There is very little upside for the Obama administration in the ecological and economic disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. The government has come under sharp criticism for underestimating the size of the discharge and for coddling the oil industry for too long.
Until now, perhaps distracted by the critics or because it did not appear that his overall energy agenda was moving forward, President Obama has not made use of the disaster in an overtly political way.
But on Friday — a full month after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon — he made clear that he also was not going to let the moment go to waste, announcing plans to impose stricter fuel-efficiency and emissions standards on cars and, for the first time, on medium- and heavy-duty trucks.
He said the oil gushing from the crippled BP well in the gulf highlighted the need to move away from dirty and dangerous fossil fuels toward a cleaner energy future. And he signaled that he intended to use the accident to continue to push his broader policy priorities, including legislation that would put a price on climate-altering emissions and increased federal aid for American industries in the global race to dominate the clean energy technology sector.
“We know that our dependence on foreign oil endangers our security and our economy,” Mr. Obama said in a Rose Garden announcement. “And the disaster in the gulf only underscores that even as we pursue domestic production to reduce our reliance on imported oil, our long-term security depends on the development of alternative sources of fuel and new transportation technologies.”
Put more starkly: the road Mr. Obama is sending us on to his dreamed-of carbon-free future will be slick with oil for many years to come.
From the Wash Post, "President Obama's decision to approve new oil and gas drilling off America's coasts for the first time in decades reflects a high-stakes calculation by the White House: Splitting the difference on the most contentious energy issues could help secure a bipartisan climate deal this year."
President Obama's decision, announced Wednesday, to approve new oil and gas drilling off U.S. coasts for the first time in decades reflects a high-stakes calculation by the White House: Splitting the difference on the most contentious energy issues could help secure a bipartisan climate deal this year.
In what could represent the biggest expansion of offshore energy exploration in half a century, Obama announced that he will open the door to drilling off Virginia's coast, in other parts of the mid- and south Atlantic, in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and in waters off Alaska. At the same time, he declared off-limits the waters off the West Coast and in Alaska's Bristol Bay, canceled four scheduled lease sales in Alaska and called for more study before allowing new lease sales in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
What Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called "a new direction" in energy policy amounted to an offshore political gerrymander in which the administration barred drilling near states where it remains unpopular -- California and New Jersey -- and allowed it in places where it has significant support, such as Virginia and parts of Alaska and the Southeast.
Some conservative critics questioned whether the policy will have any real impact on energy production, while liberals decried the risks to the environment. But the White House's key audience -- undecided senators who will determine whether a climate bill succeeds on Capitol Hill this year -- suggested that the move had helped revive the legislation's prospects.
A string of senators, including Alaska's Mark Begich (D) and Lisa Murkowski (R), Louisiana's Mary Landrieu (D), New Hampshire's Judd Gregg (R), and Virginia Democrats Mark Warner and James Webb, praised the strategy. They have urged the administration to use a climate bill to help boost domestic energy production, through expansion of oil and gas drilling and nuclear power, and Begich and Gregg said Wednesday's announcement made them more optimistic about a deal on the bill than they have been in months.
Noting that Obama has also offered recent support for more nuclear production, Gregg said such moves show that the administration is "genuinely trying to approach the energy production issue in a multifaceted way and a realistic way, rather than listening to people on their left."
Landrieu concurred, saying that Obama is "sending as clear a signal as possible that he is willing to compromise in a way that will bring forth a great energy and climate bill, and he wants Republicans to be a part of it."
But coastal lawmakers such as Democratic Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland joined environmentalists in blasting the change as unnecessary, and said it could jeopardize fisheries and tourist attractions.
The Obama administration is proposing to open vast expanses of water along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling, much of it for the first time, officials said Tuesday.
The proposal — a compromise that will please oil companies and domestic drilling advocates but anger some residents of affected states and many environmental organizations — would end a longstanding moratorium on oil exploration along the East Coast from the northern tip of Delaware to the central coast of Florida, covering 167 million acres of ocean.
The environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska would be protected and no drilling would be allowed under the plan, officials said. But large tracts in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska — nearly 130 million acres — would be eligible for exploration and drilling after extensive studies.
The proposal is to be announced by President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Wednesday, but administration officials agreed to preview the details on the condition that they not be identified.
The proposal is intended to reduce dependence on oil imports, generate revenue from the sale of offshore leases and help win political support for comprehensive energy and climate legislation.
But while Mr. Obama has staked out middle ground on other environmental matters — supporting nuclear power, for example — the sheer breadth of the offshore drilling decision will take some of his supporters aback. And it is no sure thing that it will win support for a climate bill from undecided senators close to the oil industry, like Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, or Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana.
The Senate is expected to take up a climate bill in the next few weeks — the last chance to enact such legislation before midterm election concerns take over. Mr. Obama and his allies in the Senate have already made significant concessions on coal and nuclear power to try to win votes from Republicans and moderate Democrats. The new plan now grants one of the biggest items on the oil industry’s wish list — access to vast areas of the Outer Continental Shelf for drilling.
Environmental groups and their foes in industry joined hands to embrace the approach, a market-driven system that sets a ceiling on global warming pollution while allowing companies to trade permits to meet it. President Obama praised it by name in his first budget, and the authors of the House climate and energy bill passed last June largely built their measure around it.
Mr. Obama dropped all mention of cap and trade from his current budget. And the sponsors of a Senate climate bill likely to be introduced in April, now that Congress is moving past health care, dare not speak its name.
Mr. Kerry’s partner in promoting global warming legislation, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, pronounced economywide cap and trade dead last month and has since been working with Mr. Kerry to try to patch together a bill that satisfies the diverse economic, regional and ideological interests of the Senate.
That plan, still being written, will include a cap on greenhouse gas emissions only for utilities, at least at first, with other industries phased in perhaps years later. It is also said to include a modest tax on gasoline, diesel fuel and aviation fuel, accompanied by new incentives for oil and gas drilling, nuclear power plant construction, carbon capture and storage, and renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
Why did cap and trade die? The short answer is that it was done in by the weak economy, the Wall Street meltdown, determined industry opposition and its own complexity ...
Two senators, Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington, and Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, have proposed an alternative that they call cap and dividend, under which licenses to pollute would be auctioned to producers and wholesalers of fossil fuels, with three-quarters of the revenue returned to consumers in monthly checks to cover their higher energy costs.
Ms. Cantwell said that cap and trade had been discredited by the Wall Street crisis, the Enron scandal and the rocky start to a carbon credits trading system in Europe that has been subject to dizzying price fluctuations and widespread fraud.
She said her bill would require every pollution permit to be auctioned rather than given away and was 39 pages long, compared with Waxman-Markey, which weighs in at some 1,400 pages.
The Cantwell-Collins plan is almost exactly what Mr. Obama proposed in the campaign and after first taking office — a 100 percent auction of permits and a large tax rebate to the public.
“He called our bill ‘very elegant,’ ” Ms. Cantwell said. “Simplicity and having something people can understand is important.”
Three key senators are engaged in a radical behind-the-scenes overhaul of climate legislation, preparing to jettison the broad "cap-and-trade" approach that has defined the legislative debate for close to a decade.
The sharp change of direction demonstrates the extent to which the cap-and-trade strategy -- allowing facilities to buy and sell pollution credits in order to meet a national limit on greenhouse gas emissions -- has become political poison. In a private meeting with several environmental leaders on Wednesday, according to participants, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), declared, "Cap-and-trade is dead."
Graham and Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) have worked for months to develop an alternative to cap-and-trade, which the House approved eight months ago. They plan to introduce legislation next month that would apply different carbon controls to individual sectors of the economy instead of setting a national target.
According to several sources familiar with the process, the lawmakers are looking at cutting the nation's greenhouse gas output by targeting, in separate ways, three major sources of emissions: electric utilities, transportation and industry.
Power plants would face an overall cap on emissions that would become more stringent over time; motor fuel may be subject to a carbon tax whose proceeds could help electrify the U.S. transportation sector; and industrial facilities would be exempted from a cap on emissions for several years before it is phased in. The legislation would also expand domestic oil and gas drilling offshore and would provide federal assistance for constructing nuclear power plants and carbon sequestration and storage projects at coal-fired utilities.
"This is a different bill," Lieberman said in an interview. "We haven't abandoned the market-based idea, but we're willing to negotiate with colleagues who have different ideas."
Many lawmakers and lobbyists say even a radically different climate bill would face big hurdles to passage, given conflicting corporate and consumer interests, regional divides and a crowded Senate calendar. Energy industry lobbyists have turned much of their attention to proposing numerous variations of more narrow energy legislation.
But President Obama has continued to push for broad legislation that he says would make the U.S. economy more efficient, slow climate change and fulfill U.S. pledges in international climate talks in December to cut the country's emissions by 17 percent by 2020. A U.S. failure to fulfill that commitment could undercut the determination of other nations to live up to their pledges ...
Environmental advocates, eager to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation before the November midterm elections, said the shift in strategy represents the best shot at getting something done this year ...
The change in policy, which might even include giving money raised through carbon pollution allowances directly back to consumers, a scheme known as "cap-and-dividend," could appeal to some wavering senators. Senior Obama administration officials have also been studying the cap-and-dividend approach. But it remains unclear whether that would be enough to produce the 60 votes proponents need, especially when the Senate has yet to finish work on health-care legislation and a jobs package.
I don't understand the position the environmentalists quoted in this NY Times article about Obama losing their support take on nuclear power. No energy source that can produce meaningful amounts of energy is fault free: solar would require redesigning and controlling huge swaths of often pristine land, windmills (off Nantucket) "ruin" views and "desecrate" Indian rites, hydroelectric requires drowning every living thing in gragantuan valleys, etc. And given that most of them have horrible returns on investment when a decentralized approach is considered (for instance, the cost of a solar installation for an individual home in New England has a 15 - 20 year payback--a nonstarter for all but the most committed green) only centralized approaches that require tremendous capital and expertise have any chance of reducing CO2 in the near to medium term.
I don't like it either, but (1) if you're truly, deeply concerned about climate change and think it's the most important environmental problem we face and (2) you want a viable, zero CO2 energy solution for America today (not a leftie, utopian version of America that's not coming any time soon) nuclear power is the best and maybe only option.
Further, it's not like Obama's support for nuclear is a position he adopted in reaction to the changed, post-Scott Brown political landscape. He was in favor of it, and said so, during the first year of his presidency, during the presidential campaign and even going so far back as when he was in the Illinois legislature. So environmentalists knew this at the time they initially chose to support him. (The same can be said, btw, for his stance on "clean coal".) So what's changed?
With much of his legislative agenda stalled in Congress, President Obama and his team are preparing an array of actions using his executive power to advance energy, environmental, fiscal and other domestic policy priorities.
Mr. Obama has not given up hope of progress on Capitol Hill, aides said, and has scheduled a session with Republican leaders on health care later this month. But in the aftermath of a special election in Massachusetts that cost Democrats unilateral control of the Senate, the White House is getting ready to act on its own in the face of partisan gridlock heading into the midterm campaign.
“We are reviewing a list of presidential executive orders and directives to get the job done across a front of issues,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff.
Any president has vast authority to influence policy even without legislation, through executive orders, agency rule-making and administrative fiat. And Mr. Obama’s success this week in pressuring the Senate to confirm 27 nominations by threatening to use his recess appointment power demonstrated that executive authority can also be leveraged to force action by Congress.
Mr. Obama has already decided to create a bipartisan budget commission under his own authority after Congress refused to do so. His administration has signaled that it plans to use its discretion to soften enforcement of the ban on openly gay men and lesbians serving in the military, even as Congress considers repealing the law. And the Environmental Protection Agency is moving forward with possible regulations on heat-trapping gases blamed for climate change, while a bill to cap such emissions languishes in the Senate.
In an effort to demonstrate forward momentum, the White House is also drawing more attention to the sorts of actions taken regularly by cabinet departments without much fanfare. The White House heavily promoted an export initiative announced by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke last week and nearly $1 billion in health care technology grants announced on Friday by Kathleen Sebelius, the health and human services secretary, and Hilda L. Solis, the labor secretary.
White House officials said the increased focus on executive authority reflected a natural evolution from the first year to the second year of any presidency.
“The challenges we had to address in 2009 ensured that the center of action would be in Congress,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director. “In 2010, executive actions will also play a key role in advancing the agenda.”
The use of executive authority during times of legislative inertia is hardly new; former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush turned to such powers at various moments in their presidencies, and Mr. Emanuel was in the thick of carrying out the strategy during his days as a top official in the Clinton White House.
But Mr. Obama has to be careful how he proceeds because he has been critical of both Mr. Clinton’s penchant for expending presidential capital on small-bore initiatives, like school uniforms, and Mr. Bush’s expansive assertions of executive authority, like the secret program of wiretapping without warrants ...
Another drawback of the executive power strategy is that actions taken unilaterally by the executive branch may not be as enduring as decisions made through acts of Congress signed into law by a president. For instance, while the E.P.A. has been determined to have the authority to regulate carbon emissions, the administration would rather have a market-based system of pollution permits, called cap and trade, that requires legislation ...
The use of executive power came to a head this week when Mr. Obama confronted Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, about nominations held up in the Senate. In a meeting with Congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday, Mr. Obama turned to Mr. McConnell and vowed to use his power to appoint officials during Senate recesses if his nominations were not cleared.By Thursday, the Senate had voted to confirm 27 of 63 nominations that had been held up, and the White House declared victory.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar journeyed out into Nantucket Sound on a Coast Guard vessel last week to signal the Obama administration's readiness to put some muscle behind wind energy. To do that, Salazar has to resolve a battle over building a wind farm on 25 square miles of open water that has driven a rift between environmentalists, infuriated local Native Americans and threatened one of the administration's cherished priorities.
The nearly decade-long fight over whether to construct a 130-turbine offshore wind farm near Martha's Vineyard has spurred numerous state and federal regulatory reviews. It has cost millions in lobbying fees and has prompted an intense political debate on Cape Cod and in Washington, setting those who back renewable energy against those who want to preserve the natural beauty of Nantucket Sound.
"The worst thing we can do for the country is to be in a state of indecision, and this application has been in a state of indecision for a very long time," said Salazar, who came to see the proposed site of the Cape Wind project and to meet with tribes that oppose it.
With many other obstacles resolved, including the wind farm's potential hindrance to navigation and fishing and harm to birds, the tribes represent the project's latest challenge: They practice a sunrise ritual every morning on the sound and say they may have artifacts buried beneath the seabed. They have managed to qualify the sound for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, which could restrict its commercial use.
He said that although his department is trying to broker a deal between the tribes and Energy Management, the company seeking to build the farm, "I'm not holding my breath for a consensus." And if the two sides cannot resolve their differences, he said, he will do it himself by April.
The venture stands as a critical test of whether the Obama administration, which views investing in renewable energy as key to reviving the economy and combating climate change, can launch the clean-energy revolution it has promised voters.
Ian Bowles, the Massachusetts energy and environmental affairs secretary, called the Cape Wind project "symbolic of America's struggle with clean energy. Its symbolism has risen above the number of megawatts."
Both sides agree that this offshore wind project, which would be the first in the United States and would furnish about 75 percent of Cape Cod's energy, shows just how hard it will be to construct wind farms off America's coasts.
A day after delivering his State of the Union address, Mr. Obama came to Florida to announce the investment of $8 billion in high-speed rail projects in 13 major corridors, which he said would provide a down payment for the most significant advance in transportation since the Interstate highway system was built more than a half-century ago ...
The administration announced the $8 billion awards to coincide with the president and vice president’s trip here on Thursday. For months, states have been competing for the financing.
Most of the money, officials decided, will go toward improving existing rail service. More than a billion dollars, for instance, will go to speed train travel between Chicago and St. Louis to up to 110 miles per hour — faster than it is now, but a far cry from the kind of bullet trains that zip along at speeds of more than 150 m.p.h. in Japan and Europe. Two of the largest shares of money are being distributed for investments in bullet-train projects.
The administration said that a $2.25 billion award would help California make a small down payment on its ambitious $45 billion plan to build trains that can go 220 miles an hour. The stimulus money will go to buy right-of-way, build track, and do engineering and environmental work.
Another $1.25 billion will go to build 84 miles of track from Tampa to Orlando, which would allow trains to travel at up to 168 m.p.h., the first leg of a corridor that is eventually expected to go to Miami. If the state and federal financing hold, the first phase of the railway is scheduled to be completed by 2015.
“It’s the biggest thing since Walt Disney World for the I-4 Corridor,” said Representative Kendrick B. Meek, Democrat of Florida, who is running for Senate this year.
The president’s trip to Tampa on Thursday marked his third visit to the state since taking office. The high-speed rail project represented a considerable investment into the state, which the Obama-Biden ticket carried in 2008.
Before any suggestions could be made about any potential political benefits of the awards, Mr. Biden told the audience here that both Florida and California have something in common: Republican governors.
“We didn’t pick this based on politics. I mean this sincerely,” Mr. Biden said. “We’re picking the places that make the most sense, have the highest density, are ready to go.”
Amtrak has been working hard to lure more business travelers to its trains, with advertisements highlighting its advantages over air travel — roomier seats, power outlets on its Acela trains and fewer annoyances.
And its efforts have borne some fruit: the number of riders on its Northeast corridor trains has been rising.
But faster trains are critical to its future. So while Amtrak got some desperately needed financing from the federal government this year, its forecasts suggest that speedier rail travel in the United States remains a daunting challenge.
For the Northeast corridor alone, Amtrak estimates that it will need almost $700 million annually for the next 15 years to maintain the system and to tackle a backlog of maintenance projects and upgrades. Reducing travel times between New York and Washington to two-and-a-half hours and times between New York and Boston to three hours — goals that were established in the 1970s — will require straighter track, improvements to bridges and tunnels, increased capacity through Manhattan and newer trains, among other investments.
Almost all of Amtrak’s lines fail to make money, with a total loss of $1.1 billion in 2008. Even technology enhancements seem to move at a slow pace: developing a new electronic reservation system is expected to take until 2015.
Still, Amtrak officials are more optimistic now than they have been in a long time. “We’re probably in the best position to move forward to get the things done we want to get done and that the government wants us to get done,” said David Lim, Amtrak’s chief marketing officer. “We have an administration that is supportive of rail.”
One of the biggest changes for Amtrak is that after years of bare-bones annual financing that limited the railroad’s ability to make significant upgrades, Congress approved a five-year authorization in 2008 that allocates the system nearly $2 billion a year.
Although the money still needs to be appropriated every year, Mr. Lim said, “the fact that there’s a five-year plan makes a tremendous difference. Asking the government for your annual subsidy obviously makes it difficult to plan and execute capital projects.”
In addition, the economic stimulus package approved by Congress early this year provided $1.3 billion to supplement Amtrak’s capital budget and $8 billion in grants for intercity service and high-speed passenger rail. While those amounts will not go far in developing the bullet trains that operate in Europe and Asia and will probably be distributed among projects throughout the country, Amtrak officials say they view the investment as an important policy shift.
There are also signs that passengers are increasingly embracing trains. The number of Amtrak riders has increased steadily since 2001, surpassing 28 million in 2008, though a dip is expected this year because of the recession.
Amtrak estimates it carried 63 percent of travelers flying or taking the train between New York and Washington in 2008 — an increase from 37 percent before the Acela service began in 2000. Amtrak’s market share between New York and Boston was 49 percent last year, compared with 20 percent before Acela.
Amtrak hopes to push those numbers even higher, Mr. Lim said. The railroad plans to introduce free Wi-Fi service on all Acela trains in the second quarter of 2010, then add Northeast regional trains later in the year.
Conservatives have lined up in near-unanimous opposition to any progressive legislation introduced during President Obama’s first year in office. Whether they’ve been railing against health care reform, a climate bill, or financial regulation, their ire has stemmed less from legislative specifics than from a generalized prophecy of doom: Obama’s proposals will move the country toward socialism, bankrupt entire industries and small businesses, and deny Americans their basic freedoms.
These arguments, however, aren’t new. Conservatives—not just Republicans, but various politicians and groups who’ve resisted major social changes—recycled them throughout the twentieth century. They used them to oppose numerous progressive measures that Americans now take for granted, from women’s suffrage to child-labor laws to Medicare. [See "The Republican Party ... [has not and] cannot come to grips with the very nature of the problems of modern American politics"]. Here we’ve collected a few choice predictions about disaster that never came. Conservatives today might prefer they be forgotten.
“It may be impracticable that our distinctively American experiment of individual freedom should go on.”
—Senator David Hill (D-NY), in 1894, bemoaning the creation of a federal income tax
“Woman suffrage would give to the wives and daughters of the poor a new opportunity to gratify their envy and mistrust of the rich. Meantime these new voters would become either the purchased or cajoled victims of plausible political manipulators, or the intimidated and helpless voting vassals of imperious employers.”“[T]he child will become a very dominant factor in the household and might refuse perhaps to do chores before six a.m. or after seven p.m. or to perform any labor.”
—Former President Grover Cleveland, in 1905, on why women shouldn’t be able to vote“I fear it may end the progress of a great country and bring its people to the level of the average European. It will furnish delicious food and add great strength to the political demagogue. It will assist in driving worthy and courageous men from public life. It will discourage and defeat the American trait of thrift. It will go a long way toward destroying American initiative and courage.”
—Senator Weldon Heyburn (R-ID), in 1908, on why child labor should remain unregulated“[I]t would make it practically impossible for any publisher in the United States to accept any food, drug, or cosmetic advertising without facing squarely into the doors of a jail.”
—Senator Daniel O. Hastings (R-DE), in 1935, listing the evils of Social Security“[The Act represents] a step in the direction of Communism, bolshevism, fascism, and Nazism.”
—Federal Trade Commission Chair Ewin L. Davis, in 1935, on the dangers of empowering the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the food, drug, and cosmetic industries ...“It is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races. It has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding.”
—The National Association of Manufacturers, in 1938, condemning a national minimum wage and guaranteed overtime pay“It is socialism. It moves the country in a direction which is not good for anyone, whether they be young or old. It charts a course from which there will be no turning back.”
—Senator Strom Thurmond (D-SC), Senator Richard Russell (D-GA), and other Southern legislators, in 1956, describing the perils of integrating public schools“[T]his bill could prevent continued production of automobiles . . . [and] is a threat to the entire American economy and to every person in America.”
—Senator Carl Curtis (R-NE), in 1965, opposing Medicare“The effects include serious long-term losses in domestic output and employment, heavy cost burdens on manufacturing industries, and a resultant gradual contraction of the entire industrial base. The irony of this bleak scenario is that these economic hardships are borne with no real assurance they would be balanced by a cleaner, healthier environment.”
—Lee Iacocca, executive vice president of Ford Motor Company, in 1970, on why the government shouldn’t regulate airborne contaminants that are hazardous to human health“The doctor begins to lose freedoms; it’s like telling a lie, and one leads to another. First you decide that the doctor can have so many patients. They are equally divided among the various doctors by the government. But then the doctors aren’t equally divided geographically, so a doctor decides he wants to practice in one town and the government has to say to him you can’t live in that town, they already have enough doctors. You have to go someplace else. And from here it is only a short step to dictating where he will go.”
—The National Association of Manufacturers, in 1987, on the perils of an emissions reduction program to combat acid rain
—Ronald Reagan, in 1961, arguing against the creation of Medicare
President Obama outlined Tuesday a first-year legislative record that he said rescued the economy and placed it on a path of long-term growth, even as he acknowledged that some unfinished items would probably be more difficult to achieve heading into a midterm election year.
In an Oval Office interview with The Washington Post, Obama rejected criticism that he has compromised too much to secure health-care reform or turned over too much authority to congressional leaders in pursuing his broad legislative agenda.
But some of Obama's signature initiatives, including cap-and-trade legislation and financial regulatory reform, remain unfulfilled heading into an election year likely to be shaped by what he achieved in Congress this year. Obama personally made the case for his legislative record at a time when his approval ratings are among the lowest of his presidency and as even some of his most ardent supporters are questioning the results of his congressional strategy.
"Overall, if you had a checklist of promises made, a lot of those promises have been kept," Obama said. "When those things are complete, and I think they will be, we will have achieved a fundamental shift in health care, energy, education and our financial regulatory system that will put this economy on a firmer footing to grow over the long term."
As the Senate prepares to pass its version of health-care reform legislation, Obama's advisers have portrayed a highly successful year pushing important bills through Congress, comparing his record to those of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. Presidential scholars offer a more cautious appraisal, even as they note that Obama is operating in a more partisan time in Washington than those Democratic predecessors had.
Obama's legislative record includes the $787 billion stimulus bill passed in February, a mix of tax cuts, infrastructure spending and aid to state and local governments that was the largest of its kind. It also includes a variety of bills addressing issues of particular interest to his political base that had been languishing for years.
Although Obama noted in the interview that "the most important thing we did this year was to ensure that the financial system did not collapse," health-care reform dominated his agenda and will stand as at least one pillar of the legacy he leaves behind. He has come under sharp criticism for the size and shape of the legislation, including from former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean ...
In the interview, Obama vigorously defended the legislation, saying he is "not just grudgingly supporting the bill. I am very enthusiastic about what we have achieved."
"Nowhere has there been a bigger gap between the perceptions of compromise and the realities of compromise than in the health-care bill," Obama said. "Every single criteria for reform I put forward is in this bill."
In listing those priorities, he cited the 30 million uninsured Americans projected to receive coverage, estimated savings of more than $1 trillion over the next two decades, a "patients' bill of rights on steroids," and tax breaks to help small businesses pay for employee coverage.
The fact that Republicans and Democrats differ on whether health-care reform should include a public option is no surprise. That they differ on setting a date for exiting Afghanistan, sure. On Sarah Palin, of course. But on physics? And biology? That the growing list of issues where there is a partisan divide now includes the accuracy of scientific findings may be lamentable for a democracy (if we can't agree on facts, how can we agree on policy?), but it's a gold mine for research on how personality and other psychological factors influence political ideology.
The red-blue split on mammograms is particularly striking. In a recent poll, the Pew Research Center asked 1,002 American adults about a preventive-health task force's conclusion that most women can safely begin mammograms at age 50, not 40, and have one every two years, not annually. (Large studies have found that earlier mammograms save almost no lives; since the radiation can cause cancer, it therefore makes sense to minimize them.) Among Republicans, 15 percent agreed with that. Among Democrats? Twice as many.
One reason, of course, is that the mammogram wars have become entangled in health-care reform, with accusations that the advice is part of a dastardly plot to ration care. Some of the partisan split therefore reflects red-blue views of what John Jost of New York University, who studies the psychological basis of political ideology, calls "a softer version of the 'death panel' claim." But something else is going on, something that speaks to how traits of personality affect political leanings. Since people do not pore over oncology studies and reach their own conclusion on the credibility of the science, they have to trust experts—or not. And thus the partisan divide: Republicans tend to distrust "elites," especially now that the GOP is more Palin than George H.W. Bush or other scion of the white-shoe establishment. In the mammogram debate, that distrust encompasses pointy-headed scientists and makes those who disdain "the reality-based community," as an aide to George W. Bush called scientists, go with the "common sense" view that mammograms save lives.
There is a long list of personality differences between liberals or Democrats and conservatives or Republicans. The former are generally more open to new experiences and ideas, Jost and colleagues found in a 2003 study. The latter tend to be more conscientious, more energetic, and more emotionally stable, Jost later found, as did a 2007 study of 5,623 voters led by Chris Fraley of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The differences are significant: the personality traits predict voting decisions more strongly than age or gender, Fraley found.
The partisan divide on another empirical question—whether Earth is warming, and if so whether that is due to human activities—may reflect something similar.
President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, likes to say that the only thing that is not negotiable is success. The last 48 hours offered a case study in how the president applies that maxim to governing.
After weeks of frustrating delays and falling poll numbers, Mr. Obama decided to take what he could get, declare victory and claim momentum on some of the administration’s biggest priorities, even if the details did not always match the lofty vision that underlined them.
From Copenhagen to Capitol Hill, the president determined the outer limits of what he could accomplish on climate change and health care and decided that was enough, at least for now. He brokered a nonbinding agreement with other world powers to fight global warming, averting the collapse of an international summit meeting. And he blessed a compromise on health care to guarantee the votes needed to pass the Senate.
Neither deal represented a final victory, and in fact some on the left in his own party argued that both of them amounted to sellouts on principle in favor of expediency. But both agreements served the purpose of keeping the process moving forward, inching ever closer toward Mr. Obama’s goals and providing a jolt of adrenaline for a White House eager to validate its first year in office.
Mr. Obama seemed encouraged by the progress ... After landing in a Washington-area snowstorm and retiring for a few hours of rest, Mr. Obama appeared in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on a snowy Saturday. He called the health care deal “a major step forward” and the climate change agreement an “important breakthrough.”
Still, he acknowledged that neither was exactly what he had set out to achieve. On climate change, he said that the Copenhagen pact “is not enough” and that “we have a long way to go.” On health care, he noted that “as with any legislation, compromise is part of the process.”
In an interview, Mr. Emanuel said the developments showed that Mr. Obama “sets out the North Stars for us” in terms of broad and ambitious goals, but is willing to let his staff and allies haggle over the specifics. “He doesn’t negotiate the ends,” Mr. Emanuel said. “He’s very open to discussing alternative routes.”
Critics cautioned against making too much of the agreements. “They are pyrrhic victories,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former Capitol Hill aide. “Neither deal will necessarily improve his poll ratings with swing voters, nor will they energize his base. And neither take the necessary steps to put the American economy back on track, which should be the only thing he is thinking about right now.”
The climate deal in particular may seem more than it is. With the Copenhagen conference unable to agree on binding limits on greenhouse gases linked to climate change, Mr. Obama settled for a three-page agreement with no short or midterm goals but a long-term commitment to prevent world temperatures from rising by more than two degrees by midcentury.
The health care legislation is much further along, and while it compromised on abortion and abandoned a government-run health plan, it still includes many changes long favored by Democrats. If it passes the Senate this week as now appears probable, it stands a much better chance of actually becoming law, culminating decades of largely failed efforts to revamp the nation’s health care system.
Mr. Obama has put a high value on process and keeping things moving, recognizing that history generally does not remember the to and fro, only the big sweep of presidential accomplishments. He may not get the health care plan he envisioned but, if the legislation passes, he will insure 30 million more people, stop insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and at least try to rein in costs. He will not end climate change in his presidency, and may not get the market-based emission caps he wants, but he may move the country, and the world, toward meaningful action.
Of course, to many on both sides of the aisle, there is a less sympathetic narrative.
The railroad tracks from Boston to Washington - the busiest rail artery in the nation, and one that also carries America’s only high-speed train, the Acela - have been virtually shut out of $8 billion worth of federal stimulus money set aside for high-speed rail projects because of a strict environmental review required by the Obama administration.
Because such a review would take years, states along the Northeast rail corridor are not able to pursue stimulus money for a variety of crucial upgrades.
The projects, aimed at increasing speeds, range from bridge replacements in Connecticut to new overhead wires in New Jersey. They would cut the Acela’s travel time from Boston to New York by almost 30 minutes, and from Boston to Washington by a full hour.
When the first grants are announced in January, most of the money - and accompanying jobs - is expected to go to railroad projects in California and the Midwest, which currently have no high-speed trains but are trying to establish service for the first time.
“It’s frustrating,’’ said Yoav Hagler, a planner at the Regional Plan Association in New York, a nonprofit regional planning group in New York. “We have a thriving intercity passenger market between our major cities and we need major investment in the corridor, so it’s a little strange to put that need in the same category as these new programs that are just applying and trying to build a market now,’’ he said.
Northeastern states are seeking some stimulus money for separate rail projects within their borders, such as the Massachusetts proposal to add commuter rail from Fall River and New Bedford to Boston. But travelers on the Acela will miss out on the promise of a faster train and will have to continue waiting for the day when the Northeast route matches the performance of European and Japanese lines.
The obstacle was a decision this year by the Federal Railroad Administration that, before any major upgrades could proceed, a comprehensive environmental review would have to be conducted on the entire 457-mile railroad ...
The FRA itself would be in charge of conducting the review. Although there is no timetable for completing it, similar studies in the past have taken years ...
Amtrak has identified $11.8 billion in upgrades to reduce travel times on the corridor. In addition to better overhead electric supplies and stronger bridges, it includes straightening sections of curvy track and upgrading signaling systems. Without the review mandated by FRA, those plans will sit on the shelf for now, although states were able to apply for a few smaller grants under a separate part of the high-speed program.
The Obama administration, which has embraced high-speed rail as a flagship effort in the stimulus and boasts of Vice President Joe Biden’s long history as an Amtrak commuter, has framed the $8 billion as only the first step in the creation of a nationwide network.
Congress voted recently to provide another $2.5 billion for high-speed rail next year, meaning states that miss out in January will have at least one more chance to apply. But it may be difficult to complete a full environmental review of the Northeast railroad corridor in time for that money, either. A spokesman for Amtrak, Cliff Black, said the last such review for the Corridor took about three years in the mid-1990s, and covered only the stretch between New Haven and Boston ...
The bad news for the Northeast is expected to translate to a windfall for other parts of the country. In the past, critics of rail spending have argued that the Northeast corridor soaked up too much federal transportation funding; the Government Accountability Office estimated in March that since 1990, the corridor had received $3.1 billion - about 75 percent of all federal funds for high-speed rail related projects in that period.
Rob McCulloch, a transportation advocate for Environment America, said that ending that imbalance might have the effect of broadening the political constituency for rail, which would ultimately benefit the region.
It's weird how similar this sounds to what's happened with the health reform. From the London Times:
The UN climate conference in Copenhagen today approved a deal to tackle global warming proposed by world leaders, after an accord Barack Obama brokered with China, India, Brazil and South Africa.
But the UN Secretary General today admitted the non-binding agreement at the conclusion of the conference was not "everything everyone had hoped for", as he confirmed a deal had finally been done.
Delegates have agreed to "take note" of the American-led Copenhagen Accord, despite criticism that there are no long-term targets to cut emissions and it is not a legally-binding treaty.
Obama had brokered the agreement with China, India, Brazil and South Africa to tackle global warming, which included a reference to keeping the global temperature rise to just 2C - but the plan does not specify greenhouse gas cuts needed to achieve the 2C goal.
Prime minister Gordon Brown said the Accord was a "necessary first step" but those in opposition to it described it as "weak" and "meaningless" .
The document setting out the deal will specify a list of countries which agreed with it, as some of the 192 nations which have taken part in the talks are understood not to have accepted it.
In stormy overnight talks Sudan, Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia all denounced the plan after about 120 world leaders left following a summit yesterday. Sudan’s delegate, Lumumba Di-Aping, said the accord would condemn Africa to many deaths from global warming and compared it with the Holocaust.
But this morning UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said: "We have a deal" and described the agreement as an "important beginning" in the fight against climate change. It will allow a provision for $30 billion of climate aid for poorer countries over the next three years to become operational. There will also be a further $100 billion a year from 2020.
Mr Ban said: "The Copenhagen Accord may not be everything everyone had hoped for, but this decision...is an important beginning.”
Under the accord, countries will be able to set out their pledges for the action they plan to take to tackle climate change, in an appendix to the document, and will provide information to other nations on their progress.
UK Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband, who spent the night in talks after Gordon Brown had left the conference, said the failure to secure a stronger agreement showed the difficulty world leaders faced in tackling climate change ...
“I wanted a stronger agreement. Today’s events show the difficulty we face. We are dealing with incredibly complex issues and trying to get 192 countries signed up is not an easy task.”
Further talks are expected at conferences in Germany and Mexico next year and Mr Obama admitted there was "much further to go" ...
Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, echoed Mr Brown's comments adding: “This accord is better than no accord. This is a positive step but it’s clearly below our ambitions.
The agreement, which follows two weeks of high-level debate, has been roundly criticised by environment campaigners and charities.
Read this NY Times article about the Copenhagen climate change conference, what Obama said and what China is doing and tell me it doesn't remind you of the health care debate in Congress, what Obama has said and what the GOP has done.
Here's Obama's speech:
A Research 2000 poll confirms what we assumed to be true: Democrats are not happy with Joe Lieberman.
In fact, 81 percent of Democrats want Lieberman stripped of his Senate Homeland Security Committee chairmanship if he joins with Republicans to block health care reform, compared to only 10 percent who think he should retain it. See the full results here.
Independents agree, 43 percent to 30 percent; all voters also agree, 47 percent to 32 percent. 802 voters were polled by Research 2000 for the Progressive Campaign Change Committee, which has commissioned polling on moderate Democratic senators averse to ambitious health care reform since the debate heated up over the summer.
Lieberman came close to having his chairman's gavel stripped after the election, and it was assumed that he retained it because of 1) the conciliatory signals sent by then-President-elect Obama, and 2) the fact that Democrats needed his vote on critical pieces of President Obama's agenda--like, for instance health care reform ...
If Lieberman is a solid "no" on health care, the only thing preventing the caucus from removing him as chairman is his vote on climate change legislation. He's working on cap-and-trade legislation with Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC); the three released a general framework for legislation last week, but The Washington Post noted that it showed they hadn't agreed to much yet. Lieberman's stance on cap-and-trade appears aggressive: in releasing that framework, Lieberman stressed that the bill will be intended to "punish" polluters, and he took the lead on cap-and-trade legislation in the last Congress.Whether that's enough to keep him in Democrats' good graces--or whether he'd stop working on cap-and-trade if his removed as chairman--is anyone's guess.
When tiny Fisker Automotive Inc. hit a financing glitch last year, threatening its plan to build a fancy gasoline-electric hybrid car in Finland, it turned to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The DOE had a bolder idea. Why not also step up the company's plans to develop a less-expensive model, and assemble it in a closed U.S. auto plant?
Within months, Vice President Joe Biden, the former senator from Delaware, was helping lure the embryonic car company to a shuttered General Motors Co. factory four miles from his house in Wilmington, right across the tracks from Biden Park. Soon, Fisker Automotive, a two-year-old business that has yet to sell a car, won loans from the federal government totaling $528 million.Fisker had joined a flock of other businesses seeking cash from the biggest venture capitalist of all, the U.S. government.
The DOE hopes to lend or give out more than $40 billion to businesses working on "clean technology," everything from electric cars and novel batteries to wind turbines and solar panels. In the first nine months of 2009, the DOE doled out $13 billion in loans and grants to such firms. By contrast, venture-capital firms -- which have long been the chief funders of fledgling tech firms, taking equity stakes in the start-ups that will pay off if they go public -- poured just $2.68 billion into the sector in that time, according to data tracker Cleantech Group.
Thus, while much attention has been focused on the federal government's involvement in banking, Washington also is gaining sway in another swath of the economy. By financing clean-tech ventures on a large scale, the government has become a kingmaker in one of technology's hottest sectors.
Some young companies are tailoring their business plans to win DOE cash. Private investors, meanwhile, are often pulling back, waiting to see which projects the government blesses. Success in winning federal funds can attract a flood of private capital, companies say, while conversely, bad luck in Washington can sour their chances with private investors. The result is an intertwining of public and private-sector interests in an arena where politics is never far from the surface ...
At the DOE, Matthew Rogers, who helps oversee the department's loans, said proposals are vetted by "deal teams" insulated as much as possible from outside pressure. "Lots of people can call the [energy] secretary, but that doesn't mean that any of that necessarily flows down to the deal-team level," he said.
The European Commission Tuesday applauded a decision by the United States Environmental Protection Agency to pave the way for federal limits on emissions of carbon dioxide, saying it should give further impetus to negotiations underway here aimed at crafting a new global agreement to curb greenhouse gases.
The so-called endangerment finding by the E.P.A. was “an important signal by the Obama administration that they are serious about tackling climate change and are demonstrating leadership,” a spokesman from the European Commission said. The finding “gives new momentum following their announcement of cuts,” he said.
Political leaders in Copenhagen welcomed the ruling, but they were quick to press the Obama administration to do more now to sweeten its offer.
Andreas Carlgren, the environment minister of Sweden, the country that currently holds the rotating presidency of the E.U., said in an e-mail message on Tuesday morning that the ruling “shows that the United States can do more than they have put on the table.”
Connie Hedegaard, the Danish politician who was elected on Monday as president of the conference, said in an e-mail message on Tuesday morning that the ruling in the United States “is a helpful step, as it could provide a larger degree of flexibility in the negotiations.” So far President Barack Obama has signaled a cut emissions by about 17 percent by 2020 compared to 2005 levels. The White House also has indicated that the United States would contribute to a fund to tackle climate change.
The announcement by the E.P.A. came after more than 190 nations began a crucial climate meeting here on Monday. The gathering opened with appeals for urgent action from the United Nations and from officials of countries endangered by warmer temperatures, rising sea levels and other damage such as melting glaciers ...
A major reason that hopes have risen in recent weeks is the expectation that President Obama — who plans to attend closing days of the conference next week — will formally commit the United States to making cuts in greenhouse gases. The United States declined to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, a previous agreement on curbing greenhouse gases, because of strong opposition in the Senate and from the Bush administration.
The refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol has left a lingering mistrust of the United States in other parts of the world. The finding by the E.P.A. is expected to allow President Obama to tell delegates in Copenhagen that the United States is moving aggressively to address the problem even while Congress remains stalled on broader legislation to curb global warming legislation.
Senator Barbara Boxer of California, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said that in light of the ruling, “the president’s appearance in Copenhagen will carry even more weight, because it shows that America is taking this issue very seriously and is moving forward.”
As posted about last Spring (see, for instance, April's Obama's Brilliant Strategy To Get His Transformative Policies Enacted), the EPA has made it official. Here's the NY Times:
The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday issued a final ruling that greenhouse gases posed a danger to human health and the environment, paving the way for regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles, power plants, factories, refineries and other major sources.
The announcement was timed to coincide with the opening of the United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen, strengthening President Obama’s hand as more than 190 nations struggle to reach a global accord.
The E.P.A.’s administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, said that a 2007 decision by the Supreme Court required the agency to weigh whether carbon dioxide and five other climate-altering gases threatened human health and welfare and, if so, to take steps to regulate them.
She said Monday that the finding was driven by the weight of scientific evidence that the planet was warming and that human activity was largely responsible.
“There have and continue to be debates about how and how quickly climate change will happen if we fail to act,” Ms. Jackson said at a news conference at the E.P.A.’s headquarters. “But the overwhelming amounts of scientific study show that the threat is real.”
Industry groups quickly criticized the decision, saying that the regulation of carbon dioxide, a near-ubiquitous substance, would be legally and technically complex and would impose huge costs across the economy.
In her prepared remarks and in response to questions, Ms. Jackson waded into the current dispute over leaked e-mail messages from a British climate research group that have stirred doubts among a number of people about the integrity of some climate science.
Several Republicans in Congress had asked the E.P.A. to delay the so-called endangerment finding because of questions about the underlying science. Ms. Jackson rejected their plea.
“We know that skeptics have and will continue to try to sow doubts about the science,” she said. “It’s no wonder that many people are confused. But raising doubts — even in the face of overwhelming evidence — is a tactic that has been used by defenders of the status quo for years.”
She said that the agency had reviewed the arguments of some of those skeptics during months of public comment but that none of them had raised significant new issues.
But as representatives of about 200 nations began talks Monday in Copenhagen on a new international climate accord, they were doing so against a background of renewed attacks on the basic science of climate change.
The debate, set off by the circulation of several thousand files and e-mail messages stolen from one of the world’s foremost climate research institutes, has led some who oppose limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and at least one influential country, Saudi Arabia, to question the scientific basis for the Copenhagen talks.
The uproar has threatened to complicate a multiyear diplomatic effort already ensnared in difficult political, technical and financial disputes that have caused leaders to abandon hopes of hammering out a binding international climate treaty this year.
In recent days, an array of scientists and policy makers have said that nothing so far disclosed — the correspondence and documents include references by prominent climate scientists to deleting potentially embarrassing e-mail messages, keeping papers by competing scientists from publication and making adjustments in research data — undercuts decades of peer-reviewed science.
Yet the intensity of the response highlights that skepticism about global warming persists, even as many scientists thought the battle over the reality of human-driven climate change was finally behind them.
On dozens of Web sites and blogs, skeptics and foes of greenhouse gas restrictions take daily aim at the scientific arguments for human-driven climate change. The stolen material was quickly seized upon for the questions it raised about the accessibility of raw data to outsiders and whether some data had been manipulated ...
Yet the case for human-driven warming, many scientists say, is far clearer now than a decade ago, when the skeptics included many people who now are convinced that climate change is a real and serious threat.
Even some who remain skeptical about the extent or pace of global warming say that the premise underlying the Copenhagen talks is solid: that warming is to some extent driven by greenhouse gases spewing into the atmosphere from human activities like the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.
Why am I not surprised the shift has primarily occurred within the science-phobic GOP (for more on the subject, see A Blue View's Denialism category and/or buy the book that named the phenomenon: Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives). From the Wash Post:
The percentage of Americans who believe global warming is happening has dipped from 80 to 72 percent in the past year, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, even as a majority still support a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions.
The poll's findings -- which also show that 55 percent of respondents think the United States should curb its carbon output even if major developing nations such as China and India do less -- suggest increasing political polarization around the issue, just as the Obama administration and congressional Democrats are intensifying efforts to pass climate legislation and broker an international global warming pact.
The increase in climate skepticism is driven largely by a shift within the GOP. Since its peak 3 1/2 years ago, belief that climate change is happening is down sharply among Republicans -- 76 to 54 percent -- and independents -- 86 to 71 percent. It dipped more modestly among Democrats, from 92 to 86 percent. A majority of respondents still support legislation to cap emissions and trade pollution allowances, by 53 to 42 percent.
Amanda Feinberg, a retired administrative assistant living in South Williamsport, Pa., said she became disenchanted with the idea of human-caused global warming when former vice president Al Gore launched a public awareness campaign with his documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth."
"He just seemed a little radical in his views," said Feinberg, a Republican. "I don't deny it's happening, I just think it's just an evolution of nature."
Lisa Woolcott, another Republican poll respondent, said she doesn't think that burning fossil fuels is "causing all the global warming," adding: "We can't control what happens in the atmosphere." But Woolcott, a physician's assistant who lives in Kansas City, Kan., said she supports the idea of a bill that would cap the nation's greenhouse gas emissions and doesn't think the United States should predicate its actions on what other nations do. "We need to do what's best for us," she said. "I don't think we should back down."
Even proponents of action on climate change, such as Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who has conducted polls on the issue for the American Security Project and the Pew Charitable Trusts, say they have detected a recent fraying of bipartisanship.
"It's a sad state of affairs when science becomes subject to partisan politics," Mellman said. "It can only be attributed to the sense that this issue has become part of a political battle."
Nuclear power -- long considered environmentally hazardous -- is emerging as perhaps the world's most unlikely weapon against climate change, with the backing of even some green activists who once campaigned against it.
It has been 13 years since the last new nuclear power plant opened in the United States. But around the world, nations under pressure to reduce the production of climate-warming gases are turning to low-emission nuclear energy as never before. The Obama administration and leading Democrats, in an effort to win greater support for climate change legislation, are eyeing federal tax incentives and loan guarantees to fund a new crop of nuclear power plants across the United States that could eventually help drive down carbon emissions.
From China to Brazil, 53 plants are now under construction worldwide, with Poland, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia seeking to build their first reactors, according to global watchdog groups and industry associations. The number of plants being built is double the total of just five years ago.
Rather than deride the emphasis on nuclear power, some environmentalists are embracing it. Stephen Tindale typifies the shift ... "It really is a question about the greater evil -- nuclear waste or climate change," Tindale said. "But there is no contest anymore. Climate change is the bigger threat, and nuclear is part of the answer."
A number of roadblocks may yet stall nuclear's comeback -- in particular, its expense. Two next-generation plants under construction in Finland and France are billions of dollars over budget and seriously behind schedule, raising longer-term questions about the feasibility of new plants without major government support. Costs may be so high that energy companies find financing hard to secure even with government backing.
But experts also point to a host of improvements in nuclear technology since the Chernobyl accident and the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979. Most notable is an 80 percent drop in industrial accidents at the world's 436 nuclear plants since the late 1980s, according to the World Association of Nuclear Operators.
So far at least, the start of what many are calling "a new nuclear age" is unfolding with only muted opposition -- nothing like the protests and plant invasions that helped define the green movement in the United States and Europe during the 1960s and 1970s.
As opposition recedes, even nations that had long vowed never to build another nuclear plant -- such as Sweden, Belgium and Italy -- have recently done an about-face as they see the benefits of a nearly zero-emission energy overriding the dangers of radioactive waste disposal and nuclear proliferation.
In the United States, leading environmental groups have backed climate change bills moving through Congress that envision new American nuclear plants. An Environmental Protection Agency analysis of the Waxman-Markey bill passed by the House, for instance, shows nuclear energy generation more than doubling in the United States by 2050 if the legislation is made law. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing applications for 22 new nuclear plants from coast to coast.
Nearly thirty years after he left office, the most important achievement of Jimmy Carter's time as president was his cementing the relationship with China that had begun under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. (Second-most important: Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt. Third: showing that it was possible, at least for a while, to increase the energy efficiency of cars, buildings, power generation, and industry within the US.)
Thirty years from now, the most important aspect of Barack Obama's interaction with China will be whether the two countries, together, can do anything about environmental and climate issues. If they can, in 2039 we'll look back on this as something like the Silent Spring/Clean Air Act moment in American history, which began a change toward broad environmental improvement. If they can't....
Following up on American Inaction Destroys Hopes For Climate Change Conference: Revised Agenda Is Lamer, Less Effective, there's this from the NY Times:
President Obama came into office pledging to end eight years of American inaction on climate change under President George W. Bush, and all year he has promised that the United States would lead the way toward a global agreement in Copenhagen next month to address the warming planet.
But this weekend in Singapore, Mr. Obama was forced to acknowledge that a comprehensive climate deal was beyond reach this year. Instead, he and other world leaders agreed that they would work toward a more modest interim agreement with a promise to renew work toward a binding treaty next year.
The admission places Mr. Obama in the awkward position of being, at least for now, as unlikely to spearhead an international effort to combat global warming as his predecessor — if for different reasons.
In Mr. Bush’s case, he remained skeptical about the science of global warming until near the end of his presidency and dubious about the need for concerted global action. And his reluctance was echoed by a Congress that wanted to see clear commitments from developing countries like China.
But Mr. Obama has been a champion of climate change regulation. He has moved unilaterally to limit greenhouse gases from vehicles and large sources such as coal-burning power plants. And in recent months, China, India, Brazil and some other developing countries have issued promises to slow the growth of emissions, although with the knowledge that a binding treaty to enforce such pledges will not take effect for at least several years.
Yet Mr. Obama has found himself limited in his ambitions by a Congress that is unwilling to move as far or as fast as he would like.
American negotiators have been hamstrung in talks leading to the Copenhagen conference by inaction on legislation supported by the administration that would impose strict caps on carbon dioxide emissions. The House passed a relatively stringent bill in June, but the Senate is not expected to begin serious debate on the measure until next year.
Without a firm commitment from the United States — for decades the world’s leading emitter of climate-altering gases — other nations have been reluctant to deliver firmer pledges of their own. Mr. Obama’s aides say he remains determined to use his domestic authority and international clout to continue pressing toward a global agreement. despite the latest setback.
“Is this impasse the United States’ fault? Of course. But others are at fault as well,” said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign in Washington, citing the opposition of polluting industries and the reluctance of emerging economies to commit to binding curbs on emissions. “We have both the obligation and capability of taking the lead on this issue. The longer we delay, the more extreme the steps that will have to be taken.”
Mr. Obama expressed support on Sunday for a proposal from Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen of Denmark to pursue a two-step process at the Copenhagen conference.
President Obama and other world leaders have decided to put off the difficult task of reaching a climate change agreement at a global climate conference scheduled for next month, agreeing instead to make it the mission of the Copenhagen conference to reach a less specific “politically binding” agreement that would punt the most difficult issues into the future.
At a hastily arranged breakfast on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting on Sunday morning, the leaders, including Lars Lokke Rasmussen, the prime minister of Denmark and the chairman of the climate conference, agreed that in order to salvage Copenhagen they would have to push a fully binding legal agreement down the road, possibly to a second summit meeting in Mexico City later on.
“There was an assessment by the leaders that it is unrealistic to expect a full internationally, legally binding agreement could be negotiated between now and Copenhagen, which starts in 22 days,” said Michael Froman, the deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs. “I don’t think the negotiations have proceeded in such a way that any of the leaders thought it was likely that we were going to achieve a final agreement in Copenhagen, and yet thought that it was important that Copenhagen be an important step forward, including with operational impact.”
With the clock running out and deep differences unresolved, it has, for several months, appeared increasingly unlikely that the climate change negotiations in Denmark would produce a comprehensive and binding new treaty on global warming, as its organizers had intended.
The agreement on Sunday codifies what negotiators had already accepted as all but inevitable: that representatives of the 192 nations in the talks would not resolve the outstanding issues in time. The gulf between rich and poor countries, and even among the wealthiest nations, was just too wide.
Among the chief barriers to a comprehensive deal in Copenhagen was Congress’s inability to enact climate and energy legislation that sets binding targets on greenhouse gases in the United States. Without such a commitment, other nations are loath to make their own pledges.
Administration officials and Congressional leaders have said that final legislative action on a climate bill would not occur before the first half of next year.
As the world heads for tough negotiations over a global climate deal next month, an influential forecasting agency said on Tuesday that current energy policies were not sustainable, and that a vast transformation of energy use was required to fend off the worst consequences of global warming.
In the absence of a global deal to limit the emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas blamed for climate change, energy consumption will soar over the next decades. This would result in a catastrophic rise in global temperatures, according to the International Energy Agency, an adviser to industrialized nations that is based in Paris.
“Continuing on today’s energy path, without any change in government policy, would mean rapidly increasing dependence on fossil fuels, with alarming consequences for climate change and energy security,” the agency said.
The warning was contained in the annual World Energy Outlook, a 698-page publication that focuses this year on policies needed to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide.
A part of the report was released last month as a map for policy makers considering how to make significant reductions. Government officials from about 190 nations will meet next month in Copenhagen to try to hammer out an international deal to replace the agreement known as the Kyoto protocol, which expires in 2012.
But international negotiators have signaled that an agreement is unlikely to be reached this year in the absence of a broad consensus on how to share the costs of switching to lower-carbon technologies and fuels.
The recession, the energy agency said, offers an opportunity to make big strides in lowering emissions. As a result of reduced economic activity this year, global emissions are expected to fall as much as 3 percent, the steepest decline in 40 years.
Without a new global agreement, carbon emissions will rise by 40 percent by 2030, the agency said. More than half of that growth will come from China alone, with the rest coming from other developing nations.
The agency’s forecasts are based on the assumption of no changes in energy policy from governments.
Global electricity demand, for example, would rise by 76 percent by 2030, requiring the addition of five times as much production capacity as exists today in the United States. Much of that would come from burning coal; its share of the global energy mix would grow by 2 percentage points to reach 44 percent in 2030.
The recession, which has slowed the growth in demand and allowed governments to introduce energy-saving programs, provides some breathing room. As a result of some of these policies, like stricter fuel economy standards for cars, the energy agency has reduced its forecast for oil demand in coming years.
Forecasters now expect global oil consumption to grow 1 percent a year in the next two decades, reaching 105 million barrels a day by 2030, from 85 million barrels a day in 2008. That estimate is lower than last year’s forecast for 2030 of 106 million barrels a day. It is also well below the 120 million barrels a day that the energy agency had projected a few years ago.
If the world agreed on stringent emissions limits, oil demand would reach just 89 million barrels a day by 2030, the agency said. That would represent a modest increase of four million barrels a day over current consumption levels.
As economies recover, energy demand will rise. After two years of declines because of the recession, government forecasters in the United States projected on Tuesday that global oil consumption would rise again next year ...
The recession has not only reduced energy demand this year, it has also curbed investments in new supplies. In the oil and gas sector, most companies have announced cutbacks in capital spending, as well as project delays and cancellations, the International Energy Agency said. It estimated that investment budgets for 2009 had been cut by around 19 percent compared with last year, a drop of over $90 billion.
The cost of reducing carbon emissions — through energy efficiency, more investments in renewable power, electric vehicles, expansion of nuclear power, and building carbon capture and storage technology for coal-burning power plants — would be high.But for each year of delay in an agreement, the world will eventually have to spend an additional $500 billion to cut emissions, the agency said.
In a step that reflected deep partisan divisions in the Senate over the issue of global warming, Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee pushed through a climate bill on Thursday without any debate or participation by Republicans.
The measure passed by an 11-to-1 vote with the support of all the Democratic committee members except Senator Max Baucus of Montana. The seven Republicans boycotted the committee meetings this week, saying they had not had sufficient time to study the bill and demanding that the Environmental Protection Agency conduct a thorough study of its economic costs and benefits.
The move suggests that President Obama and Democratic supporters of the bill will have serious problems assembling the votes needed to enact it when it comes to the Senate floor, probably not before next year.
Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, the committee’s chairwoman and co-sponsor of the bill, employed a rarely used exception to customary committee rules to muscle the 959-page measure through her panel. She conducted three days of hearings last week on the bill, known as S. 1733, but there was no debate on the complex measure, nor any chance for panel members to offer amendments.
Mrs. Boxer said that the E.P.A. had already conducted a preliminary analysis of the bill and that further study would be costly and duplicative. She said it was necessary to bypass the committee’s rule that required Republican participation because of Republican intransigence and the urgency of the issue.
“A majority of the committee,” she said in a statement, “believes that S. 1733, and the efforts that will be built upon it, will move us away from foreign oil imports that cost Americans $1 billion a day, it will protect our children from pollution, create millions of clean energy jobs and stimulate billions of dollars of private investment.”
The senior Republican on the environment committee, Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, said the bill would harm the American economy and cost millions of jobs. He said the Democrats’ decision to ram the bill through “marked the death knell” of efforts to enact a comprehensive climate change bill.
Mr. Baucus’s vote against the bill was another ominous sign. He is the influential chairman of the Finance Committee and a senior member of the Agriculture Committee, both of which will have major input in any final climate and energy legislation. He said the bill’s emission reduction targets were too ambitious and its agriculture provisions too weak. He said the measure had a long way to go.“This is a first step,” he said Thursday. “There will be many other steps.”
The climate-change bill that has been moving slowly through the Senate will face a stark political reality when it emerges for committee debate on Tuesday: With Democrats deeply divided on the issue, unless some Republican lawmakers risk the backlash for signing on to the legislation, there is almost no hope for passage.
Like the measure adopted by the House, the legislation favors a cap-and-trade system that would issue permits for greenhouse gas emissions, gradually lower the amount of emissions allowed, and let companies buy and sell permits to meet their needs -- all without adding to the federal deficit, according to projections. But key Republicans are making their opposition clear, even as Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has enlisted Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) as his most visible GOP ally in gathering support for the bill.
Sen. George V. Voinovich (Ohio), a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee who was initially seen as one of the few Republicans who might consider backing the majority, is helping lead the opposition.
"Why are we trying to jam down this legislation now?" he asked during a hearing last week. "Wouldn't it be smarter to take our time and do it right?"
He wrote Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson twice this summer to ask for a more detailed economic analysis of the House-passed climate legislation, and he has joined the other six Republicans on the committee in boycotting the climate bill's markup, scheduled for Tuesday.
The measure has deeply divided Democrats. With states in the Midwest, South and Rocky Mountain West dependent on fossil fuels for energy, many senators are worried about the legislation's impact on industry and consumers.
"I think at the end of the day, the people who turn the switch on at home will be disadvantaged," Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) told CNBC on Friday, explaining why he did not think the bill Kerry had sponsored along with Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) could pass.
So Democratic leaders, with the support of the Obama administration, are trying to sway at least half a dozen Republicans by offering amendments to speed along their top priority: building nuclear power plants.
Graham has suggested provisions on nuclear power and offshore oil drilling that could win his support for a cap-and-trade climate bill. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) has established a bipartisan working group of 17 Senate offices that is close to producing a detailed amendment aimed at hurrying the construction of U.S. nuclear reactors.
But it remains unclear whether that approach will hold currency in the current era of political polarization. One of the top Republicans whom Democrats hope to recruit in this effort -- Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), whom Graham and Kerry recently buttonholed on the Senate floor -- has voiced skepticism about the legislation.