News from the US: Republican Assault on Environment

Tar Sands Collage - cc Jungbim

Tar Sands Collage - cc Jungbim

House Republicans, who control the U.S. House of Representatives, are launching a massive assault on the environment.  Their latest five-year transportation bills would eliminate funding for mass transit, high-speed rail, and bicycle and pedestrian improvements, decrease funding for Amtrak, and expedite environmental reviews of proposed oil and gas drilling projects.  It would also permit drilling off the shores of California, the East Coast, and Florida.

That’s because Republicans are pretending that Americans can domestically drill their way out of dependence on foreign oil, that climate change is not real – or if it is, it is not caused by human behavior, or it will be good for the planet – and that returning the economy to good health is all about sustaining an industrial way of life based on fossil fuels.

Environmental organizations and transit advocates are crying foul – but not to worry.  The bills have no chance of passing in their current forms, as the U.S. Senate is still controlled by Democrats, and Democratic President Barack Obama would be sure to veto it.

While the bills are likely to change (the original bill, H.R. 7, has been split into multiple parts), right now they underscore the fact that Republicans – and many Democrats – are almost wholly-owned by the energy industry and Tea Party allies.  Tea Partiers have started to organize in their communities in defense of the energy-intensive American way of life that former President George H. W. Bush once called ‘not negotiable.’  These Tea Partiers, some of whom may in fact receive funding from the energy industry, attend meetings in which local land use and transportation policies to address climate change are discussed.  In general, they testify against policies that they think may force people from their suburban homes into what they fear may be ‘stack and pack’ communities around transit hubs.

Ideologically, Republican candidates for president have joined them.  One candidate, former US Senator Rick Santorum, has called global warming ‘political science,’ not climate science; and with gasoline prices already on the increase, months before the start of summer when they traditionally go up, another Republican candidate, Newt Gingrich, has started to campaign on a pledge to force gasoline prices down to $2.00 a gallon, should he win, through increased domestic drilling for oil.

The Keystone Pipeline

Meanwhile, environmentalists have been organizing to oppose plans for expanded domestic drilling and the proposed Keystone Pipeline.  The Keystone Pipeline would bring oil from the tar sands of northern Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast in Texas for resale on the international market.  Controversial climate scientist James Hansen has said construction of the pipeline would mean ‘game over’ for efforts to stabilize the climate.

In January, President Obama rejected Republican efforts to force the US State Department to give the pipeline a green light, perhaps in part because a key 2008 supporter and fundraiser, Susie Tompkins Buell, has publicly announced her disenchantment with the president because of his positions on the environment.

Nonetheless TransCanada, the pipeline owner, says it will reapply for the permit, and congressional Republicans are doing everything they can to help.  In particular, Republicans are pulling the usual jobs-creation rabbit out of the hat – the pipeline will create anywhere from 20,000 to 250,000 jobs they say.  But the number of jobs the pipeline will create is in dispute: some studies say the number of jobs created could be as low as 500.

And none of them, we know, would be about creating a truly sustainable economy or even lowering the price of a gallon of gasoline.

New Auto Emissions and MPG Standards

At a late January meeting in San Francisco, California, held by officials with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), testimony was heard about new national proposed greenhouse gas emission standards and new corporate average fuel economy standards (CAFÉ) for automobiles.

The proposals would apply to passenger cars and light-duty trucks and, finally, Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs), which have frequently been left out of prior efforts at regulation, setting national fleet-wide averages of 163 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per mile and 54.5 miles per gallon (MPG) by 2025.  Right now, according to a December 2011 EPA report, American cars emit on average 423 grams of CO2 per passenger mile and get on average 21 MPG.  The new standards, according to the EPA and NHTSA, will save 1.5 million barrels of oil per day by 2030 (currently Americans use about 8 million per day) and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of the emissions of 474 coal-fired power plants.

Several environmental organizations, including the nation’s oldest the Sierra Club, are on board in support of the new proposals as are a host of auto manufacturers. However, the Sierra Club remains concerned that the proposed standards include a loophole in which manufacturers will be able to treat electric vehicles (EVs) as zero emissions vehicles.  It is true that EVs emit no emissions while in operation – but when they are at rest, the power plants that generate the electricity to recharge their batteries do produce emissions, and it is this loophole that the Sierra Club seeks to close.

In addition, David Dempsey, a professor of meteorology at San Francisco State University, testifying about the unknown costs of driving induced climate change to California’s agriculture and forest industries, called the proposed standards “the next best thing” since “carbon taxes are not politically acceptable.”

Can You Say ‘Inefficient Use of Energy?’

Indeed, the federal gasoline tax remains at 18.4 cents per gallon, where it has been since 1993.  Without a switch to taxing per dollar of gasoline sales and a switch to a percentage based tax that is programmed to go up over time, given inflation and the fact that cars will become more fuel-efficient as the new CO2 and CAFÉ standards kick in, will Americans have incentives to decrease the amount that they drive?

Jeanne Rosenmeier, former treasurer of the Green Party of California and chair of the San Francisco Peak Oil Preparedness Report, recently authored an analysis of energy use in San Francisco.  She noted that nearly half of all energy used in San Francisco is for transportation purposes, though only two percent is used to power three systems of mass transit – combined – that traverse the city.  Rosenmeier asks the question: “Can you say ‘inefficient use of energy?’” and then asks, “How about ‘plenty of room for improvement?’”

—  Susan Vaughan is a bicyclist living in San Francisco, California.

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