament” to be president of the U.S? Governor Bridgegate? Germany attacking Greece for seeking debt forgiveness — remember World War II, anyone? The Republican party calling for the repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment? Huh? Wasn’t that the heart of the Republican plan for Reconstruction in 1868?

The Obama administration topped all of these, however, when it  gave final approval to Shell on August 17 to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean just days after the president announced tough new environmental regulations to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s power plants.

It was a head-snapping WTF moment for anyone paying the slightest attention. The strongest action ever taken in the country’s history to combat climate change, and then before you know it, the White House puts out the word that it’s okay for Shell to “drill, baby, drill.”

What to make of this? What happened to the President’s seeming determination to leave the White House with a legacy of climate change progress?

The Clean Power Plan, which will limit the amount of carbon dioxide pollution power plants can generate, is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from these facilities 32 percent by 2030. If the plan withstands the expected legal challenges, it will set in motion dramatic policy changes that will close hundreds of coal-fired power plants, halt construction of new coal plants, and generate an unprecedented boom in the production of renewable energy.

On the other hand, the approval of Shell’s plan breaths new life into the company’s 25-year bid to open up an area of the Arctic for oil exploration. Shell will be allowed to drill 8,000 feet below the ocean floor, 70 miles off the Alaskan coast.

Facing sharp questioning from the press, a senior official at the State Department was forced to acknowledge that there was an “obvious tension” between the U.S. commitment to combat climate change and its approval of Shell’s oil drilling in the Arctic. But, in the end, the official offered no explanation beyond the usual “we must be doing something right if both sides are mad at us.”

Not to be outdone by Christie, Germany, the Republican party, or Obama, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton jumped into the fray, offering her own special brand of cognitive dissonance. Although Clinton has refused to take a position on the Keystone XL pipeline, that did not stop her from criticizing the decision to greenlight the Shell project. “The Arctic is a unique treasure,” she tweeted in response to news of the White House approval. “Given what we know, it’s not worth the risk of drilling.”

As welcome as Clinton’s opposition to drilling in the Arctic is, it can only leave one wondering about TransCanada’s plan to build a pipeline to transport toxic tar sands through North America’s largest source of underground fresh water, the Ogallala Acquifer. Is that worth the risk to this unique treasure?

Stay tuned. And don’t forget to take something to ease that pounding in your head. 2015 is shaping up to be the year cognitive dissonance becomes a dominant feature of the modern landscape. Oy vey.

The President’s Call for Action

President Obama, in his speech at Georgetown University yesterday, finally made clear that he was done waiting for Congress to act on the mounting evidence that climate change is already well underway. He announced a series of executive actions, none of them needing the approval of Congress, to crack down on carbon pollution from power plants, accelerate the growth of renewable energy, increase energy efficiency for commercial, industrial, and federal buildings, and prepare the nation for the impacts of climate change.

Keystone XL Protest

As many have already pointed out, these actions do not go far enough and may very well be too little, too late. Obama still hasn’t acknowledged the serious risks posed by fracking and he clearly left himself an out on the Keystone XL pipeline. His decision will depend, to paraphrase one of his White House predecessors, on what the meaning of the word “significantly” is, as in “approval to build the pipeline will only be granted if it does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.”

Still, although long overdue, the president’s speech was a bracing call for action and has the potential to shift the dynamics of what has been a very frustrating stalemate. Perhaps the most important point made in his remarks came near the end, when he stressed that the climate challenge “is not just a job for politicians”:

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue.

“Make yourself heard”: this is the essence of democracy. With so much at stake, this is no time to sit on the sidelines.

Tompkins County at Forefront of New Clean Energy, Climate Plans

Recent events have underscored the slow and uneven pace of progress at the national level regarding clean energy and climate change policies.  In this light, it’s also clear that in the immediate future, most real work on these fronts will occur at the local, state, and regional levels.

As early as 2002, the Tompkins County Legislature committed to a 20 percent reduction in the county government’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2008 compared to 1998 levels. Mayor Carolyn Peterson was one of the original signatories of the 2005 U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and the Ithaca Common Council in 2006 adopted a goal to lower greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 2001 levels by 2016.

Cornell University and Ithaca College in 2007 signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), whose long-term goal is to achieve climate neutrality. Tompkins Cortland Community College became a signatory the following year, and the three institutions have since invested significant effort towards fulfilling this promise.  Cornell’s climate action plan earned it a leadership award last month from Second Nature, which launched the ACUPCC and oversees its operations.

The Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI), beginning in 2008, has built on this impressive foundation to forge a coalition of local community leaders who are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating the transition to an efficient, clean energy economy. With generous support from the Park Foundation, TCCPI has brought together Cornell, IC, and TC3, Tompkins County Cornell Cooperative Extension, the County Legislature and Planning Department and nonprofits such as the Cayuga Medical Center, Museum of the Earth, Tompkins Community Action, and Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services. Key business organizations such as the Ithaca Downtown Alliance, Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, Tompkins County Area Development, and Landlords Association of Tompkins County round out the coalition.

The Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions (EGGE) element, adopted as part of the 2004 Tompkins County Comprehensive Plan in 2008, provides the guiding framework for TCCPI. The EEGE element calls for an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with an annual goal of 2 percent of 2008 level over the next four decades to achieve that reduction. County planners recently secured the support of the County Legislature for an energy action plan that would lead to a 20 percent reduction in the county’s carbon footprint by 2020.

Besides facilitating the implementation of a common strategy, target, and timetable for achieving significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, TCCPI’s networks are exploring potential financing strategies for purchasing and investing, and new tools that will allow us to monitor our progress through effective data collection and analysis. In the process, by creating a culture of collaboration, we hope to become a model for other communities throughout the nation seeking to adopt efficient, clean energy and effective climate protection.

Note: This piece appeared originally in the Ithaca Journal, December 6, 2010.