Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Energy Bill: Worse than Nothing

There is little worse than a bad bill. The energy bill is a very bad bill. The reforms it makes are almost meaningless. Rather than passing a bill driven by environmentally-friendly ideas, local politics and national security concerns won the day. In many ways, this bill is actually worse for the environment than no bill at all. That General Motors would support it and George W. Bush would sign it says how little good it actually contains.

There are two big supposed environmental successes in the bill: increased fuel standards and a commitment to biofuels. By 2020, American vehicles must average 35 miles per gallon. That is a significant increase over today. So why isn't this good? It is good on a basic level, but the technologies to get our vehicles to 35 mpg exist today. That should be standard by 2010, not 2020. Detroit made a choice in the early 1990s. They could have implemented technologies to raise the mileage of their vehicles. Instead, they decided they could make more money by using those technologies to make bigger and more powerful vehicles. From a financial standpoint, they certainly succeeded. The SUV craze revitalized the Big Three after the malaise of the 1970s and 80s. But from an environmental perspective, it was a total disaster. Detroit opposed raising mileage standards so they would not have to move away from their giant vehicles. That this bill passed shows how easily Detroit believes it will be able to implement these technologies. By 2020, the technologies will likely exist to make the average vehicle get at least 45-50 mpg. That would be a valuable goal. The Big Three can now argue that they are environmentally friendly while still resisting the real changes necessary to lead us into a more sustainable future.

While I am disappointed by the low mile per gallon standard, I am outraged by the commitment to ethanol. Over the past couple of years, environmentalists have largely turned against corn-based ethanol. This has happened for a variety of reasons. For one, pollution emitted by ethanol is no better than gasoline. Second, it is already driving up food prices. With the expansion mandated in the bill, we are likely to see those prices skyrocket. Third, the technologies for turning corn into usable ethanol are not very advanced. It takes a lot of corn to produce ethanol, thus limiting how much we can really use it without a massive expansion in the amount of corn we plant. Fourth, large-scale corn production has serious environmental consequences. Intensive farming in the East has led to plummeting bird populations because of habitat depletion. Ironically, biofuels could help fulfill Rachel Carson's feared future with a Silent Spring. Also, the amount of fertilizer necessary to grow this much corn will flow down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico, expanding the already sizable dead zone that comes from the algae blooms caused by nitrogen-based fertilizers.

But of course corn farmers love the energy bill. Farmers have a disproportionate amount of power in this country, both because of our national agrarian myths and because each state gets two senators, thus allowing Iowa and Nebraska to have an equal say as California and New York. So there is a large political constituency for increased corn production. And many politicians, desperate to end our reliance on foreign fuel, are willing to do anything to see that happen. They just don't care about the environmental impacts of corn production.

Perhaps the worst part about the energy bill is that it does nothing to promote alternative fuels. This includes wind energy, which has been a growing industry over the past decade. As Tom Carnahan, president of the Wind Capital Group, said on NPR last night, this bill is actually going to hurt wind production. Bush threatened to veto an earlier version of the bill that would have mandated more spending on wind, solar, and other alternative energies. This bill actually strips already existing tax incentives for renewable energy. Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency has denied a 17 state effort to set standards on carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles, killing efforts to force automakers to green faster than the Bush administration wants.

All and all then, the energy bill stinks. The Sierra Club and some other mainstream environmental organizations have said a few words in its support, particularly over the increased fuel standards. But these changes are moderate and are to be implemented at a snail's pace. The reality is that only through continued environmental activism, the election of a Democratic president in 2008, and the developing of a spine among the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, will be a real energy bill come into being.