How Much Has Changed? Obama Administration Deals Series of Anti-Environmental Blows
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But by far the boldest stroke of this spring was Obama's courageous decision to zero out funding for the planned nuclear-waste repository at the sacred Yucca Mountain. This vault on earthquake-prone lands of the Western Shoshone near Las Vegas was long meant to be the escape hatch for the nuclear industry's most aggravating problem: where to hide the accumulating piles of radioactive material from the nation's 104 commercial nuclear reactors.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., says Yucca Mountain is dead. So does Energy Secretary Stephen Chu. But Yucca Mountain has been buried before only to rise up from the grave. If indeed Obama has succeeded in killing it off, this alone will eclipse all of the vaporous achievements of the Clinton era.
Still, appraisal of the true meaning of the Yucca Mountain decision must be countered by the administration's ongoing promotion of nuclear power as corrective to climate change. Chu and Obama's chief science adviser, John Holdren, are pushing for federal subsidies for a new generation of nuclear power plants -- even though Obama has admitted there's no safe place to store nuclear waste. Even more disturbing, Holdren continues to hawk the fool's gold of the nuclear lobby: fusion energy.
In a recent interview with Science, Holdren said: "We need to develop and deploy approaches to nuclear energy that can minimize the liabilities that have inhibited expansion of that carbon-free energy source up until now. We need to see if we can make fusion work. This is a quest in which I've been engaged since 1965. Again, I started [my work at MIT] in that domain. At that time, people thought fusion was 15 years away. Now people think it's 40 or 50 years away. We need to shrink that time scale again by increasing the investment for making that domain."
This means billions more for the nuclear lobby under the guise of research and development, the pipeline of federal subsidies that has kept the industry alive since Three Mile Island.
Then just last week, Obama announced a sweeping overhaul of the car-fuel-efficiency and exhaust-emissions standards, which have languished unmodified for more than a decade. These long-overdue upgrades will force car makers (if there are any left five years from now, when the rules are slated to finally kick in) to curb carbon-dioxide emissions by 35 percent and hike fuel efficiency standards from 30 to 35 miles per gallon. While the proposal has been hailed as historic, it has plenty of drawbacks.
For starters, the plan capitulated to automakers by endorsing a national emissions standard, which will likely pre-empt states, such as California, from adopting even more stringent clean air rules. Obama also gave the auto industry a few more years to come into compliance with these rather modest requirements. No wonder the move was hailed by traditional Motor City defenders such as Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.
Less endearing is the Obama administration's relentless push to replace oil with biofuels, which will push marginal agriculture lands into production of genetically engineered and pesticide-saturated monocrops, scalping topsoil and draining dwindling water supplies across the Great Plains and Midwest. Overseeing this misguided scheme is Obama's Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, who has long been a servant of industrial agriculture and the bioengineering industry.
Under Vilsack, the biofuels project is poised to move far beyond burning corn and soybeans for fuel. They want to chop down national forests and burn the public's trees inside a new generation of biomass power generators.
This insidious and little-noticed program will be marshaled by biomass booster Homer Lee Wilkes, a little-known urban planner from Madison, Miss. Wilkes was Vilsack's surprise pick for the powerful slot of Undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, a position that, among other responsibilities, places Wilkes in control of the U.S. Forest Service.