Tuesday, December 30, 2008

We’re In For Stormy Weather


Overshadowed by the economic headlines, serious climate trouble looms ahead.

Ban Ki-Moon

The past year will be remembered for the global financial crisis. But next year will be no less dangerous, albeit for a different reason. Lost among the economic headlines is an even more important fact: emissions of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, rose by an unexpected 3 percent in 2007.

This revelation means that the 50 percent targets for carbon cuts set by Europe and elsewhere by 2050 are already out of date. Scientists now say reductions of 60 to 80 percent will be needed to avoid a catastrophe.

There is other bad news. Everyone knows about the accelerated melting of Arctic sea ice. Now recent U.N. reports offer evidence of less visible but equally troubling changes. Our planet's species are going extinct at an unprecedented rate, according to the U.N. Environment Program. Massive "dead zones" are multiplying in the oceans as pollutants are absorbed, killing off coral reefs and decimating fisheries. Incidents of extreme weather, such as the hurricanes that devastated Haiti and Myanmar, have grown more frequent. Insurers predict that 2008 will set yet another record for economic losses. Meanwhile, U.N. refugee agencies believe that as many as 50 million people will be displaced by climate-related disasters by 2010, and the figure could hit 200 million by 2050.

All this points to a stark truth: though we can overcome the financial shocks of 2008, we will not overcome the climate-change crisis unless we act fast. This means 2009 will be the critical year for the critical challenge of our era.

In early December, world leaders gathered in Poznan, Poland, to chart a shared vision for the future. Then in another year comes a long-awaited summit in Copenhagen, where nations hope to reach a comprehensive new deal on climate change. Getting there will require a clear plan with specific goals within an agreed institutional architecture; a serious commitment to green-technology transfers; and, above all, a readiness by both developing and developed nations to do their part.

Nothing can happen without global leadership and unity of purpose. So far, however, we have fallen short. Narrow differences paralyze us. The United States and other developed nations insist that no accord is possible without the participation of rising powers such as China, India and Brazil. Yet many in the developing world blame the industrialized nations for creating the problem—and insist that they should therefore solve it.

This impasse is a prescription for disaster. To break it means accepting two realities. First: the world is waiting for the United States to lead, and rightly so. The United States remains among the world's most vibrant, entrepreneurial economies. Thanks in part to rising fuel prices, U.S. capital has flooded into "green" energy ventures in recent years. Slowing growth may affect this trend, but won't reverse it. And the new U.S. administration will have climate change high on its agenda.

The second reality is no less obvious: there can be no progress unless the newly developed nations also play a key role. China has surpassed the United States as the largest greenhouse-gas emitter. India will likely soon become the third-largest emitter. Fortunately, many of these nations have already begun moving to combat climate change. China has set national goals for reducing energy use by 2010. It has become one of the world's largest producers of wind power, and it leads in the development of solar energy. Brazil has already built one of the world's cleanest economies, with more than 80 percent of its electricity coming from hydropower, and has become a pioneer in biofuels and hybrid transportation. Meanwhile, Mexico has put more than 1.5 million people to work better managing its forests as a crucial buffer against future climate shocks.

True, the most advanced developing nations have not yet fully shouldered their responsibilities. Yet neither have developed nations. Both things must change before it is too late. Facing this great collective challenge, world leaders cannot wait for others to move. We must act together with the same urgency shown in the financial crisis.

Looking forward to Copenhagen, we should remember the proverbial truth that many roads lead to Rome. Some experts advocate strict emissions limits. Others favor voluntary targets. Still others debate the pros and cons of "cap and trade" carbon markets versus taxes and national conservation regulation. In truth, there is no one solution to climate change. We need all of the above. The important thing is to act, and to act now. When it comes to climate change, it's make-or-break time.

Ban is secretary-general of the United Nations.

URL: http://www.newsweek.com/id/177224

Gas prices bottoming out?

For the most part I do not pay attention to gas prices. Yesterday I was running back home from downtown Freeport and noticed the Irving station was selling regular gas for $1.56 per gallon. I was shocked. I remember paying $4.20 back in July. I can not imagine the price of gas will go much lower or stay where it is much longer.

On this topic and posted in the Wall Street Journal today:


LONDON -- Members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries are experiencing their own form of oil shock from lower prices. In Angola, that means reassessing the rapid expansion of its oil sector that has formed the basis of its recovery from a civil war that ended in 2002.

Angola, home to OPEC's incoming president and one of its fast-rising, most recent members, was able to take advantage of high oil prices by ramping up production, becoming Africa's largest producer at one point this year.

Now that oil prices have plummeted from their July high above $145 a barrel, Angola faces a quandary. It needs higher prices to realize the potential of its still mostly untapped reserves. But applying the brakes on production would also further cut export revenues for its oil-driven economy.

"We will wait for the price to go up" before Angola ramps up production, José de Vasconcelos, Angola's oil minister, said as he prepared to head OPEC on Jan. 1. "We need this revenue [from a high price] to develop our industry. We need to maintain our production [in the future] and our reserves. We need to attract investment."

Much of Angola's oil wealth is more expensive to tap than reserves in the Middle East, where oil projects require a price of about $10 a barrel to be economically viable, according to the International Energy Agency. By contrast, a price of about $70 a barrel is needed for it to make economic sense to develop the fields located in the deep waters far off the coast of Angola, according to OPEC's departing president, Chakib Khelil, who is also Algeria's energy minister.

Projects up and running still turn a profit at that level, but Jim Campbell, vice president in charge of project execution at BP PLC's Angolan unit, said in November that oil prices of $50 would complicate its assessments of future projects in Angola.

In Monday trading, crude-oil futures were trading about $30 below that level. Intraday, prices rose as high as $42.20 a barrel amid the first signs of OPEC's production cut and the specter of wider Middle East tensions as Israel continued its airstrikes in Gaza for a third day. Light, sweet crude for February delivery settled up $2.31, or 6.1%, at $40.02 a barrel in thin trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The lower oil price also may hurt Angola's state spending. Oil accounts for 90% of the country's exports, bringing in revenue needed to rebuild a country devastated by nearly three decades of civil war. According to state agency Angola Press, economy minister Manuel Junior suggested in mid-December that Angola might revise its budget next year if oil prices remain under the official assumption of $55 a barrel.

Production cuts under OPEC's quota system will compound the pain. At the end of 2006, when oil-rich nations were under pressure to produce more oil, Angola decided to enter OPEC. But as the financial crisis suddenly accelerated late this summer, oil prices -- and demand -- collapsed.

Angola faces one of the most difficult challenges among OPEC members in implementing its share of the 4.2 million barrels a day in cuts the cartel has announced since September. The country has agreed to reduce its output by 244,000 barrels from 1.9 million barrels a day. The cuts conflict with expansion plans drafted when prices were higher. Mr. de Vasconcelos said after the December OPEC cuts that Angola now plans to shave off an additional 145,000 barrels a day.

"We have some problems [with lower oil prices] just now but that's for the short term," Mr. de Vasconcelos said. "In our medium- to long-term planning, production must go up."

Solar Meets Polar as Winter Curbs Clean Energy

NY Times

December 26, 2008


Old Man Winter, it turns out, is no friend of renewable energy.

This time of year, wind turbine blades ice up, biodiesel congeals in tanks and solar panels produce less power because there is not as much sun. And perhaps most irritating to the people who own them, the panels become covered with snow, rendering them useless even in bright winter sunshine.

So in regions where homeowners have long rolled their eyes at shoveling driveways, add another cold-weather chore: cleaning off the solar panels. “At least I can get to them with a long pole and a squeegee,” said Alan Stankevitz, a homeowner in southeast Minnesota.

As concern has grown about global warming, many utilities and homeowners have been trying to shrink their emissions of carbon dioxide — their carbon footprints — by installing solar panels, wind turbines and even generators powered by tides or rivers. But for the moment, at least, the planet is still cold enough to deal nasty winter blows to some of this green machinery.

In January 2007, a bus stalled in the middle of the night on Interstate 70 in the Colorado mountains. The culprit was a 20 percent biodiesel blend that congealed in the freezing weather, according to John Jones, the transit director for the bus line, Summit Stage. (Biodiesel is a diesel substitute, typically made from vegetable oil, that is used to displace some fossil fuels.)

The passengers got out of that situation intact, but Summit Stage, which serves ski resorts, now avoids biodiesel from November to March, and uses only a 5 percent blend in the summertime, when it can still get cold in the mountains. “We can’t have people sitting on buses freezing to death while we get out there trying to get them restarted,” Mr. Jones said.

Winter may pose even bigger safety hazards in the vicinity of wind turbines. Some observers say the machines can hurl chunks of ice as they rotate.

“It’s like you throw a plate out there and that plate breaks,” said Ralph Brokaw, a cattle rancher in southeast Wyoming who has 69 wind turbines on his property. When his turbines ice up, he stays out of the way.

The wind industry admits that turbines can drop ice, like a lamppost or any tall structure. To ameliorate the hazard, some turbines are painted black to absorb sunlight and melt the ice faster. But Ron Stimmel, an expert on small wind turbines at the American Wind Energy Association, denies that the whirling blades tend to hurl icy javelins.

Large turbines turn off automatically as ice builds up, and small turbines will slow and stop because the ice prevents them from spinning — “just like a plane’s wing needs to be de-iced to fly,” Mr. Stimmel said.

Mr. Brokaw says that his turbines do turn off when they are too icy, but the danger sometimes comes right before the turbines shut down, after a wet, warm snow causes ice buildup.

From the standpoint of generating power, winter is actually good for wind turbines, because it is generally windier than summer. In Vermont, for example, Green Mountain Power, which operates a small wind farm in the southeastern part of the state, gets more than twice the monthly production in winter as in August.

The opposite is true, however, for solar power. Days are shorter and the sun is lower in the sky during the winter, ensuring less power production.

Even in northern California, with mild winters and little snow, solar panels can generate about half as much as in the summer, depending on how much they are tilted, according to Rob Erlichman, chief executive of Sunlight Electric, a San Francisco solar company.

Operators of the electrical grid do not worry much about the seasonal swings, because the percentage of production from renewable energy is still so low — around 1 percent of the country’s power comes from wind, and less from solar panels. In addition, Americans use slightly less electricity in the winter than in the summer because air conditioners are not running. This is especially true in sunny areas, so solar panels’ peak production matches the spikes in demand.

But as renewable energy becomes a bigger part of the nation’s power mix, the seasonable variability could become more of a problem. Already, power developers are learning that they must make careful plans to avoid the worst impacts of ice and snow.

Trey Taylor, the president of Verdant Power, which has put small turbines in the tidal East River in New York City and plans more for the St. Lawrence River in Canada, said that ice chunks could slide over one another “like a deck of cards,” pushing ice below and harming turbines. That may rule out parts of otherwise promising sites like the Yukon River in Alaska, he said.

Kevin Devlin, the vice president for operations of Iberdrola Renewables, a wind developer, said that winter was probably the hardest time of year to maintain turbines, because workers must go out in snow and ice. Occasionally, he said, the turbines will shut down or set off alarms if it is too cold, and workers must brave the elements to fix them.

For homeowners, the upkeep of their power sources can also be a bother.

Mr. Stankevitz keeps his panels tilted 40 degrees or higher, but they still become covered with snow — and experts say that if even one cell in a panel is covered, the panel will not produce power.

On the other hand, the panels can get extra power from sunlight reflected off nearby snow. And like other electronic gear, solar panels work better when cold.

Mr. Stankevitz said that on some rare winter days, when the Minnesota sky is clear, the weather is freezing and the sun is shining brightly, his panels can briefly churn out more electricity than they were designed to produce, more than on the balmiest days of summer.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Time to Reboot America

NY Times

December 24, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist


I had a bad day last Friday, but it was an all-too-typical day for America.

It actually started well, on Kau Sai Chau, an island off Hong Kong, where I stood on a rocky hilltop overlooking the South China Sea and talked to my wife back in Maryland, static-free, using a friend’s Chinese cellphone. A few hours later, I took off from Hong Kong’s ultramodern airport after riding out there from downtown on a sleek high-speed train — with wireless connectivity that was so good I was able to surf the Web the whole way on my laptop.

Landing at Kennedy Airport from Hong Kong was, as I’ve argued before, like going from the Jetsons to the Flintstones. The ugly, low-ceilinged arrival hall was cramped, and using a luggage cart cost $3. (Couldn’t we at least supply foreign visitors with a free luggage cart, like other major airports in the world?) As I looked around at this dingy room, it reminded of somewhere I had been before. Then I remembered: It was the luggage hall in the old Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport. It closed in 1998.

The next day I went to Penn Station, where the escalators down to the tracks are so narrow that they seem to have been designed before suitcases were invented. The disgusting track-side platforms apparently have not been cleaned since World War II. I took the Acela, America’s sorry excuse for a bullet train, from New York to Washington. Along the way, I tried to use my cellphone to conduct an interview and my conversation was interrupted by three dropped calls within one 15-minute span.

All I could think to myself was: If we’re so smart, why are other people living so much better than us? What has become of our infrastructure, which is so crucial to productivity? Back home, I was greeted by the news that General Motors was being bailed out — that’s the G.M. that Fortune magazine just noted “lost more than $72 billion in the past four years, and yet you can count on one hand the number of executives who have been reassigned or lost their job.”

My fellow Americans, we can’t continue in this mode of “Dumb as we wanna be.” We’ve indulged ourselves for too long with tax cuts that we can’t afford, bailouts of auto companies that have become giant wealth-destruction machines, energy prices that do not encourage investment in 21st-century renewable power systems or efficient cars, public schools with no national standards to prevent illiterates from graduating and immigration policies that have our colleges educating the world’s best scientists and engineers and then, when these foreigners graduate, instead of stapling green cards to their diplomas, we order them to go home and start companies to compete against ours.

To top it off, we’ve fallen into a trend of diverting and rewarding the best of our collective I.Q. to people doing financial engineering rather than real engineering. These rocket scientists and engineers were designing complex financial instruments to make money out of money — rather than designing cars, phones, computers, teaching tools, Internet programs and medical equipment that could improve the lives and productivity of millions.

For all these reasons, our present crisis is not just a financial meltdown crying out for a cash injection. We are in much deeper trouble. In fact, we as a country have become General Motors — as a result of our national drift. Look in the mirror: G.M. is us.

That’s why we don’t just need a bailout. We need a reboot. We need a build out. We need a buildup. We need a national makeover. That is why the next few months are among the most important in U.S. history. Because of the financial crisis, Barack Obama has the bipartisan support to spend $1 trillion in stimulus. But we must make certain that every bailout dollar, which we’re borrowing from our kids’ future, is spent wisely.

It has to go into training teachers, educating scientists and engineers, paying for research and building the most productivity-enhancing infrastructure — without building white elephants. Generally, I’d like to see fewer government dollars shoveled out and more creative tax incentives to stimulate the private sector to catalyze new industries and new markets. If we allow this money to be spent on pork, it will be the end of us.

America still has the right stuff to thrive. We still have the most creative, diverse, innovative culture and open society — in a world where the ability to imagine and generate new ideas with speed and to implement them through global collaboration is the most important competitive advantage. China may have great airports, but last week it went back to censoring The New York Times and other Western news sites. Censorship restricts your people’s imaginations. That’s really, really dumb. And that’s why for all our missteps, the 21st century is still up for grabs.

John Kennedy led us on a journey to discover the moon. Obama needs to lead us on a journey to rediscover, rebuild and reinvent our own backyard.

Merry Christmas!

Maureen Dowd is off today.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Carbon auction nets Maine, other states $106.5 million

Portland Press Herald

The proceeds from selling emissions allowances will be used for clean energy technologies.

The Associated Press
December 20, 2008

ALBANY, N.Y. — The nation's second auction of carbon dioxide emissions allowances will bring $106.5 million to Maine and nine other Northeastern states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

Pete Grannis, the organization's chairman, said the results prove that distributing allowances through auctions in a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program can be successful. RGGI is seen as a blueprint for a national program to curb global warming by reducing carbon emissions.

All 31.5 million allowances, each representing 1 ton of carbon, were sold in Wednesday's auction for a clearing price of $3.38 per allowance, RGGI reported Friday.

RGGI includes Maine, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

RGGI reported that 69 bidders from the energy, financial and environmental sectors participated in the auction run by World Energy Solutions, which operates online exchanges for energy and green commodities.

The money, which is to be used for energy efficiency and clean energy technologies, will be distributed to the states in January.

"Until now, we've essentially been giving power plant owners freedom to pollute," said Dan Sosland, executive director of Environment Northeast, a regional nonprofit research and advocacy group. "Now states can use the funds from these carbon allowances to make our homes, schools and businesses more energy efficient."

The first auction, on Sept. 25, sold 12.5 million allowances at a clearing price of $3.07 each, raising nearly $38.6 million for the six RGGI states participating. All 10 states were in the second auction.

RGGI is the first mandatory, market-based cap-and-trade program in the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Energy producers are required to buy enough allowances to cover every ton of carbon dioxide they emit.

The total number of allowances is capped and will be gradually reduced in future years. The idea is that power plants will have to invest in cleaner technology or switch to cleaner fuel as emissions limits tighten.

"RGGI sets a national precedent for addressing global warming," said John Rogers, an energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "To ensure the initiative fulfills its potential, however, participating states must make sure that the region's utilities don't buy additional coal-based electricity from outside the region."

Copyright © 2008 Blethen Maine Newspapers

Friday, December 19, 2008

Proposed Gas Drilling Upstate Raises Concerns About Water Supply

NY Times

December 19, 2008


For most of the 30 years that they have lived in the West Village, Buck Moorhead and his family have driven north a few times a month to their other home in the Catskills to enjoy the forests, the wildlife, the peace. And for the last several months, they have attended meetings with scores of other upstate residents who fear that those attractions will be marred by pollution, new roads and plummeting property values if ambitious plans to expand drilling for natural gas proceed.

“We effectively risk ruining our drinking water and turning a pristine area into an industrial landscape,” Mr. Moorhead, 55, an architect, said of the effect both upstate and downstate. “The whole thing is like a nightmare.”

But when Mr. Moorhead, whose second home is in Sullivan County, spoke out against drilling this month at a hearing of the City Council’s committee on environmental protection, he was among fewer than two dozen private citizens who showed up and the only one to testify, even though the city has a considerable stake in such drilling north of the city line.

Upstate, the push by energy companies to explore drilling under a broad swath of western and southern New York State have provoked alarm and protest among environmentalists and others.

But in New York City, opponents say that city residents and leaders have been slow to react, despite New Yorkers’ stake: not only do many have weekend homes, but the area under consideration for drilling includes the watershed that supplies most of the city’s drinking water.

“In the absence of a real rallying cry coming from the city to vigorously protect the water supply, we’re going to get rolled,” said James F. Gennaro of Queens, chairman of the Council’s environmental committee, which has been holding the hearings.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has made the environment a focus of his administration, has yet to weigh in publicly on the issue. “The mayor appreciates the need for energy, but believes it must be obtained in a responsible way,” said one of his spokesmen, Marc La Vorgna.

“The watershed’s protection must be guaranteed before any drilling moves forward.”

The City Department of Environmental Protection has held off taking a position until it hears from a consultant it hired to analyze any threats that drilling may pose to the water supply.

But Mr. Gennaro, environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and others are calling for an outright ban on drilling in the million-acre watershed. They say that such operations represent an inherent risk to the water, which is so pure that it does not require filtration before arriving in the taps of more than 8 million people in the city and another million residents in Westchester and other counties. Any contamination, they note, would require the investment of billions of dollars in a filtration plant and would result in higher water rates.

New York State has a history of gas and oil drilling going back to the 1800s, with 13,000 active wells now in operation. Energy companies are now showing interest in the Marcellus Shale, part of a sequence of layered rocks stretching from New York to Tennessee, that runs as deep as 7,000 feet below ground and requires pumping huge volumes of water laced with chemicals — one to five million gallons per well — into the earth to break the rock and extract gas.

Because the process raises new issues about the use and disposal of wastewater, the State Department of Environmental Conservation is revising its regulations to address those matters before approving any new permits.

The agency says that protecting all watersheds is a priority, but that talk of a ban is premature until every environmental effect of the expanded drilling is determined. A final plan on where and how drilling will be allowed is expected as early as spring.

Exploration in the Marcellus Shale, a step that has became more attractive because of new technology and the nation’s push to find its own sources of energy, comes with such high expectations that it has unleashed a gold rush for land.

Companies are paying property owners millions of dollars for leases to drill thousands of wells if the shale in New York proves bountiful.

“It’s almost like placing bets,” said Val Washington, deputy commissioner of remediation for the state environmental agency, which is getting pressure from some counties to act more quickly to allow the drilling, so as not to miss an economic bonanza. “A lot of people are interested in it as a revenue source.”

Robert Homovich, a member of the Delaware County Board of Supervisors, said the board opposes a ban on drilling in the New York City watershed. Not only does he trust that the state can ensure responsible drilling operations, he said, but a ban would also rob an economically depressed area of significant revenue.

“If we don’t have this or something similar, New York City is going to bankrupt us,” he said, noting that the city has been acquiring more and more land in the area to keep it off limits to farming or development to protect the watershed.

But environmental watchdogs say that concerns about contamination and public health should prevail in the decision.

Steven W. Lawitts, the acting commissioner of the city’s environmental agency, said drilling on the scale now envisioned posed “great risks” and could hamper his department’s ability to keep the water clean.

One major concern is the use of benzene and other chemicals used in drilling that have contaminated groundwater in other states. The state environmental commissioner, Alexander B. Grannis, has said that applicants for permits would have to disclose all components in drilling fluids.

But Mr. Lawitts said there were also questions about the dangers of leaks, spills, soil runoff and other contamination from the water used in drilling.

The city’s moves to keep its water supply pristine by buying up more land in the watershed could also be jeopardized by competition with natural gas companies that are offering landowners lucrative deals. Most land in the watershed is privately owned, although the city and state own about one-third.

Mr. Lawitts said the city had no plans to sell drilling rights. But the state has not ruled it out, Ms. Washington said, although most of the state-owned land is a protected “forest preserve” in the Catskill Park, and off limits to drilling, said Yancey Roy, a spokesman for the State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Though state officials maintain that they have the ultimate say on drilling, Mr. Lawitts said city regulations “can still govern what activity is permissible or not permissible” on watershed lands.

He rejected criticism that the city was not being assertive enough. “Our top priority is the watershed,” he said. “That’s unequivocal.”

Among those seeking a state ban on drilling in the watershed are environmental groups like Riverkeeper and Earthjustice. The city comptroller, William C. Thompson Jr., sent the state a letter this week warning that drilling could have “crippling implications” for customers if it reduces the quality of the unfiltered water. He said a filtration plant would cost $6 billion to $10 billion just to build, requiring at least a 30 percent increase in water and sewer rates.

Meanwhile, in hopes of getting more New Yorkers involved, Councilman Gennaro is gathering signatures on petition in support of a drilling ban. And Mr. Moorhead, the West Village architect, said he planned to talk to his community board and send an e-mail message to his city friends to drum up interest among the unaware.

“This is a mammoth construction project,” he said. “It’s stunning this is under consideration, when one looks at the risks.”

A Corner of Indonesia, Sinking in a Sea of Mud

NY Times

December 19, 2008


RENOKENONGO, Indonesia — Her children insist, so every week or two Lilik Kamina takes them back to their abandoned village to look at the mud.

“Hey, Mom, there’s our house, there’s the mango tree,” she said they shout. But there is nothing to see, only an ocean of mud that has buried this village and a dozen more over the past two-and-a-half years.

The mud erupted here during exploratory drilling for natural gas, and it has grown to be one of the largest mud volcanoes ever to have affected a populated area. Unlike other disasters that torment Indonesia — earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis — this one continues with no end in sight, and experts say the flow of mud could go on for many years or decades.

The steaming mud keeps bubbling up, spreading across the countryside, driving people from their homes, burying fields and factories. It has forced the relocation of roads, bridges, a railway line and a major gas pipeline.

As the earth disgorges the mud and the lake of mud grows, the land is sinking by as much as 40 feet a year and could subside to depths of more than 460 feet just one hour’s drive from Indonesia’s second city, Surabaya, according to Richard Davies, a geologist at Durham University in Britain who is an expert on mud volcanoes.

Siti Maimunah, an environmental advocate, said people who lived nearby had begun getting sick, with about 46,000 visiting clinics with respiratory problems since the mud eruption.

Ms. Siti, who is national coordinator for the Mining Advocacy Network of Indonesia, said the gas that emerged with the mud was toxic and possibly carcinogenic. “We worry that in the next 5 to 10 years people will face a second disaster with health problems,” she said.

Attempts to stem the flow have failed.

These have included a scheme to drop hundreds of giant concrete balls into the mouth of the eruption; the concrete balls simply disappeared without effect. A project to divert some of the mud into the nearby Porong River has raised fears that the buildup of silt on the riverbed could cause severe flooding, possibly in Surabaya itself.

The disaster has become an embarrassment to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who faces a new election next year, with groups of displaced people demonstrating in the distant capital, Jakarta.

The drilling company that critics say caused the disaster, Lapindo Brantas, is indirectly owned by the family of one of Indonesia’s richest and most influential men, Aburizal Bakrie, who is a major financial backer of President Yudhoyono and serves in his cabinet as coordinating minister for the people’s welfare.

The victims say compensation has been slow, with only a portion of promised funds delivered to them. Sixty-thousand people have fled their homes and many, like Ms. Lilik, now live in nearby shelters and in a marketplace.

This is a particularly forlorn class of displaced people who mostly fend for themselves because, as victims of what is being called a man-made disaster, they receive little assistance from the government or from international aid agencies.

“So we live without hope,” said Ali Mursjid, 25, who was in college studying to be a teacher before the mud volcano made him destitute. “Nobody is willing to help us.”

His village, Besuki, was only partly buried in mud, and it is now a ghost town of empty houses and hard, cracked mud where children fly kites and shout to hear their voices echo.

The steaming mud erupted from the ground on May 29, 2006, as Lapindo Brantas was drilling near the industrial district of Sidoarjo. Its tunnel pierced a pressurized aquifer 9,000 feet underground.

Experts on mud volcanoes say the drilling and inadequate safeguards in the borehole set off the eruption of water, gas and mud that continues to flow, at about 100,000 cubic meters a day.

Lapindo says that it was itself a victim, blaming vibrations from a major earthquake that struck two days earlier with an epicenter 186 miles away.

After listening to new evidence about the eruption, 74 petroleum geologists attending an October conference in Cape Town concluded that the drilling had been the cause.

“There is no question, the pressures in the well went way beyond what it could tolerate — and it triggered the mud volcano,” said Susila Lusiaga, a drilling engineer who was part of the Indonesian investigation team, according to a report on the conference by Durham University.

The debate over responsibility has severely limited the payments, said Elfian Effendi, executive director of Greenomics Indonesia, an environmental advocacy group.

After paying out 20 percent of a promised compensation package, Lapindo agreed this month to begin monthly payments equal to $2,500 to 8,000 families it said were eligible. But as part of the Bakrie family holdings, Lapindo has been severely affected by the current economic downturn and some experts question whether the full amount will ever be paid.

Since the first eruption in May 2006, there have been more than 90 others, most of them small but some explosive, said Jim Schiller, a political scientist at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, who has published a study of the disaster.

He described what he called the horror-movie progress of the mud, which continues to burst from the ground at unexpected times and places. “I’ve got pictures of them popping up in people’s living rooms,” he said.

The village of Renokenongo was buried during the biggest of these eruptions, in November 2007, when the weight of sinking earth burst a major natural-gas pipeline, killing 13 workers and sending a fireball into the sky.

Ms. Lilik, 30, who teaches kindergarten, said the visits to the levee by her former village calm her children, Icha Noviyanti, 11, and Fiqhi Izzudin, 5.

“People say it’s not a good idea to take the children there, but I think the opposite,” she said. “I think it’s very important for them to see their home and express their anger. They throw rocks at the mud and shout, ‘Lapindo!’ ”

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Cars, Kabul and Banks

NY Times

December 14, 2008


If there is anything I’ve learned as a reporter, it’s that when you get away from “the thing itself” — the core truth about a situation — you get into trouble. Barack Obama will have to make three mammoth decisions after he takes the oath of office — on cars, Kabul and banks — and we have to hope that he bases those decisions on the things themselves, the core truths about each. Because many people will be trying to throw fairy dust in his eyes.

The first issue will be whether to bail out Detroit. What is the core truth about Detroit? Auto executives will tell you that it’s the credit crisis, health care, retirement costs and unions. Sure, those are real. But the core truth is that for way too long Detroit made too many cars that too many people did not want to buy. As even General Motors conceded in its apology ad last week: “At times we violated your trust by letting our quality fall below industry standards and our designs become lackluster.” Walk through any college campus today. You don’t see a lot of Buicks.

Over the years, Detroit bosses kept repeating: “We have to make the cars people want.” That’s why they’re in trouble. Their job is to make the cars people don’t know they want but will buy like crazy when they see them. I would have been happy with my Sony Walkman had Apple not invented the iPod. Now I can’t live without my iPod. I didn’t know I wanted it, but Apple did. Same with my Toyota hybrid.

The auto consultant John Casesa once noted that Detroit’s management has gone from visionaries to operators to caretakers. I would say that they have now gone from caretakers to undertakers. If they are ready to bring in some visionaries and totally restructure — inside or outside of bankruptcy — so they can make money selling cars that people will want to buy, then I say help them. I’d hate to see the Detroit auto industry go under. But if all we are doing is prolonging auto undertakers, then we have to let nature take its course.

After Detroit, Mr. Obama will be asked to bail out Afghanistan. Watch out. The tide has turned against us there because too many Afghans don’t want to buy our politics, or, more precisely, the politics of our ally, the corrupt government of President Hamid Karzai. That is “the thing itself.”

The main reason our Iraq bailout — a k a “the surge” — has had a positive effect is because Iraqis voted with their own guns and their own lives, taking on both Al Qaeda and pro-Iranian Shiite militants. Iraq has avoided bankruptcy for the moment — a total meltdown — because enough Iraqis wanted what we were selling: freedom from extremists. That is the thing itself, and right now I’m not seeing enough of that thing in Afghanistan. Beware of a Kabul bailout.

But maybe the most flagrant area where we continue to avoid looking at “the thing itself” is with our banks. What we are dealing with there is the effect of a credit bubble that began in the late-1980s with the advent of global securitization — the chopping up and bundling into bonds of everything from home mortgages to student loans to airplane leases, and then selling them around the world.

When you take this much leverage and this much globalization and this much complexity and start it in America, and then blow it up, you have a nuclear financial explosion. The deflating of this credit bubble is so wealth-destroying that even the most prudent banks have been ravaged by it.

What to do? The smartest people I know in banking are praying that Obama’s Treasury Department will tackle “the thing itself.” That is, do a real analysis of what the major banks are worth in a worst-case scenario. Then determine, if, on that basis, they have viable, survivable equity-to-asset ratios.

Those that do should get more government investment. Those that are close should be forced to find new investors and merge. And those not viable should be shut down and have their bad assets bought by a government-owned body (which would sell them over time) and their deposits shifted to healthy banks to make those banks even healthier. Some experts believe we still need to close 1,000 banks.

This process will be painful, but probably by the end of a year the market will clear, investors will come in, and the surviving banks will be ready to lend to each other and you and me. The “thing itself” here is that banks still don’t want to lend because they still don’t know the true value of their own balance sheets, let alone anyone else’s.

The market has to clear. We can do it painfully and quickly, as we did with the dot-coms, or we can be Japan and drag it out.

So whether it's cars, Kabul or banks, we have to stop wishing for the worlds we want and start dealing with the things themselves. If Obama does, his first year will be excruciatingly painful, but he could have three years after that to be creative. If he doesn’t, I fear that cars, Kabul and banks will dog his whole presidency.

While Detroit Slept

NY Times

December 10, 2008


As I think about our bailing out Detroit, I can’t help but reflect on what, in my view, is the most important rule of business in today’s integrated and digitized global market, where knowledge and innovation tools are so widely distributed. It’s this: Whatever can be done, will be done. The only question is will it be done by you or to you. Just don’t think it won’t be done. If you have an idea in Detroit or Tennessee, promise me that you’ll pursue it, because someone in Denmark or Tel Aviv will do so a second later.

Why do I bring this up? Because someone in the mobility business in Denmark and Tel Aviv is already developing a real-world alternative to Detroit’s business model. I don’t know if this alternative to gasoline-powered cars will work, but I do know that it can be done — and Detroit isn’t doing it. And therefore it will be done, and eventually, I bet, it will be done profitably.

And when it is, our bailout of Detroit will be remembered as the equivalent of pouring billions of dollars of taxpayer money into the mail-order-catalogue business on the eve of the birth of eBay. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into the CD music business on the eve of the birth of the iPod and iTunes. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into a book-store chain on the eve of the birth of Amazon.com and the Kindle. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into improving typewriters on the eve of the birth of the PC and the Internet.

What business model am I talking about? It is Shai Agassi’s electric car network company, called Better Place. Just last week, the company, based in Palo Alto, Calif., announced a partnership with the state of Hawaii to road test its business plan there after already inking similar deals with Israel, Australia, the San Francisco Bay area and, yes, Denmark.

The Better Place electric car charging system involves generating electrons from as much renewable energy — such as wind and solar — as possible and then feeding those clean electrons into a national electric car charging infrastructure. This consists of electricity charging spots with plug-in outlets — the first pilots were opened in Israel this week — plus battery-exchange stations all over the respective country. The whole system is then coordinated by a service control center that integrates and does the billing.

Under the Better Place model, consumers can either buy or lease an electric car from the French automaker Renault or Japanese companies like Nissan (General Motors snubbed Agassi) and then buy miles on their electric car batteries from Better Place the way you now buy an Apple cellphone and the minutes from AT&T. That way Better Place, or any car company that partners with it, benefits from each mile you drive. G.M. sells cars. Better Place is selling mobility miles.

The first Renault and Nissan electric cars are scheduled to hit Denmark and Israel in 2011, when the whole system should be up and running. On Tuesday, Japan’s Ministry of Environment invited Better Place to join the first government-led electric car project along with Honda, Mitsubishi and Subaru. Better Place was the only foreign company invited to participate, working with Japan’s leading auto companies, to build a battery swap station for electric cars in Yokohama, the Detroit of Japan.

What I find exciting about Better Place is that it is building a car company off the new industrial platform of the 21st century, not the one from the 20th — the exact same way that Steve Jobs did to overturn the music business. What did Apple understand first? One, that today’s technology platform would allow anyone with a computer to record music. Two, that the Internet and MP3 players would allow anyone to transfer music in digital form to anyone else. You wouldn’t need CDs or record companies anymore. Apple simply took all those innovations and integrated them into a single music-generating, purchasing and listening system that completely disrupted the music business.

What Agassi, the founder of Better Place, is saying is that there is a new way to generate mobility, not just music, using the same platform. It just takes the right kind of auto battery — the iPod in this story — and the right kind of national plug-in network — the iTunes store — to make the business model work for electric cars at six cents a mile. The average American is paying today around 12 cents a mile for gasoline transportation, which also adds to global warming and strengthens petro-dictators.

Do not expect this innovation to come out of Detroit. Remember, in 1908, the Ford Model-T got better mileage — 25 miles per gallon — than many Ford, G.M. and Chrysler models made in 2008. But don’t be surprised when it comes out of somewhere else. It can be done. It will be done. If we miss the chance to win the race for Car 2.0 because we keep mindlessly bailing out Car 1.0, there will be no one to blame more than Detroit’s new shareholders: we the taxpayers.

The Real Generation X

NY Times

December 7, 2008


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation,” that classic about our parents and their incredible sacrifices during World War II. What I’ve been thinking about actually is this: What book will our kids write about us? “The Greediest Generation?” “The Complacent Generation?” Or maybe: “The Subprime Generation: How My Parents Bailed Themselves Out for Their Excesses by Charging It All on My Visa Card.”

Our kids should be so much more radical than they are today. I understand why they aren’t. They’re so worried about just getting a job or paying next semester’s tuition. But we must not take their quietism as license to do whatever we want with this bailout cash. They are going to have to pay this money back. And therefore, we have an incredibly weighty obligation to make sure that we not only spend every stimulus dollar wisely but also with an eye to creating new technologies.

We not only need to bail out industries of the past but to build up industries of the future — to offer the kind of big thinking and risk-taking that transforms enormous challenges into world-changing opportunities. That is what made the Greatest Generation great. This money can’t just go to patch up our jalopies.

“Remember, this money will not be neutral,” said Andy Karsner, a former U.S. assistant secretary of energy. “We are talking about directing an unprecedented volume of cash at our housing, energy, transportation and infrastructure industries. This cash will either fortify the incumbent players and calcify the energy status quo, or it will facilitate the economic transformation we seek. The stimulus will either be white blood cells that will heal us or malignant cells that will continue to sap our strength.”

Let’s get specific. When it comes to Detroit, my views are clear: I think we should be talking about “bail,” not “bailouts,” regarding the people running the Big Three car companies and the lawmakers who mindlessly protected them for so long. Still, I do not want to see jobs destroyed. But if taxpayers are going to give Detroit money, we must not entrust the spending to people who have run their businesses into the ground.

You want my tax dollars? Then I want to see the precise production plans and timetables for the hybridization of all your cars and trucks within 36 months. I want every bailed-out car company to move to hybrid electric drive trains, because nothing would both improve mileage and emissions more — and also stimulate a whole new 21st-century, job-creating industry: batteries.

Big batteries that can store electricity for transportation and wind and solar generation are the indispensable enablers of the Energy Internet of the future. Any Detroit bailout has to serve that goal.

A major electrification of drive trains in U.S.-made vehicles “would induce explosive growth and investment in a domestic battery business,” said Karsner. Europe, Japan and China are already dominating this industry. It’s the key to clean-tech — and ultimately our national competitiveness. We can’t allow ourselves to be battery importers in the 21st century the way we were oil importers in the 20th.

The same applies to Barack Obama’s plans for a green stimulus in energy efficiency and infrastructure. It makes no sense to spend money on green infrastructure — or a bailout of Detroit aimed at stimulating production of more fuel-efficient cars — if it is not combined with a tax on carbon that would actually change consumer buying behavior.

Many people will tell Mr. Obama that taxing carbon or gasoline now is a “nonstarter.” Wrong. It is the only starter. It is the game-changer. If you want to know where postponing it has gotten us, visit Detroit. No carbon tax or increased gasoline tax meant that every time the price of gasoline went down to $1 or $2 a gallon, consumers went back to buying gas guzzlers. And Detroit just fed their addictions — so it never committed to a real energy-efficiency retooling of its fleet. R.I.P.

If Mr. Obama is going to oversee a successful infrastructure stimulus, then it has to include not only a tax on carbon — make it revenue-neutral and rebate it all by reducing payroll taxes — but also new standards that gradually require utilities and home builders in states that receive money to build dramatically more energy-efficient power plants, commercial buildings and homes. This, too, would create whole new industries.

Let us not mince words: The Obama presidency will be shaped in many ways by how it spends this stimulus. I am sure he will articulate the right goals. But if the means — the price signals, conditions and standards — that he imposes on his stimulus are not as creative, bold and tough as his goals, it will all be for naught.

In sum, our kids will remember the Obama stimulus as either the burden of their lifetime or the investment of their lifetime. Let’s hope it’s the latter. I like that book title much better.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Coal Mining Debris Rule Is Approved

NY Times

December 3, 2008


WASHINGTON — The White House on Tuesday approved a final rule that will make it easier for coal companies to dump rock and dirt from mountaintop mining operations into nearby streams and valleys.

The rule is one of the most contentious of all the regulations emerging from the White House in President Bush’s last weeks in office.

James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, confirmed in an interview that the rule had been approved by the White House Office of Management and Budget. That clears the way for publication in the Federal Register, the last stage in the rule-making process.

Stephen L. Johnson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, concurred in the rule, first proposed nearly five years ago by the Interior Department, which regulates coal mining.

In a letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, dated Tuesday, Mr. Johnson said the rule had been revised to protect fish, wildlife and streams.

Mining activities must comply with water quality standards established by the federal government and the states, Mr. Johnson said.

But a coalition of environmental groups said the rule would accelerate “the destruction of mountains, forests and streams throughout Appalachia.”

Edward C. Hopkins, a policy analyst at the Sierra Club, said: “The E.P.A.’s own scientists have concluded that dumping mining waste into streams devastates downstream water quality. By signing off on this rule, the agency has abdicated its responsibility.”

Mr. Bush has boasted of his efforts to cooperate with President-elect Barack Obama to ensure a smooth transition, but the administration is rushing to complete work on regulations to which Mr. Obama and his advisers object. The rules deal with air pollution, auto safety, abortion and workers’ exposure to toxic chemicals, among other issues.

The National Mining Association, a trade group, welcomed the rule, saying it could end years of uncertainty that had put jobs and coal production in jeopardy.

The coal industry could be the largest beneficiary of last-minute environmental rules.

“This is unmistakably a fire sale of epic size for coal and the entire fossil fuel industry, with flagrant disregard for human health, the environment or the rule of law,” said Vickie Patton, deputy general counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to finish work on a rule that would make it easier for utilities to put coal-fired generating stations near national parks. It is working on another rule that would allow utility companies to modify coal-fired power plants and increase their emissions without installing new pollution-control equipment.

Joan M. Mulhern, a lawyer at Earthjustice, an environmental group, denounced the mining regulation.

“With less than two months left in power,” Ms. Mulhern said, “the Bush administration is determined to cement its legacy as having the worst environmental record in history.”

At issue, she said, is a type of mining in which “coal companies blast the tops off mountains to reach the seams of coal and then push the rubble into the adjacent valleys, burying miles of streams.”

Administration officials rejected the criticism.

“This rule strengthens protections for streams,” said Peter L. Mali, a spokesman for the Interior Department office that wrote the regulation. “Federal law allows coal mine waste to be placed in streams, and the rule tightens restrictions as to when, where and how those discharges can occur.”

The rule gives coal companies a legal right to do what, in the past, they could do only in exceptional circumstances, with special permission from the government.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama expressed “serious concerns about the environmental implications” of mountaintop mining.

“We have to find more environmentally sound ways of mining coal than simply blowing the tops off mountains,” Mr. Obama told one environmental group. At the same time, he proposed a major federal investment in clean coal technology.

Gov. Steven L. Beshear of Kentucky and Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, both Democrats, had urged the Bush administration not to approve the rule. Mr. Beshear said he feared that it would lead to an increase in pollution of “Kentucky’s beautiful natural resources.”

Several members of Congress also opposed the rule, including Representative John Yarmuth, Democrat of Kentucky.

In giving his blessing to the new regulation, Mr. Johnson, the head of the E.P.A., noted that Mr. Bush had promoted the use of clean coal technology as a way to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

“Americans should not have to choose between clean coal or effective environmental protection,” Mr. Johnson said. “We can achieve both.”

But environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council see the mountaintop mining rule and pending changes in air pollution regulations as part of a final effort by the Bush administration to cater to the needs of energy industries.

The proposal that would give more leeway to coal-burning power plants, to increase their emissions when they make repairs and renovations, was on the original wish list of the energy task force convened by Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001.

In 2006, a federal appeals court struck down an effort by the Bush administration to loosen the rules on such coal-burning plants.

Panel Seeks Changes in E.P.A. Reviews

NY Times

December 4, 2008


The Environmental Protection Agency must revise its approach to assessing environmental health hazards and other risks, because current practices hinder useful and timely regulation, an expert panel of The National Research Council is reporting.

The council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, said the agency should scrap some of the assumptions on which its decisions have been based, reduce its focus on individual chemicals and other hazards to consider how they act in combination. And it should accept that uncertainty is always going to be an issue and aim to providepractical information to policy-makers as quickly as possible.

The report, which the panel produced at the behest of the E.P.A., is being made public Wednesday and is online at www.nas.edu.

Risk assessment — determining whether something is a hazard and, if so, how great and to whom — is a crucial step in devising appropriate environmental regulations and other decisions, the panel said, and the field is advancing as testing systems and other technology advance.

But assessing environmental risks is highly complex and full of uncertainty, it continued, and at the E.P.A. “the regulatory risk assessment process is bogged down,” with some assessments taking a decade or more. For example, the report cited an assessment of trichloroethylene, a commonly used solvent, that has been under way since the 1980s and is not expected before 2010.

The environmental agency’s conclusions about risk are usually crucial in establishing regulatory goals. As a result, they are often subject to intense political or economic pressure. When the Bush administration proposed changes it said would streamline risk-assessment procedures, critics called the proposal an attempt to weaken environmental regulation. In a 2007 report, the academy dismissed the proposal as “fundamentally flawed” and the administration withdrew it.

Thomas A. Burke, an epidemiologist at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, said the new report focused on the use of “defaults,” assumptions that are made about one factor or another in the face of uncertainty.

“Many of them are founded on good science, but there are some hidden assumptions,” he said. “Right now when we don’t have information on a pollutant we treat it as if there’s no risk. That’s a so-called hidden default.”

He added, “We really need to address these gaps.”

Another issue the report cited was the effect of cumulative exposures to a variety of environmental hazards. Usually these hazards are studied one by one. But Dr. Burke said, “You have to consider not just the one compound but you have to ask broadly, because people are exposed to many, many thousands of substances.” Even drinking water is “a rich mixture,” he added.

A spokesman for the American Chemical Society said it would have no comment on the report until members had had time to read it.

Joel Tickner, a professor of environmental health at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who studies chemicals in the environment, said that while he had not seen the report, its focus on speeding environmental review and consideration of cumulative effects was overdue.

“We put a lot of effort into finding more complex ways to characterize the problems while we don’t put nearly as much resources into studying solutions,” he said. He too cited trichloroethylene. “Given that we know trichloroethylene is a neurotoxin and a carcinogen and that there are very good alternatives it makes no sense to put so much resources into studying it.”

He said that by focusing on safer alternatives for processes like degreasing, industries in Massachusetts had reduced their use of the compound by 90 percent.

“But as long as we are uncertain we assume there is no problem,” he said. “That provides almost an incentive to having scientific uncertainty.”

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Hawaii’s Moon Shot

NY Times

December 2, 2008

Jeffrey Mikulina, a longtime environmental activist in Hawaii, jokes that his home state, which is almost completely dependent on imported oil, is one supertanker away from being Amish. It also is one superheated ocean away from being underwater.

There, in a nutshell, is the motivation behind a new campaign to wean Hawaii from fossil fuels in 10 years. The project is Hawaii’s own moon mission, led by the Blue Planet Foundation and not by the state’s political establishment, which tends to prefer the slow and tortured way to change (a long battle over a new commuter rail system was bogged down by a ferocious debate over whether it should have steel or rubber wheels).

Blue Planet, a private foundation, is the creation of Henk Rogers, a software entrepreneur who made a fortune in Tetris. Reassessing his life after a heart attack two years ago, he decided to pursue a goal that for decades has been as elusive as it is drop-dead obvious.

Hawaii is as energy-hungry as any state, but it has no oil, natural gas, hydroelectric dams or nuclear plants. It needs imported crude to keep the lights on, but it also has an abundance of clean-energy sources: sunshine, wind, powerful tides and waves and cold ocean depths.

A green consciousness is beginning to take root in Hawaii. In January, the state approved a plan to cut its reliance on foreign oil by 70 percent by 2030. Mr. Rogers doesn’t want to wait that long, so his foundation is trying to turbocharge the effort. Mr. Mikulina, the foundation’s executive director, says this will mean more than just throwing up lots more solar panels and windmills and making lavish investments on exotic technologies.

Wind-farm relics from the 1980s are now languishing on Hawaiian hillsides or as forgotten proposals in desk drawers. The foundation plans to seek structural changes, like pushing the state government and Hawaii’s main utility, the Hawaiian Electric Company, to revamp an obsolete electrical system to increase efficiency and to allow customers with solar panels to easily sell power back to the grid. An agreement to do just that was signed last month but has not been enacted into law.

Advances like these, plus a concerted push for conservation, may be just the steps needed to complete the state’s transformation from blue to green. Hawaiians have a long tradition of self-sufficiency, community action and a deep attachment to the land that sustains them — leadership in a clean-energy movement could powerfully reaffirm those values and perhaps spread them to the rest of the nation.

Save the Economy, and the Planet

NY Times

November 27, 2008

Environment ministers preparing for next week’s talks on global warming in Poznan, Poland, have been sounding decidedly downbeat. From Paris to Beijing, the refrain is the same: This is no time to pursue ambitious plans to stop global warming. We can’t deal with a financial crisis and reduce emissions at the same time.

There is a very different message coming from this country. President-elect Barack Obama is arguing that there is no better time than the present to invest heavily in clean energy technologies. Such investment, he says, would confront the threat of unchecked warming, reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil and help revive the American economy.

Call it what you will: a climate policy wrapped inside an energy policy wrapped inside an economic policy. By any name, it is a radical shift from the defeatism and denial that marked President Bush’s eight years in office. If Mr. Obama follows through on his commitments, this country will at last provide the global leadership that is essential for addressing the dangers of climate change.

In his first six months in office, Mr. Bush reneged on a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide and walked away from the Kyoto Protocol, a modest first effort to control global greenhouse gas emissions.

Still two months from the White House, Mr. Obama has convincingly reaffirmed his main climate related promises.

One is to impose (Congress willing) a mandatory cap on emissions aimed at reducing America’s output of greenhouses gas by 80 percent by midcentury. According to mainstream scientists, that is the minimum necessary to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and avoid the worst consequences of global warming. Mr. Obama’s second pledge is to invest $15 billion a year to build a clean economy that cuts fuel costs and creates thousands of green jobs. That includes investments in solar power, wind power, clean coal (plants capable of capturing and storing carbon emissions) and, as part of any bailout, helping Detroit retool assembly lines to build a new generation of more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Mr. Obama has surrounded himself with like-minded people who have spent years immersed in the complexities of energy policy.

His transition chief, John Podesta, was an early advocate of assisting the automakers and of finding low-carbon alternatives to gasoline. Peter Orszag, his choice to run the Office of Management and Budget (where environmental initiatives went to die during the Bush years) is an expert on cap-and-trade programs to limit industrial emissions of greenhouse gases.

Success is not guaranteed. Last year, a far more modest climate-change bill fell well short of a simple majority in the Senate. At least on the surface, it seems counterintuitive to impose new regulations (and, in the short term anyway, higher energy costs) on a struggling economy. Mr. Obama will need all his oratorical power to make the opposite case.

The historical landscape from Richard Nixon onward is littered with bold and unfulfilled promises to wean the nation from fossil fuels, especially imported oil. What is different now is the need to deal with the clear and present threat of global warming. What is also different is that the country has elected a president who believes that meeting the challenge of climate change is essential to the health of the planet and to America’s economic future.