Obama’s horrific coal attacks

President Barack Obama, in last night’s second presidential debate:

And when I hear Governor Romney say he’s a big coal guy, I mean, keep in mind, when — Governor, when you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and pointed at it and said, “This plant kills,” and took great pride in shutting it down. And now suddenly you’re a big champion of coal.

So what I’ve tried to do is be consistent. With respect to something like coal, we made the largest investment in clean coal technology, to make sure that even as we’re producing more coal, we’re producing it cleaner and smarter. Same thing with oil, same thing with natural gas.

It was jarring to see President Obama attack Romney for saying true things about coal, particularly when those things are the same sorts of things environmentalists in the Democratic Party have been saying for years. It literally made my stomach turn when the President launched this attack.

This is not the first time the President has launched this attack on Romney for previously correctly noting that burning coal kills people. His campaign has had an ad up in coal country hitting Romney along for exactly the same statements:

Prior to this, the Obama campaign had run a similar radio ad in Ohio.

By way of disclosure, the organization I work for, Citizen Engagement Lab, works with an anti-climate denial project called Forecast the Facts. I consult on some of their campaigns, including one which called on Obama For America to remove this cynical television ad. That said, this post is my own and does not represent the opinions CEL nor Forecast the Facts.

The most charitable defense of Obama is that he is merely calling out Romney’s changing of positions from someone who recognized that burning coal kills people to someone who denies that burning fossil fuels cause climate change. It certainly is sad that Romney has walked away from a true position from nine years ago.

And though he’s hardly made it an issue in this campaign, the President has made moves to reduce coal pollution. But when he’s attacking Romney for being critical of coal, it’s about being hawkish in Obama’s pursuit of fossil fuel votes in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. That he does this while not mentioning the danger of climate change even once last night is all the worse. Not only has the President staked a position where being critical of coal is meant to be a liability in 2012, he didn’t make a single energy policy argument that had to do with anything other than jobs and cheap energy prices.

Here’s more of the President’s words last night on energy policy:

Natural gas production is the highest it’s been in decades. We have seen increases in coal production and coal employment. But what I’ve also said is we can’t just produce traditional source of energy. We’ve also got to look to the future. That’s why we doubled fuel efficiency standards on cars. That means that in the middle of the next decade, any car you buy, you’re going to end up going twice as far on a gallon of gas. That’s why we doubled clean — clean energy production like wind and solar and biofuels.

And all these things have contributed to us lowering our oil imports to the lowest levels in 16 years. Now, I want to build on that. And that means, yes, we still continue to open up new areas for drilling. We continue to make it a priority for us to go after natural gas. We’ve got potentially 600,000 jobs and 100 years worth of energy right beneath our feet with natural gas.

And we can do it in an environmentally sound way. But we’ve also got to continue to figure out how we have efficiency energy, because ultimately that’s how we’re going to reduce demand and that’s what’s going to keep gas prices lower.

This summer, Bill McKibben had a seminal article in Rolling Stone noting that global consensus is that we cannot let the temperature rise more than 2 degrees Celsius if we want to stop catastrophic climate change. The problem, per McKibben, is that the amount of fossil fuels it will take to raise it 2 degrees is only 20% of the known fossil fuel resources on the planet. Energy companies already know where these fuels are and have plans to extract them and make trillions of dollars in the process. The result is we need to immediately change our fossil fuel consumption patterns to avoid blowing through this destructive mile marker — and this change has to happen in the face of some of the largest companies in the world being told they will not be allowed to realize their planned profits.

When President Obama talks about pursuing cheap energy and having 100 years worth of natural gas here in the US, it makes clear that he does not think climate change is a serious issue demanding immediate policy changes.

The great irony is that a massive shift towards green energy would create jobs. It would create more energy and lower the cost on energy as a result. It would be driven by domestic energy protection, providing greater national security. In short, an aggressive pivot away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy would be a move that achieves the jobs and costs goals the President is arguing for through the continued use of fossil fuels.

Climate change has been a complete non-issue in this election. While Obama has offered passing hints around reducing pollution and expanding renewable resources, he’s not explicit that this is meant to discourage climate change. More often than not he’s framing any energy issue around job creation and lowering energy prices. While Mitt Romney is undoubtedly worse than Obama on these issues, Romney too was once better on them. Both candidates have utterly failed to offer a vision for how they would address climate change. At this late stage, their denial of the dangers of this issue could well amount to a fatal blow to this planet as we know it. We simply don’t have the time for both major political parties to ignore global warming. And if ignoring it wasn’t bad enough, Obama’s cynical attacks on Romney for saying true things about the negative impact of coal make me ill.

Climate Change Terror

First, read this article by Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone.

OK, now that you’ve done that and we’re both terrified, let’s move forward. McKibben sees a real need as making the fossil fuel industry out to be a villain, a global villain. Here’s why:

If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet. John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today’s market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets. The numbers aren’t exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won’t necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.

Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization. “Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices,” says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, who is at work on a book about the climate crisis. “But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.”

McKibben sees a need to weaken the fossil fuel industry’s political power to enable major reforms and change the business incentive to functionally kill the world. He sees a large carbon tax as a primary vehicle to do this. While I can see that mechanically working, I just don’t know how we get from here to there. Politicians are just as captured by the fossil fuel industry as they are by the financial sector.

We just lived through a financial crisis of the largest scale since the Great Depression. And Wall Street was barely touched in response. Frankly it’s hard to imagine a scenario short of some sort of climate-caused doomsday event compelling politicians to consider action on a scale that is needed. Again, this looks a bit like the reality for financial regulation. Only the consequences aren’t economic hardship but the end of the world as we know it. Naturally it’s hard to put our eggs in this basket.

I really don’t know what the answer is and I don’t think McKibben has one either, at least not one that is realistic. All I can recommend at this point is to read this article and get scared. Really fucking scared. Then share it with as many people as you can and make sure they are sufficiently scared too. Maybe if we get enough people scared about what is happening and how perilous a situation we are in, then change can happen. But again, this isn’t much to pin our hopes on.

Marcellus Shale: fracking for 80% less

Originally posted at AMERICAblog.

This is a big deal – the Marcellus Shale natural gas field is becoming like the new ANWR, only instead of being in the Alaskan wilderness, it’s a gas field that runs through the highly populated east coast and midwest. Instead of risking the health and well-being of rare animals as in ANWR, fracking in Marcellus Shale risks the health and well-being of millions of Americans. For energy companies want to get at this gas, they have to use a violent, destructive process called hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking), that pipes water and sand deep underground to force the gas out. Fracking is as nasty as it sounds, producing highly toxic byproducts that contaminate groundwater. Bloomberg reports that US government geologists have dramatically reduced their estimate of the amount of natural gas that can be extracted by fracking in the Marcellus Shale formation:

The U.S. will slash its estimate of undiscovered Marcellus Shale natural gas by as much as 80 percent after a updated assessment by government geologists.The formation, which stretches from New York to Tennessee, contains about 84 trillion cubic feet of gas, the U.S. Geological Survey said today in its first update in nine years. That supersedes an Energy Department projection of 410 trillion cubic feet, said Philip Budzik, an operations research analyst with the Energy Information Administration.

Coincidentally, just a few days ago law enforcement superhero and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman subpoenaed a number of energy companies under the Martin Act, alleging that they weren’t being honest with investors about how much gas were in their wells.

Investigators have requested documents relating to the formulas that companies use to predict how much gas their wells are likely to produce in the coming decades. The subpoenas, which were sent on Aug. 8, also request documents related to the assumptions that companies have made about drilling costs in their estimates of the wells’ long-term profitability.The investigation will be watched closely in the industry because the attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, is using a New York law called the Martin Act that gives him broad powers over businesses and allows him to obtain and publicly disclose an unusual amount of information.

Subpoenas were sent to the three companies — Range Resources, Cabot Oil and Gas, and Goodrich Petroleum — according to the sources, who have direct knowledge of the investigation. Mr. Schneiderman also broadened a continuing investigation by his office into a fourth company, Chesapeake Energy, asking it to respond to similar questions about its shale gas wells, they said.

One of the reasons Schneiderman has taken interest in these energy companies is that New York State pension funds have heavily invested in these companies. Schneiderman has an obligation to help protect the State’s investments, especially if the companies haven’t been honest with investors.

It’s also worth noting that in addition to Schneiderman challenging yet another powerful corporate lobby, he’s also going against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who has sought to end a moratorium on fracking in New York. Seriously – where can we get a few dozen more Eric Schneiderman’s to help get this country back on track?

Nukes and Banks

John Moyers at AMERICAblog makes a great point, namely nuclear power is an industry defined by privatized profits and socialized risks. This is exactly like the financial sector around the world, where banksters made hundreds of billions of dollars in profits and bonuses doing things that blew up the global economy and begat a massive bailout by the American public (and other countries’ citizenries). Just saying.

Read Froomkin

Dan Froomkin does a very good job explaining all the ways that last night’s speech on BP by President Obama failed to be the turning point the White House claimed it would be. Froomkin concludes:

As for inflection points, there may have been one on Tuesday night after all, just not the one the White House was hoping for. This week could, ultimately, mark the point at which the public, and the media, start actively discounting what the president says, judging him instead on what he does and doesn’t do.

Why Are We Angry?

The New York Times editorial board captures the main question that I have which speaks to why I and many others are upset with the response to the BP spill by both the administration and BP.

Fifty-six days into the spill and it is not clear who is responsible — BP, federal, state or local authorities — for the most basic decisions, like when to deploy booms to protect sensitive wetlands. It’s not even clear how much oil is pouring out of the ruptured well. On Tuesday, a government panel raised the estimate to as much as 60,000 barrels a day.

These are really fundamental questions, but the President hasn’t been able to adequately answer them.

Moreover, as Jason Linkins at Huffington Post points out, the much-heralded speech last night didn’t attempt to change our understanding of how the administration is responding nor what we can expect moving forward. It just reiterated things that Obama clearly wants to have done, with no vision for the plan that will realize them. Linkins writes:

I mean, don’t get me wrong. Obama really, really wants to stop the oil spill. And he really, really wants to hold BP accountable for the damage they’ve done. And he really, really wants the Gulf Coast to come through this hardship and he really, really wants to wean us from our dependency on foreign oil, and oil in general. But “really, really wants” is not a plan, and only the bitterest and most brain-dead of political opponents would have presumed, going into tonight, that Obama had not yet properly sentimentalized his opinions on any of those matters.

I guess, at the bottom, I don’t understand what the point of the Oval Office address was. The small policy and punitive steps were already announced in days prior to the speech. Only the most cynical opponents and trite journalists think an even more emotional response actually means something. And in the end, the timing of a speech that lacked groundbreaking action of forceful clarity strikes me solely as being driven by goals of changing perceptions than goals of changing reality.

I don’t begrudge the President for using the power of the office to further his agenda and his positioning, regardless of what that it is. Elections have consequences and he’s entitled to make sure the public knows what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. But I just don’t think this speech succeeded in speaking to the real questions of who is in charge, what does that mean, how are resources being marshaled to stop the leak and how are resources being deployed to contain and clean up oil that is out already.  As a result, people will continue to be angry and, at least in my case, fundamentally dissatisfied by the lack of clarity as to who is in charge and what that means.

Getting Tough?

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism has a really good post on how, finally, Obama is getting tough on BP and more importantly, how absurd BP’s assumption that they would not be held fully accountable by the US government for this spill has been. The upcoming meeting between Obama and BP executives seems to have them actually worried about what might happen – and this meeting will be the perfect opportunity for the president to stop being deferential to a major corporation and hold them accountable for their disaster. Of course, as Smith writes, this hasn’t actually happened yet:

I wouldn’t be optimistic; Team Obama has yet to rough up anyone. But this particular set of circumstances – a monstrous disaster that is not going to be resolved anytime soon and a rich, unpopular, and relatively isolated target – will show whether Obama’s survival instincts will overcome his deep seated deference to corporate chieftains.

Right. And if Obama meets with BP execs and backs off from doing anything substantive, our worst fears for Obama will have been confirmed.

At this point, though, for all the reasons that BP must be held accountable, I find it impossible to think that the administration would not positively try to hold them accountable.

Responding To BP Isn’t About Politics

On TPM, Theda Skocpol is given space to respond to Robert Reich’s case for President Obama putting BP America in receivership so the company would be forced “to use all its available resources and submit itself to full federal oversight and control.” Skocpol’s response is purely taken from a political standpoint:

When a huge private corporation makes a mess and cannot fix it, it is sheer lunacy to take direct charge of that mess unless you can fix it right away.

This is not about politics. It’s about fixing a cataclysmic disaster in the Gulf. That actually matters to some people, but apparently not Skocpol. Sure, BP is saying nothing can produce the results needed to stop the leak until August at the earliest. But Skocpol is a political science professor, not a scientist. Her answer is based entirely on politics and not on any knowledge of what is and is not possible beyond what BP has told her.

I don’t dispute that from a purely political perspective, the administration taking ownership and responsibility for stopping this disaster by deposing BP  is risky if the government doesn’t actually produce better results than BP is saying they can (and to this point, they have produced no results). And yes, as Skocpol says, the administration should be doing a lot to hold BP financially and criminally accountable, while simultaneously dealing with the on-surface consequences of the oil spill in the Gulf. This isn’t a two-front war, it’s a three-front war and ignoring the third front only ensures that the job is harder on the other two fronts. And that the Gulf is turned into a wasteland for decades.

I really don’t care about the politically expedient response from the government. I care about the morally necessary response and the ecologically required urgency that action be taken. All of BP’s efforts have failed and while I am not a geologist or oceanographer or deep-sea drilling expert and therefore do not myself know what else can be done, I believe the size, power, and treasury of the US government is capable of finding another way to try to solve this problem.

Deficit Hawks Should Be Honest

Of course it isn’t shocking that the deficit hawks that want to cut Social Security don’t give two wits about the damage the BP oil spill causes to future generations and the costs that today’s actions are incurring for them. Sarcastic cynicism aside, Dean Baker is right when he writes, “[deficit hawks] just want to cut Social Security and the other programs that allow ordinary working people to enjoy a decent standard of living.” There isn’t anything larger than a hatred of participating in a society that has a social safety net built by the entire nation. On one level, there isn’t anything wrong with having ideological differences with American social safety net policy. But the deficit hawks should be honest about these differences. They aren’t concerned with future generations – they just don’t want there to be Social Security, neither now nor in the future.