Amanda Griscom Little

Will Global Warming Threaten National Security?

This article is reprinted by permission from Grist. For more environmental news and humor sign up for Grist's free email service.

How might U.S. national security be threatened by mega-droughts, coastal flooding, killer hurricanes, food scarcity, and the other ecological calamities scientists widely predict will occur if global warming continues apace?

No one knows, but Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) think it's time to find out. Last week, the bipartisan duo introduced a bill that would require federal intelligence agencies to collaborate on a National Intelligence Estimate to evaluate the security challenges presented by climate change.

The bill's debut is well-timed. First, it came just before the official release of a big report on the expected impacts of global warming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Unveiled on Friday, the report painted a sobering picture of the increased famine, drought, heat waves, fires, storms, and infectious-disease outbreaks that we can expect to riddle the globe, particularly in the world's poorest nations, if current warming trends aren't reversed. Second, it comes just as Britain has scheduled an April 17 meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss potential security threats posed by climate change -- the first time the body will consider the issue.

National Intelligence Estimates -- NIEs in intelligence lingo -- "are about as authoritative as it gets when it comes to written judgments concerning national security issues," explains Joe Shoemaker, Durbin's press secretary.

"They are developed to address the most serious of threats." It was an NIE on Iraq's program to build weapons of mass destruction, for instance, that the Bush administration used as key evidence (albeit deeply flawed) in making its case for invading Iraq. Other subjects of NIEs in recent years have included nuclear-weapons development in Iran and the likelihood of a Sunni-Shiite civil war breaking out in Iraq.

NIEs involve 16 intelligence agencies -- including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and various military intelligence arms -- working together typically over three to six months, pooling data and sharing perspectives to assemble a comprehensive picture of threats to U.S. security. "It would be a significant investment of time and resources," says Shoemaker.

Durbin, assistant Senate majority leader, has long supported a federal cap on greenhouse gases, and is now broadening his case for action against climate change. "For years, too many of us have viewed global warming as simply an environmental or economic issue," he said in introducing the bill at a Senate hearing last week. "We now need to consider it as a security concern." Durbin characterized climate-change consequences as "a clear and present danger to the United States" and "a potential threat multiplier for instability around the world."

Hagel, a possible contender for the GOP presidential nomination, led the effort to block U.S. participation in the Kyoto treaty and continues to staunchly oppose mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gases, but he has been a leader among moderate Republicans in moving to address climate change in other, non-regulatory ways.

"Sen. Durbin and I differ on policy initiatives designed to reduce the impact of climate change," Hagel said at the hearing. "We do agree, however, on the need to assess potential impacts of the changing climate on U.S. national security interests."

Perhaps Hagel considers this bill a good way to position himself for a presidential run -- combining national security, a key GOP issue, with climate change, the big topic du jour.

Enviros applaud the bipartisan measure. "It's welcome to see Hagel pairing with Durbin on this," David Doniger of the Natural Resource Defense Council told Muckraker. "But it would be even more welcome to see him embrace the need for deep, mandatory cuts in global-warming pollution." To recognize the severity of the threat but not support a meaningful solution, said Doniger, is "a bit of an internal contradiction."

Hagel's support for this bill nevertheless represents an important turnabout for Republicans. There was an effort during the Clinton administration to broaden the definition of national security to include environmental and humanitarian threats like climate change and famine, but, said Doniger, "Republicans pooh-poohed it as namby-pamby stuff, as though the real men only dealt with bombs. Look where that approach got us."

Times have indeed changed since the Clinton era. Not only has the scientific community come to virtual consensus on the reality of climate change, but conflicts over resource scarcity have intensified. "Some say that what we're seeing in Darfur, for instance, is at its core a climate-change war," said Doniger. "It's driven by drought that causes the farmers to fight for limited access to arable land and pasture."

These are precisely the kinds of conditions that the NIE would evaluate. Said Durbin at the Senate hearing, "Many of the most severe effects of global warming are expected in regions where fragile governments are least capable of responding to them."

He described Africa's susceptibility to famine, and the flood vulnerability of low-lying coastal areas in the Asia-Pacific region, home to 58 percent of the world's population. Disasters in such areas could displace hundreds of millions of people, overburden national militaries, and require an international response. "This intelligence assessment will guide policymakers in protecting our national security and averting potential international crises," Durbin said.

Dave Hamilton, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program, hopes the bill will help broaden the American public's understanding of energy security. "Usually people equate that simply with reducing oil imports, but an equally if not more potent aspect of this challenge is using energy in a way that lessens the progression of global warming," he said.

No date has yet been set for a vote on the bill, but Durbin's staffers expect it to take place in the next two to six months. Shoemaker believes the bill has a good chance of passing into law, but predicts some initial pushback.

"There will be those who balk and say that by requesting the NIE we're now effectively equating global warming with military conflict," he said, since NIEs have traditionally been used to assess military threats. "Our short answer would be, 'Yes.' In the long run, the threat level is, at the very least, comparable."

Gore Takes on Capitol Hill

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Exhibiting a curious mixture of nostalgia and irreverence, Al Gore returned to the halls of Congress yesterday to make the case for sweeping federal action to fight global warming.

Buoyed by his recent Academy Award triumph, Gore testified at hearings in both the House and the Senate. Audiences of hundreds lined the oak-paneled walls of the hearing rooms, crowded the aisles, and craned their necks for a glimpse of Capitol Hill's comeback kid. It was the kind of blockbuster turnout that Gore now draws at nearly every public appearance, yet in this case it felt particularly profound given that his last visit to congressional turf in January 2001 -- when he presided over the Senate in his final days as veep, after a foiled presidential bid -- marked the loneliest hour of his political career.

"It's an emotional occasion for me," Gore confessed at the outset of his House testimony. Throughout the course of the hearings, which together lasted more than four hours, he exchanged affectionate greetings and memories with many of the dozens of participants from both sides of the aisle -- former colleagues on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, both of which he served on during his 16-year congressional career.

But amid the niceties, Gore got down to business. While much of the media coverage has portrayed his visit as a largely symbolic attempt to raise the political profile of the climate issue, too little attention has been paid to the ambitious set of 10 legislative recommendations that were the centerpiece of his testimony. The recommendations were so ambitious -- so politically implausible, some might say -- that they could arguably disqualify Gore from any hope of again becoming a viable political candidate. Either that, or these high-flying goals could make him all the more unstoppable.

"First, we need to immediately freeze CO2 levels in the U.S.," Gore enjoined the crowd. He then proposed a cap-and-trade program that would slash greenhouse-gas emissions 90 percent by 2050. (This goal outstrips the most ambitious yet proposed in Congress, which calls for reductions of 80 percent by the same date, and is widely considered unattainable.)

Gore went on to recommend a program that would significantly cut income taxes and make up the lost federal revenue with pollution taxes, principally on carbon dioxide. "I fully understand this is considered politically impossible," he said, "but part of our challenge is trying to expand the limits of what is possible." When Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) questioned the need for both a carbon cap and a carbon tax, given that the debate is typically over one or the other, Gore argued for both.

Other items on Gore's legislative list included a new global post-Kyoto treaty that Congress should "sprint to ratify" by 2010; a moratorium on the construction of new coal plants that would not be compatible with carbon-capture and sequestration technology; stricter fuel-economy standards; a ban on incandescent light bulbs; and a carbon-neutral mortgage association (CNMA or, as Gore pronounced it, "Connie Mae") that would help homeowners finance energy-saving technologies and renewable-energy installations.

Capping off his list was a proposal for a so-called "electranet" -- a distributed network that would enable small-business owners and homeowners to become individual electricity producers, feeding their excess renewable energy back into the grid.

Gore had floated most of these proposals casually in past public presentations, but never in such a comprehensive package or in such a visible context. If his list of recommendations was surprisingly gutsy, more surprising still was the fact that few of his Democratic colleagues even blinked at their scope. In fact, most scarcely commented on the specifics, instead offering him good tidings and praise for his climate work.

"Welcome back, welcome home old friend," smiled Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who had invited Gore to the hearing. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called Gore "a prophet" on climate change who has long "had [his] finger on the pulse of the 21st century."

"You really are a role model for us all," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who presided over the Senate hearing. "It's not every day that this committee has an Academy Award winner testifying!" kvelled Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). "This has been absolutely wonderful!" beamed Hillary Clinton at the conclusion of the hearing.

The effusive praise clearly overwhelmed Gore, and he groped for some alternative to the litany of thank-yous he'd been expressing. "You don't give out any kind of statue or anything, do you?" he deadpanned, in a spoof of his recent Oscar success. Boxer did have a trophy of sorts, in fact -- a bound transcript of a recent Senate hearing on climate change. When she presented it to him, the congressional paparazzi went wild.

In between the two hearings, Gore met with top Dems -- he lunched with Boxer, and took meetings with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

But perhaps a better indication of Gore's political potency was the half a million protest messages he brought with him from citizens who had called for congressional action on climate change via AlGore.com. A sampling of the letters were on display in two huge crates that sat next to Gore during his testimony.

Further reaffirming Gore's sway were the discomfort and dismay he seemed to effortlessly inflict on a handful of skeptical Republicans. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, was beside himself at the House hearing, complaining that Gore hadn't handed in a copy of his testimony 24 hours in advance, thereby leaving committee members at a disadvantage. "How are we supposed to prepare questions?" he griped. Groaned Texas Rep. Ralph Hall (R), "Today we are witnessing an all-out assault on all forms of fossil fuels and energy!" Later in the day, James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the Senate's most die-hard climate-change denier, fumed when he felt Gore was taking too long to answer his questions. "You had 30 [minutes to speak]," he squawked. "I had 15! You've got to let me have my 15!" Gore came out of it all looking like an elder statesman while his detractors looked like fearful, squabbling teenagers.

Not surprisingly, Gore was barraged in the hallways with questions about whether he would mount another presidential campaign in 2008, to which he flatly replied, "I don't have plans to run for president again."

Indeed, his gutsy, devil-may-care attitude would seem to indicate that he doesn't intend to jump back into the political arena. But then it's this very lack of concern for political pragmatism, this willingness to take big risks, that would enable a true leader to weather and rise above the current political climate.

Will King Coal Be Deposed?

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Climate scientists, key members of Congress, enviros, and the progressive wing of the business world are plotting a coup d'état. Regime change isn't likely to come soon, but this resistance movement could significantly alter the way the pollution-spewing sovereign wields its power.

The ringleader of this uprising is James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world's top climate scientists. Last week he threw down the gauntlet: "There should be a moratorium on building any more coal-fired power plants," Hansen told the National Press Club.

Coal currently supplies nearly half the electricity in the U.S., and is responsible for more greenhouse-gas emissions than any other electricity source. The Department of Energy reported last month that 159 new coal-fired power plants are scheduled to be built in the U.S. in the coming decade, intended to generate enough juice for nearly 100 million homes.

"If you build a new coal plant, you're making a 60-year commitment -- that's how long these plants are generally in use," explains David Doniger, policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center. "So we really need to avoid building a whole new generation of coal plants that use the old technology."

Industry boosters tout the prospect of so-called "clean coal," but right now there is simply no such thing. Zero-carbon coal plants -- ones that will gasify coal, filter carbon dioxide from the vapor, then stow the CO2 underground -- are a long way off from commercial application. A handful of coal-gasification plants are in development, and could eventually be retrofitted with carbon-capture and -sequestration capabilities, but for now this pollution-storage technology is years away from even a working pilot phase.

"Until we have that clean coal power plant, we should not be building them," Hansen told his D.C. audience. "It is as clear as a bell."

Then the esteemed scientist raised even more eyebrows by declaring that, come mid-century, any old dinosaur coal plants that still aren't sequestering CO2 ought to be "bulldozed."

Industry reps are scoffing. "Some of Hansen's suggestions are absolutely ludicrous," energy lobbyist Frank Maisano told Muckraker. "There are fast-growing, rural areas of the country where coal is the only affordable option. Hansen's recommendations would put these areas at risk -- they're a recipe for disaster." Maisano added that the NASA top dog "may be a great scientist, but when it comes to energy policy, apparently he has a lot to learn."

Now You Policy It

And yet a growing number of policymakers are thinking along the same lines as Hansen.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is drafting a bill that would "prevent any plant from going forward that uses old [coal-fired] technology," said the senator's spokesperson Vincent Morris. Kerry, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Innovation, expects to introduce the bill in the coming weeks, after ironing out the details on performance standards for advanced-technology coal plants.

"Industry leaders know they are operating in a climate of uncertainty, and that is a very uncomfortable climate for them," Morris said. "They need a clear path charted in terms of the expectations for advanced coal technology, and that's what Sen. Kerry is working on."

The most aggressive climate-change bill in the Senate -- the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act, sponsored by Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) -- also includes a provision that would require all coal power plants built after 2012 to emit no more greenhouse gases than a combined-cycle gas turbine electric plant, a type of highly efficient natural-gas plant, by 2016. (A similar clean-as-a-CCGT-plant standard is already in effect in California.) By 2030, the Sanders-Boxer bill would require all power plants to be this clean no matter when they came online.

"What that means, effectively, is that you'd have to start phasing in the carbon-sequestration technology as of 2012," Sanders said. "It would offer a big push to get this new technology ready for prime time."

Sanders shares Hansen's emphatic aversion to present-day coal technology: "These plants are destroying the planet! And on top of that they are spewing all kinds of crap that is causing asthma among our children."

It's hard to imagine a moratorium on conventional coal technology being signed into law any time soon, and yet these proposals still send an important signal. "They make investment in the more advanced coal technology look better to companies and investors because there's less of a regulatory risk," says Doniger.

Double, Double, Coal and Trouble

Even without congressional action, coal's been having a rough go of it of late.

For months, concerned citizens and enviros had been protesting plans by giant Texas utility TXU to build 11 old-style coal-fired power plants in the state. Then, in late February, a handful of private investors proposed buying out TXU for a record-breaking $45 billion, and struck a truce that headed off a lawsuit by Environmental Defense and other green groups by agreeing to cut the number of new coal plants down to three. More surprising, these private entities, which include Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and Texas Pacific Group, vowed to support a mandatory national cap on greenhouse-gas emissions, as well as to have TXU invest $400 million in conservation and energy-efficiency programs over the next five years.

Last week, the North Carolina Public Utilities Commission rejected one of two major coal generators proposed by Duke Energy -- which, strangely enough, has been on the frontlines of the call for federal climate caps. In exchange for permission to build the one plant, the commission said Duke would have to retire four aging coal units and plow 1 percent of its annual retail revenue -- about $50 million -- into energy-efficiency programs. Duke is now reassessing its plans.

Some environmentalists are bristling over both the TXU and Duke deals, saying that even one new coal plant is too many, and, in the case of the TXU arrangement, that Environmental Defense and NRDC, which also took part in the negotiations, gave up too much for too little. Still, these concessions show that the utility industry is significantly rethinking its relationship to an increasingly embattled energy source -- and taking ever more seriously the counsel of environmentalists.

Last week, CNNMoney.com characterized the negotiations between enviros and TXU's prospective buyers as "the latest sign of how the green lobby is increasingly shaping the agenda on Wall Street."

Said Sanders, "For a long time, industry argued that if we take aggressive action on climate change, it could have negative economic impact. But now the reality is that if we do not take aggressive action, the economic impacts of global warming will far surpass those [industry] feared would come as a result of regulations."

Moreover, argues Sanders, innovations like coal gasification and sequestration technology have the potential to "reestablish the United States' leadership position in the global economy." India and China are adding roughly one major coal-fired power plant every week, so, he says, "It would be a huge boon for us, ethically and economically, to be able to meet that kind of demand with coal plants that are clean."

The fight to set tougher fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks has gotten the lion's share of attention in D.C. discussions of climate policy, but the quest to establish ambitious coal-plant performance standards deserves as much visibility and vigor -- for the sake of the U.S. economy as well as the global climate.

Love Is In the Air for Big Business and Mainstream Enviros

Amanda Griscom Little writes the Muckraker column for Grist Magazine. Her column is reprinted by permission from Grist. For more environmental news and humor sign up for Grist's free email service.

The on-again-off-again flirtation between big business and the mainstream environmental movement seems to be progressing into a full-on steamy love affair -- and perhaps even a committed, long-term relationship.

On February 13, a handful of Fortune 500 execs joined Jonathan Lash, president of the environmental think tank World Resources Institute, to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in favor of a mandatory federal cap on greenhouse-gas emissions. "Voluntary efforts alone will not solve the [climate-change] problem," DuPont CEO Chad Holliday told the assembled senators. He added, "We see a whole suite of technologies to solve these problems, and we think the uncertainty of what regulations will do are holding companies back."

Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) had invited the corporate and environmental leaders to explain why they're increasingly concerned about global warming. Their unified testimony made an impact on at least one prominent Republican, Virginia Sen. John Warner, who could be a swing vote on climate legislation in the committee. "A group like this, you've got my attention," Warner said.

Holliday and Lash are both participants in the recently hatched U.S. Climate Action Partnership, as are two other witnesses who spoke at the hearing, Peter Darbee of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Steve Elbert of BP America. U.S. CAP, a coalition of 10 corporations and four green groups, is pushing for greenhouse-gas limits strong enough to slash emissions 60 to 80 percent by mid-century.

Directly after the hearings, Holliday and Lash hightailed it to New York City to join other corporate leaders and toast to their budding romance at a glitzy dinner party celebrating WRI's 25th anniversary.

The gala, held at the chic Cipriani on 42nd St., was big on many levels -- big turnout (nearly 700 well-heeled folks, nary a soul in Birkenstocks), big political and corporate star power (Al Gore, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt took turns at the mic), big bucks (WRI raised over $2 million), and big, bold rhetoric affirming that the corporate-green alliance is now hot and heavy.

In a cathedral-like room with soaring ceilings, walls of burgundy marble, and chandeliers the size of jet engines, WRI doled out "Courage to Lead" awards to corporate titans and deep-pocketed donors deemed notable for "their vision and their actions to the cause of sustainable development." The recipients included Immelt, whose company has been greening its business strategy via an "ecomagination" campaign; the late Samuel Johnson, founder of SC Johnson and a former member of WRI's board of directors; and Jonathan Fanton, director of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, who announced during his acceptance speech his organization's new plans to commit $5 million over the next three years to climate research.

The crowd was dotted with representatives from companies belonging to the CAP alliance -- GE, Alcoa, BP, Caterpillar, DuPont, Lehman Brothers, PG&E -- as well as environmental groups involved -- Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Other attendees represented a veritable who's who of powerful corporations: Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Shell, Wal-Mart, and Weyerhaeuser. Citigroup Global Wealth Management underwrote the dinner.

A smattering of political notables were on hand too, including Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.); former Colorado Sen. Timothy Wirth, now president of the U.N. Foundation; and former deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick, who left the Bush administration last summer to join Goldman Sachs as international vice chair.

Surveying the double-starched crowd as the festivities wound down, Lash told Muckraker, "I started out my career doing war against these companies, and here we are all having dinner together and planning the future. It's amazing!"

The emcee for the evening, Thomas Friedman, echoed his euphoria. "Look around the room," he said. "If there's gonna be a solution on climate, this is what it's gonna look like. You never would have seen this [collection of people] five years ago." What changed? "The reason the climate issue is taking off right now is above all because business leaders are embracing the profit potential of developing green technologies, and the only way these solutions will scale [to mainstream use] is if you have what we see here -- NGOs, government, and business working together."

Friedman stressed to the crowd that the theme of the night was optimism -- a marked departure from the doom and gloom oft associated with the environmental community. "Somebody once said that in the history of the world, pessimists are usually right, optimists are usually wrong," he said. "But all the great change in history was made by optimists. If there's a common denominator between WRI and all the people honored here this evening, it is that optimism."

No night of big-name green revelry would be complete without Al Gore, and indeed he stole the show, inspiring the less wizened in the crowd to jump up and cheer. He presented the "Courage to Lead" award to Immelt, noting that global warming is posing "a challenge to the moral imagination" of America, and that GE is in the vanguard of companies rising to meet the challenge.

Friedman wrapped up the evening with a nod to the possibility of another Gore presidential run. "We are in a political season and the rules governing columnists at The New York Times is that we are not allowed to endorse presidential candidates," he said from the podium. "But I'm going to break that rule tonight if you promise not to tell anybody: I'd like to nominate Al Gore and Jeff Immelt as the geo-green candidates for 2008!"

Such a pairing of leaders would certainly consummate the marriage of business and environmental goals.

But not everyone is sure it's a match made in heaven.

Gus Speth, one of the founders of both WRI and NRDC and now dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, told Muckraker that to him the evening demonstrated "that WRI has reached some new plateau of engagement with the business community, and that means a good thing and a bad thing, because it means you have the potential to really develop a huge constituency with a very influential group of people, but it also means that you have the potential to get yourself really boxed in on things." In other words, enviros shouldn't get to the point where they only advocate solutions that serve the bottom line, because, of course, not all necessary environmental solutions do.

"In a way, if you cast so much of your energy with the business side, you're making a bet, and you can win big or you can lose big," Speth said. "So I would say [to the green community]: hedge your bets."

Old Big Brother Had a Farm

If only Orwell could get a load of this.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is promoting a system that would have farm animal owners and livestock handlers attach microchips or other ID tags to their furry and feathered charges so they could be monitored throughout their lifetimes by a centralized computer network. The National Animal Identification System, as it's known, has been in development by the department since 2002, with help from an agribusiness industry group that represents bigwigs like Cargill and Monsanto.

Sounds like Animal Farm meets Big Brother. Yet, while some small-scale farmers are outspoken in their criticism of the scheme, many in the agriculture community say it's high time the U.S. more carefully tracked livestock. The question is how best to do it -- and the devil, as always, is in the details.

The vision, says Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, is to create a comprehensive high-tech tracking system that would eventually know the whereabouts of every cow, llama, hog, catfish, ostrich, and other farm critter in the nation so that animal-borne diseases such as avian flu, mad cow, and foot-and-mouth disease could be easily and systematically kept in check. If an animal were discovered to be a carrier of a disease, this system could supposedly track every location it had been in through the course of its life and the other animals it may have come in contact with; those exposed could then be killed before the disease spread out of control.

Some independent farmers are concerned that the costs of NAIS would be particularly burdensome for small-scale operators, who are already struggling to stay afloat. "It's horribly insidious," says Lynn Miller, editor of Small Farmer's Journal. "The USDA is poised to push us off our farms."

Dore Mobley, spokesperson for the USDA, counters that such claims are greatly exaggerated. "It's simply not true," she says, explaining that the department has no intention of putting any farmer, no matter how small, out of business. And though she acknowledges that farms of every size will have to share the costs of the program, she reasons that it is "an investment in the future of animal agriculture from which all will benefit."

Martha Noble of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which advocates on behalf of midsize and small-scale farming, acknowledges that some form of tracking system may be necessary for public-health reasons. "We are not opposed to a tracking program, per se," she says. "We understand the need for effective monitoring of animals and disease, but there's a lot of disagreement about how is it going to be implemented, who is in control, and how is it going to be paid for."

Some small-scale farmers also suspect that the program was designed by big industry, for big industry -- and, indeed, there's no denying that industry had a heavy hand in it. According to Glenn Slack, president of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a trade group, "The program is largely based on a plan developed in 2002 through an industry-government collaborative effort facilitated by NIAA." NIAA represents, among others, the biggest meat producers in the U.S., including Cargill Meat Solutions and the National Pork Producers Council, and the makers of high-tech animal-ID equipment, such as Micro Beef Technologies and Digital Angel. The latter group, needless to say, could benefit directly from a nationwide animal-ID program.

Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society of the United States has taken no position on the program, but argues it could actually be better for the animals than current tagging methods: "If anything, microchips may be less invasive to animals than branding or ear-clipping, which has been going on for eons," he says. And according to Mobley, the ID program would enable officials to be more prudent in choosing which animals are killed in the event of a disease outbreak, rather than wiping out herds and flocks on a large scale, as has generally been the approach heretofore. (Granted, most of the animals are destined for the slaughterhouse anyway, but that's another story.)

I'm going to have to see your ID

The program -- which is thus far voluntary, but could eventually become mandatory -- is designed to unfold in three stages. First, farmers and producers would register the barns, factories, slaughterhouses, and even homes where their animals -- be they 10,000 cows, a dozen chickens, or a single potbellied pig -- reside and are processed.

Second, animals born or living on those premises would be assigned a 15-digit federal ID number and a tag -- in some cases, an implanted radio-frequency identification (RFID) device. But producers of certain species such as chickens and swine that are bought, moved, and slaughtered in big groups could be allowed to identify an entire lot with a single ID number -- a less time-intensive and expensive process. Critics argue that since factory farms are in the business of mass production of animals, this would present them with a cost advantage. Miller says this is a loophole that effectively "renders the whole program moot."

Third, data on each animal's whereabouts would be compiled and regularly updated in a centralized computer network, which the USDA expects to be up and running on a national scale by 2009 at the earliest. The department has suggested that animals' RFID tags could eventually be tracked real-time by a Global Positioning System, but there is no clear time frame for this scenario.

Many producers have voiced concern that if the government controls this kind of proprietary information about the purchase and sale of their products, the IRS or a competitor could get ahold of it through a Freedom of Information Act request. That's presumably much of the reason why, though the first two stages of NAIS are intended to be carried out by federal and state agencies, the USDA has decided that the third stage of the program should be overseen by private entities. Exactly which entities remains to be seen. (Johanns, who happens to be the former governor of a big beef-producing state, Nebraska, had at one point supported a proposal that would have a spin-off of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association take a leadership role in overseeing the database for much of the program. That didn't go over so well.)

Already some 200,000 large-scale facilities are voluntarily participating in stage one, having registered themselves on the state level, perhaps believing that a tracking program will eventually help demonstrate the safety of their meat products to overseas customers. Says NIAA's Slack, "In addition to providing a much-needed national emergency-response capability in the event of disease outbreak, NAIS will help enlarge the international market for U.S. livestock products."

A draft plan released by the USDA last April proposed making the program mandatory as soon as 2008, and indicated that there would be no significant federal funding assistance for the tagging process. The proposal ignited a firestorm of opposition within the farming community, and Johanns has since backed off the mandatory aspect.

The USDA hopes to release a revised plan by the end of this year, and it will likely leave to state officials decisions about whether to make the program voluntary or mandatory. The agency's NAIS coordinator, Neil Hammerschmidt, said in a speech last month to the cattle-industry group R-Calf USA that USDA isn't sure whether it has the authority to impose a federally mandated program that requires producers to report to a private entity.

In the meantime, states are moving on their own to put the animal-tracking system in place. Minnesota and Wisconsin have approved measures that make stage one of the NAIS program mandatory, according to Mobley, and Maine, North Carolina, Texas, Vermont, and Washington are considering similar legislation. The USDA has allocated more than $60 million to help states implement the animal-ID program, Mobley says.

Not safe, just sorry

What irks Mary Zanoni, executive director of Farm for Life, which works to protect the rights of small farmers, is that she believes the current USDA proposal would not make the U.S. meat supply appreciably safer. "Basically, the NAIS system would be of no use at all in dealing with the most common types of meat contamination in the U.S., the occurrence of pathogens such as listeria or E. coli in processed meat," she says. That's because when contaminants occur in industrial-scale quantities of meat -- as is often the case -- and are not discovered until the meat has been distributed through the supply chain, it is all but impossible to find the source. "There is no way to identify individual cows from one million pounds of hamburger," she says.

But would the NAIS help control the spread of mad cow or avian flu? "We have reams of scientific data that tell us without exception that by far the highest incidence of any transmittable contagion happens in industrial farm applications," says Lynn Miller. "That's where animals are in cramped, unhealthy conditions, and vulnerable to widespread disease outbreak." If the USDA wants to control disease, he says, it should develop standards for healthier animal conditions and then put in place a monitoring and tracking system solely for factory farms.

Zanoni sums up the views of many independent farmers: "Real food security comes from raising food yourself or buying from a local farmer you actually know. The USDA plan will only stifle local sources of production through over-regulation and unmanageable costs."

Pumping Up Ethanol

It was as befuddling to see the "Live Green, Go Yellow" slogan splashed across the General Motors ads running throughout the Olympics as it was to hear the term "switchgrass" uttered by President Bush in his State of the Union speech last month. Here we have GM and Dubyah, two of the world's most entrenched and heavy-hitting advocates of fossil-fuel consumption, suddenly trumpeting homegrown biofuels as the up-and-coming alternative to oil.

Greenwashing, you wonder?

On some level, of course. But there's more to it. GM's new high-budget campaign, which promotes the use of ethanol (hence the "yellow"), is tethered to a decision to manufacture 400,000 flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs) in 2006 that are capable of burning either gasoline or an ethanol/gasoline blend. That's nearly 50 percent more than the company produced last year.

GM wants to do for FFVs what Toyota has done for hybrids. It's working with politicians and other companies including Chevron to expand the distribution of E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, to gas stations across the nation. "Our goal is to eventually remove the automobile from the energy and environment debate, to neutralize its impact on the planet," GM spokesperson Dave Barthmuss told Muckraker. "That's why we're so bullish about alternative fuels."

Nicholas Eisenberger of the environmental consulting firm GreenOrder, which has been working with GM on its FFV campaign, says, "It's hardly just a PR gambit -- it's a big bet. You can't put that many vehicles on the road -- before a nationwide infrastructure exists, mind you -- and put all this energy into helping fuel providers and retailers make the switch to ethanol if you don't believe in it."

Bush, for his part, pledged last month to promote the development of "cellulosic" ethanol, which can be efficiently produced from agricultural waste products like wood chips or from, yes, switchgrass, and which is far more environmentally beneficial than the corn-derived variety. "Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years," he said in the State of the Union -- a far more definitive show of support for oil alternatives than we've heard from him in the past.

There's plenty of reason to doubt the president's sincerity -- for one thing, he has not yet committed nearly the level of funding necessary to pull off such a feat. But some enviros are hopeful nevertheless. "We were amazed to hear him voice this commitment," said Nathanael Greene, a renewable-energy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "He framed it exactly as we would have."

And rather than temper his ethanol boosterism in the weeks since the State of the Union, Bush has been pumping it up. "All of a sudden, you may be in the energy business," Bush joked to a crowd of supporters in Nashville, Tenn., earlier this month. "You know, by being able to grow grass on the ranch and have it harvested and converted into energy. And that's what's close to happening."

Last week, Bush sent six cabinet secretaries to over a dozen states to tout renewable energy; he alone hit three states in two days to promote the cause. On Feb. 21, the president planted his biofuels bully pulpit in Golden, Colo., at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (which, in preparation for the visit, scrambled to rehire nearly three dozen researchers who'd been given the boot because of budget cuts approved by Bush's own pen).

"There is a fantastic technology brewing -- I say brewing, it's kind of a catch on words here -- called ethanol," he said to an audience well aware of this development. "I mean, it's -- there's a lot of folks in the Midwest driving -- using what's called E85 gasoline ... This is exciting news for those of us worried about addiction to oil."

The unexpected commitments coming from both the White House and Detroit are occurring against a backdrop of other public- and private-sector efforts to promote biofuels. Ford has increased its FFV production by about 15 percent this year. Bipartisan coalitions in Congress, state-level officials, venture capital firms, and environmental groups have also been ramping up their efforts to promote both FFVs and E85.

Against the Grain

Though we're witnessing a sudden onslaught of interest in ethanol, there's nothing new about the technology. Ethanol is essentially grain alcohol, and was used in early versions of Ford's Model T. FFV technology has been around for decades and spread through parts of Europe and the developing world. About half of the vehicles sold in Brazil last year were FFVs. In fact, there are already some 5 million FFVs on the road in the U.S. -- the vast majority just rarely if ever run on E85 because it has such limited availability. Only about 600 of the approximately 168,000 fueling stations in the U.S. sell the ethanol blend.

And though ethanol is often touted as a boon for the environment, the scientific and green communities have long been divided over its eco-benefits. Most ethanol is made from corn, and industrial corn production utilizes significant inputs of fossil-fuel-based products, from fertilizers to the gasoline used to run farm equipment. A number of scientists -- most prominent among them David Pimentel, a professor of agricultural sciences and insect ecology at Cornell University -- have argued that the fossil-fuel inputs required to grow corn actually exceed the amount of energy yielded by the resulting ethanol, a discrepancy known as a "negative energy balance."

Which is why it came as a surprise -- and a relief -- to many to see a peer-reviewed paper commissioned by NRDC published two weeks ago in Environmental Science and Technology arguing that ethanol yields significant fossil-fuel savings.

"There is no longer any question that biofuels can deliver major net savings in energy and emissions," said NRDC's Greene. "The corn-based ethanol in wide use in many parts of the country is delivering clearly positive results already."

Positive, but far from impressive. The report found that the "energy balance" of fossil fuels to corn-based ethanol is only about 1:1.3 -- meaning you have to invest 1 unit of fossil-fuel energy to get a return of 1.3 units of corn-ethanol energy. By comparison, it found that the energy balance of cellulosic ethanol, which can be derived from wood chips, switchgrass, corncobs, and other materials that require negligible fossil-fuel inputs, can be as high as 1:6. Either way, Greene's NRDC colleague Ashok Gupta argues that ethanol detractors like Pimentel "are about as credible as the scientists who say climate change isn't a manmade problem."

Yet the NRDC-commissioned study does not address the concern that corn-based ethanol is no great help in cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. A study by UC-Berkeley researchers published last month in the journal Science found that burning corn-based ethanol instead of gasoline yields a 13 percent reduction in planet-warming gases, while a 2002 USDA study [PDF] found a reduction of about 28 percent. These numbers are nothing to sneeze at, but they simply don't compare to the kind of emissions savings you get from substantial improvements in fuel economy.

That's a big concern for Dan Becker, director of Sierra Club's Global Warming Program, who says ethanol could distract from the much more immediate concern of raising the gas mileage of American cars. He condemns GM's "Live Green, Go Yellow" campaign as "unmitigated, total fraud."

The only reason GM and Ford are churning out FFVs, says Becker, is the hefty CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) boost they get in return. The feds credit FFVs with getting markedly better gas mileage than they actually do, so the vehicles artificially inflate the overall fuel economy of an automaker's fleet by as much as 1.2 miles per gallon, according to Becker. That means, in essence, car companies that manufacture enough FFV passenger vehicles only have to meet a CAFE standard of 26.3 mpg, compared to the already paltry national standard of 27.5 mpg for passenger cars.

"It boils down to this: They get to make two more gas-guzzlers for every FFV they put out," said Becker. And since producing FFVs costs automakers about $100 extra per vehicle (it simply involves a different coating in the fuel-delivery system and a sensor that detects the ratio of ethanol to gasoline), the trade-off is a no-brainer. "There's no way Detroit would be producing these cars if they weren't allowed to weaken miles-per-gallon standards in return," Becker contends.

GM admits that the CAFE benefit has been an important driver of its FFV production in the past, but insists that today the company would be willing to do without it. "We really would continue to aggressively invest in FFVs even without the credit," Barthmuss said.

Price, of course, is another key concern about ethanol. On a per-gallon basis, E85 is between 5 and 25 percent cheaper than gasoline, but it contains about 30 percent fewer units of energy than a gallon of gasoline, meaning it's more expensive than gasoline on a per-mile-driven basis.

And E85 would be far more expensive were it not for huge corn and ethanol subsidies from the federal government -- and the huge sway of the Iowa caucus in determining presidential nominees. "Clearly politicians are better off when they are handing sack-loads of loot to farmers," Jerry Taylor of the libertarian CATO Institute told Reuters this week. "If you're interested in the 2008 elections, ethanol is surely going to interest you."

But, counters NRDC's Greene, "ethanol subsidies are dwarfed by those offered to oil producers." Indeed, the energy bill signed into law last summer earmarked roughly $8 billion in subsidies for ethanol interests over the next five years, while oil and gas interests got nearly twice as much, roughly $15 billion, according to Keith Ashdown, vice president for policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Leaving the question of subsidies aside, Phil Lampert, executive director of the nonprofit National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, insists that E85 will be cost-competitive with gasoline within a few years. And he says the number of fueling stations that offer it is expected to more than quadruple to 2,600 this year, owing largely to the energy bill signed into law last summer, which offered a 30 percent federal tax credit to fueling stations that add E85 or similar fuels to their offerings. (It costs stations anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000 to make the leap.)

Chicken-or-Egg Challenge

Members of Congress are angling to give ethanol a further lift. The bipartisan Fuel Security and Consumer Choice Act, sponsored by Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), calls for all vehicles sold in the U.S. to be FFVs within 10 years, and would phase out the existing FFV CAFE credit. Another measure sponsored by Obama would further increase tax credits for fueling stations that add pumps for ethanol and other alternative fuels, as would the Vehicle and Fuel Choices for American Security Act, sponsored by Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

State and local officials across the country are also unveiling ethanol-promoting initiatives this year, including such high-profile figures as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), New York Gov. George Pataki (R), and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (D).

These proposals could go a long way toward advancing marketplace acceptance of E85 and FFV technology, according to GM's Barthmuss. "It's a chicken-or-the-egg challenge at this point: Fueling stations won't want to invest in E85 if the cars aren't on the market to demand it," he said. "Moreover, consumers won't buy the cars if they don't understand the advantages." That's why GM is dropping such a pretty penny -- "hundreds of millions" of dollars, according to a GM insider who spoke on condition of anonymity because the figure is proprietary -- on its "Live Green, Go Yellow" campaign.

"There's no question that the environmental benefits [of ethanol] are negligible given the inaccessibility of E85 to most consumers, and the emphasis on corn-based ethanol. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater," said Gupta of NRDC. "We see it as just the beginning of a transition to widely available cellulosic."

That transition won't be simple -- the U.S. will need to dramatically expand its ethanol infrastructure, close off the CAFE loophole, and make a wide-scale switch from corn to higher-cellulose (and lower-impact) sources of ethanol.

But perhaps enviros can take heart knowing that when it comes to switchgrass, they're on the same side as Dubyah.

Cape Fear

A long-simmering disagreement within the environmental community over a plan to build a massive wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., is now boiling over into a highly public quarrel.

The four-year-old battle started heating up last summer when Greenpeace USA staged a demonstration against well-known eco-activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who's been an outspoken opponent of the proposal for a 130-turbine wind-power project in Horseshoe Shoal, a shallow portion of Nantucket Sound south of Cape Cod.

Kennedy -- a senior attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council and a pioneer in the waterway-protection movement -- was on a sailboat for an event with the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, which opposes the wind project. A Greenpeace vessel cruised up alongside with a banner that read, "Bobby, you're on the wrong boat" -- a stunt that was part of a larger Greenpeace campaign pressuring Kennedy to change his mind on the development.

In mid-December, Kennedy, wanting to explain his position to critics and the public at large, published an impassioned op-ed in The New York Times in which he argued that the wind farm would mar a precious seascape, privatize a publicly owned commons, and damage the local economy.

That, in turn, prompted about 150 environmental advocates -- including global-warming authors and activists Bill McKibben and Ross Gelbspan, Bluewater Network founder Russell Long, and youth leader Billy Parish -- to circulate a letter asking Kennedy to reconsider his position. "We are, simply put, in a state of ecological emergency," it read. "Constructing windmills six miles from Cape Cod, where they will be visible as half-inch dots on the horizon, is the least that we can do."

Signers of the letter also included "Death of Environmentalism" authors Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, who made the quarrel far more personal -- and nasty -- in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle last month. They called on Kennedy to step down from his position at NRDC, and took a swipe at his famous family by criticizing "the privileged patricians of a generation for whom building mansions by the sea was indistinguishable from advocating for the preservation of national parks or big game hunting in the wilds of Africa."

Kennedy shot back this week with his own opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, calling Shellenberger and Nordhaus's attacks "dishonest vitriol."

Choosing Sides

The venture at the center of all the fuss -- the Cape Wind Project, being developed by Cape Wind Associates -- would be the first major offshore wind installation in the U.S., and one of the largest wind farms in the world. It would produce enough electricity to meet nearly 75 percent of demand on Cape Cod and nearby islands Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, with peak output of 420 megawatts.

The permitting process for the project, which began in 2001, is nearing completion, and Cape Wind is widely expected to get the green light from the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service within a year. If state permits for the sea-bottom transmission lines are obtained, as expected, construction on the wind farm could begin mid-2007 and be completed in roughly two years.

The Humane Society of the United States, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and a handful of local and state conservation groups have raised concerns about Cape Wind. On the other hand, a number of major national environmental groups have been supportive, including Greenpeace, the Union of Concerned Scientists, World Wildlife Fund, and NRDC. Some, though, are waiting to officially endorse the project until the final environmental impact statement comes out later this year and clears up uncertainties about avian impacts and other issues.

"Most of the data so far on possible environmental impacts has been very encouraging, but there are still questions we want answered," said Nathanael Greene, NRDC's renewable-energy expert.

"Our position currently is cautious enthusiasm. It's a historic proposal with incontrovertible benefits." The group's comments on Cape Wind's environmental impact statement characterized the project as "the largest single source of supply-side reductions in CO2 currently proposed in the United States, and perhaps in the world." NRDC reiterated its position on the wind farm in a statement released the day Kennedy's New York Times op-ed was published.

Stealing the Stars

In his op-ed, Kennedy contended that "[h]undreds of flashing lights to warn airplanes away from the turbines will steal the stars and nighttime views. The noise of the turbines will be audible onshore ... [and] the project will damage the views from 16 historic sites and lighthouses on the cape and nearby islands."

He framed the debate as a clash between industry and wilderness: "[S]ome places should be off limits to any sort of industrial development. I wouldn't build a wind farm in Yosemite National Park. Nor would I build one on Nantucket Sound ... All of us need periodically to experience wilderness to renew our spirits and reconnect ourselves to the common history of our nation, humanity, and to God."

Kennedy agreed last Friday to meet with representatives from the group of letter writers to discuss their request, but indicated in an interview this week that he doesn't intend to change his position -- rather, he hopes to convince his critics to change theirs. "It's dangerous for environmentalists to have the knee-jerk reaction that all wind power must be good," he said.

Kennedy said in the interview that his primary concern is not the project's impact on wild sea life and ocean views, but the economic impact it would have on the local fishing community. "It will evict more than 100 of Cape Cod's treasured commercial fishermen who run sustainable operations from their traditional fishing grounds, and destroy their livelihood," he said, explaining that their nets would get tangled in the electric cables on the seabed. According to Kennedy, the project could have an over $1 billion impact on the local fishing industry and the tourist economy, given the blighted views and obstacles it would pose to the thousands of recreational sailors who visit Nantucket Sound annually.

"I think it's a big mistake for environmentalists to alienate our natural allies like commercial fishermen and boaters, who have long been strong supporters," he said. He argued that the hard feelings and publicity surrounding Cape Wind could tarnish the reputation of wind energy nationally. "This is a very badly sited project that will end up hurting the battle against global warming, not advancing it," he said.

If the turbines were built five miles farther beyond the coastline (they are now currently planned for about six miles offshore), where they wouldn't interfere with fishing interests, Kennedy said he could back the project. He also said he supported offshore wind projects in other regions that would pose less of an economic and environmental threat, including two that have been proposed for offshore areas near Long Island and New Jersey.

"I never intended to be a champion on this issue," he said, alluding to pressure from Greenpeace that forced him to defend his position. "There are plenty of places to put windmills, and plenty of projects I will support. But there's only one Horseshoe Shoal. You can't move your fishing ground somewhere else."

Cape Wind Avengers

Cape Wind CEO Jim Gordon said that environmental reviews of the project refute many of Kennedy's claims about the potential environmental hazards and noise pollution. Cape Wind and its backers also argue that the development would pose minimal harm to the fishing community, noting that the cables carrying the electricity back to shore would be embedded six feet under the seabed.

Some proponents of the project argue that it could actually attract tourists who would want to see the nation's most ambitious symbol of a clean-energy future. (It's not as nutty as it sounds -- offshore wind installations in Ireland and Denmark have proved a boon to tourism, not a setback.)

The developers say there is no viable location for the project other than the shallow waters of Nantucket Sound. "Any farther out would be cost-prohibitive," said Gordon. "The challenge for this project is to demonstrate that wind power is not only environmentally safe, but commercially viable."

Even if there were an alternative site, advocates say, redesigning and re-permitting would delay the project several more years.

"We simply don't have that kind of time," said McKibben, "given widespread predictions that the climate crisis could be irreversible in 10 years without substantial reductions in carbon output."

Gelbspan argued that even if the turbines were to deprive 100 or more fishers of their jobs, "The calculus is not hard: that is a more-than-reasonable trade-off. This landmark project would offset approximately 880,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year, the equivalent of keeping over 150,000 vehicles off the road. What's more, it would create between 600 and 1,000 new jobs, and be a crucial springboard for fast-tracking renewable-energy development in America." He added that state officials, as well as the project developers, should be obligated to help any fishers who lose their livelihoods through buyouts, retraining, or assistance in finding new fishing grounds.

To John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA, the debate comes down to weighing local NIMBY concerns against global climate concerns. "I respect people who wage NIMBY battles -- the environmental movement was founded on people protecting their local, sacred areas," he said. "But today, solving the climate crisis has become so urgent that it trumps NIMBYism. It's as simple as that."

A Long and Windy Road

Several Cape Wind advocates praised Kennedy as one of the most charismatic and influential leaders in the environmental community. Yet they raised concerns that his leadership on this issue would be hobbled if he appeared unwilling to make certain sacrifices.

Said Gelbspan, "Kennedy's decision to counterpose such extraordinarily unequal consequences -- the wind farm's negative impact on coastal views and local fishermen versus its critical role in forging climate-change solutions -- bespeaks a lack of understanding of the consequences of escalating climate change."

Kennedy vehemently rejected the notion that he doesn't take the climate crisis seriously. "There is nobody in this country who is more concerned about global warming than me, nobody," he said.

Indeed, Kennedy has helped bring mainstream visibility to the climate issue through lectures, fund-raisers, and rallies. He even played a role in convincing FOX News to air a surprisingly scientific special on climate change in November, in which he appeared as a correspondent (much to the consternation of right-wing pundits).

Kennedy also said he was emphatically opposed to an amendment unveiled by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) last month that would prohibit all major offshore wind installations from being sited within one and a half miles of a commercial shipping route, even though it would block the Cape Wind project. Young attached the amendment to the Coast Guard budget bill, which is expected to be voted on in February.

Yet even if Young's amendment doesn't pass, other congressional efforts to thwart Cape Wind are likely to follow in this final year of the project's permitting process.

The fight over Cape Wind is far from finished.

Making Global Warming a Laughing Matter

This Sunday night, you may find yourself crying over global warming.

Crying because you're laughing so hard, that is, thanks to Larry David -- co-creator of "Seinfeld" and creator and star of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" -- and his eco-activist wife, Laurie David.

At 8 p.m. (7 p.m. Central) on Nov. 20, TBS will air "Earth to America!," a two-hour comedy extravaganza produced by Laurie and starring Larry that is designed to get America laughing -- and, more to the point, learning -- about global warming. They promise it will be an upbeat, non-preachy, gut-splitting TV special about one of the least funny issues on the planet.

This climate yuk-fest has an all-star roster that includes Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, and Ben Stiller, among many others. Writers from "The Daily Show," "The Simpsons," "King of the Hill," and "Everybody Loves Raymond" conspired to help with the event, which will be staged live in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace.

Earlier this week, America's favorite curmudgeon, Larry David, consented to a rare interview and gave us some inside dish on the show.


What's your 20-second pitch for "Earth to America!"?

A 20-second pitch?

Yeah, why should America watch this?

Well ... [Disgruntled laughter.] I'm not used to being a salesman. This is why I don't do media. I don't even sell my own show. I wouldn't be doing this in a zillion years if it weren't for my wife.

Ten seconds?

You should watch it because if you don't really know much about this subject, this is a very easy, painless, and entertaining way to get some information about global warming -- and also to see great comedy. There's a lot of different comedy in the show: some of it is stand-up, some of it is sketches, some of it is taped pieces. All the contributors have found ways into this issue that are entertaining and provocative and stimulating.

Wha--

Did I answer that question? I'm trying to turn up the bullshit machine here.

"Provocative, entertaining, stimulating." I'm already sold.

Really, though, there's a lotta great stuff in the show. Even if they didn't introduce it as a show about global warming, it would be funny enough on its own, just as a comedy special.

"Seinfeld" and "Curb" are famously shows "about nothing" -- or about minutiae, the tiny indignities of modern life. But global warming is so huge that people can't get their minds around it. How are you going to make it funny?

Well, global warming is a -- it is the -- big indignity of modern life. People have used humor since the beginning of time to cope with tragedy. There are always angles in every subject to find the comedy in it, and in "Earth to America!" all the contributors succeeded at that.

How do you walk the fine line between using comedy to make this scary issue feel manageable and accessible on the one hand, versus mocking or trivializing it on the other?

Walking the fine line is what good comedy is all about. You want the subject to be provocative enough that the finer the line, the funnier it will be -- without actually going over it. You walk up to the ledge. That's where you should take an audience: right to the ledge.

Could you give examples of a skit that goes to the global-warming ledge?

No, you gotta watch it.

Just one teaser?

OK, here's one that didn't fly: Initially, I was going to open the show with me sitting around a campfire talking to a bunch of little kids. It would be at night, they would be roasting marshmallows, and I'd be telling the proverbial ghost story. But mine would be about global warming: "The earth is going to get so hot you'll have to wear 12-inch rubber soles on your sneakers so it doesn't burn a hole through them." And I would scare the pants off every single one of them. And they'd all start screaming and crying and the parents would come and yell at me, and that's how the show was going to open.

[Laughter.] What happened?

For one thing, it actually came true with Katrina. 'Cause part of that story was gonna be hurricanes, you know, the kids having to live in underwater homes. So I couldn't do it. In that case, I would have been over the line.

I remember a scene in "Seinfeld" where Russell Dalrimple, an obnoxious TV exec, becomes so infatuated with Elaine that he joins Greenpeace in a ridiculous effort to win her heart. He goes aboard a dinghy that's chasing a whaling ship and then gets struck by a stray harpoon and dies. It's a tragicomic portrait of the eco-warrior, where Dalrimple is not only disingenuous but his acts are ultimately pretty futile. What percentage of the environmental movement, would you say, is made up of Russell Dalrimples?

I think that anyone who devotes their time to this issue has got to be sincere. I mean, I can't imagine spending my life doing something that wasn't even paying me any money without being passionate about it. [Laughter.] That just seems insane! So I can't very well say that there are people in this movement who aren't sincere.

Yeah, I suppose environmental advocates have a reputation for taking themselves too seriously, actually -- they're wracked with save-the-world complexes and riddled with paranoia about the consequences of their every action. I guess that makes them rich fodder for satire.

Yeah, of course they're rich fodder for satire! That's just the price they have to pay for being out there. But we need them.

If only you could start some kind of Funny Camp for activists, so they would annoy everyone less.

On the other hand, if they weren't annoying people, the public wouldn't really know about the problem. I don't mind them being, you know, annoying -- which is your term -- but the fact is we need those people. I'm the first to admit I'm not the one who's out there at the rallies and in the courtrooms forcing change.

I love your "Why I Am Marching" post on the StopGlobalWarming.org website, where Laurie is organizing a virtual march on Washington to protest climate change.

What it says is: "The virtual march is a perfect opportunity for the lazy man to do something good without having to expend any effort. This thing was made for me."

It seems you've been dragged kicking and screaming -- or at least protesting -- into the role of environmental advocate by your wife. Is it safe to say that you wouldn't be discussing this issue if it weren't for her?

I started out doing this to support my wife, but you'd be surprised -- the more you're around a subject, the more it starts sinking in. You can't help it, it's just by osmosis. It's discussed in my house 24 hours a day. So I'm becoming educated about this issue just by living in this house, as are my kids. And it's become impossible now that I'm educated about it to completely turn my back on it, the way I do about most things.

What are some of your environmental concerns -- or neuroses?

Well, my toilet paper's been changed. That's been a hell of a struggle. Laurie switched brands on me so it doesn't use the virgin trees.

You prefer the fully quilted variety?

Yeah. I'm finding it a little rough.

Tell us how your "Curb Global Warming" campaign came to be. I've seen the commercials where MTV is hauling away your Prius, and you find out Laurie gave it away without telling you. True story?

True story. I came into my office one day and my assistant asked what I was going to do for a new car. And I said, "What are you talking about?" She said, "Your wife gave away your car." MTV is working with Laurie to promote the "Stop Global Warming" campaign, so my car is the prize in a sweepstakes for MTV viewers who sign people up for the march.

Sounds like a scene plucked from an episode of "Curb." I'm assuming this sort of trick isn't out of character for your wife.

Let's just say I was surprised, but not shocked.

When your wife starts getting attacked by right-wing radio hosts, is it going to piss you off, or give you great material?

Well, anything I hear on right-wing radio pisses me off, but I guess that would piss me off just a little bit more.

But you know what? Conservatives really like my show. Tony Blankley and Ann Coulter and others have said some nice things -- I guess because the humor is not politically correct. They can't believe I'm liberal because of the show. They don't think liberals have a sense of humor.

Laurie has been known to flip off Hummer drivers on the highway and take people directly to task for their bad eco-habits, with the idea that this kind of peer pressure is a critical part of the solution. What do you think is the best way to get America to wake up and demand change?

Well, if you're talking about changing policy, I guess the examples of the '60s -- sit-ins and protests and taking over buildings -- certainly got people's attention and helped change the government's policy on the war.

But people have to recognize that there's a problem in the first place. You need to make people aware that a problem exists, but without talking down to them. Without being preachy. I refuse to be a part of being preached to. That's what "Earth to America!" is all about.

Twilight of the Oil Age

Matthew Simmons has been stirring up a lot of angst in energy circles this year. This well-connected industry insider has concluded that some of the world's largest oil beds may be on the verge of production collapse -- and he's willing to bet his much-vaunted career on it.

Author of the recently published Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, Simmons is founder of Simmons & Company International, an investment bank that handles mergers and acquisitions among energy companies, and counts among its clients Halliburton, General Electric, and the World Bank. A graduate of the Harvard Business School, he served as an energy-policy adviser to the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign.

Conservative credentials aside, Simmons has been boggling the minds of people across the political spectrum with his recent prediction that the price of a barrel of oil could hit the high triple digits within a few years. To postpone economic meltdown, he says we should be drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other hotly contested spots. At the same time, he's calling for a massive shift in energy policy, including radical improvements in efficiency, as well as a return to local farming and manufacturing. With his unconventional opinions, he's single-handedly reinventing the image of the post-oil energy crusader. He talked to us from his cell phone while dashing between energy lectures.

Let's start with a brief overview of the premise and implications of Twilight.

I believe we are either at or very close to peak oil. If I'm right, then we have to assume that five or 10 years from now we'll be producing less oil than we are today. And yet we have a society that is expecting, under the most conservative assumptions, that oil usage will grow by at least 30 to 50 percent over the next 25 years. In other words, we would end up with only 70 percent of the oil we have today when we would need to have 150 percent. It's a problem of staggering economic proportions -- far greater than the temporary setback of a terrorist attack on energy infrastructure -- that could end up leading to more geopolitical fistfights than you can ever imagine. The fistfights turn into weapon fights and give way to a very ugly society.

How did this thesis evolve?

The odyssey began in the early 1980s when I realized that my firm was threatened by a production collapse in the energy and oil-service business. I thought, "How on earth could this have happened without us even knowing?" I started doing some careful investigation into energy data. The more I studied, the more I started to realize that so many people who call themselves experts in the energy market, including government analysts, are in fact experts in their opinions and don't actually base a lot of it in actual data.

Why? Because the relevant data are confidential?

Yes, what's publicly available is extremely vague. No major oil-producing companies or nations allow audits of the data on their reserves and production, which leaves the experts effectively playing a guessing game.

If the data are concealed, on what evidence did you base your own conclusions?

I've spent years poring over hundreds of papers from the Society of Petroleum Engineers that have revealed fascinating clues. First I took an inventory of the top oil fields in the world, field by field. I was aghast to find that nobody had ever listed even the top 20 oil fields by name. I found that there are only about 120 oil fields in the world that produce half of the world's oil supply. The top 14 fields, which make up 20 percent of global supply, are, on average, over 53 years old. In Saudi Arabia, which harbors a quarter of the entire global supply, there are only five key fields producing 90 percent of their oil. They're all old.

Naturally I was very curious to find details on the condition and productivity of these fields. Two years ago I took a trip to Saudi Arabia on a government tour for business executives. They plied us with various data points that just didn't add up, even vaguely. I've since found evidence in the engineering papers indicating that the major Saudi fields are seriously at risk of reaching their peak, at which point they will begin to see their output decline.

In this case, would Saudi Arabia's leadership collapse?

I want to steer away from discussing specifics of geopolitics in the Middle East because I really don't want to shift the focus away from the economics. It doesn't ultimately matter who rules Saudi Arabia. They can't change the maturity of their oil fields.

You made a $5,000 bet with conservative New York Times columnist John Tierney that per-barrel oil prices will be at $200 in 2010. How did you arrive at this number?

Well, first of all, the $5,000 bet was essentially an effort to be provocative and wake people up to how cheap oil still is. I started a year ago saying that we need to prepare ourselves for triple-digit oil prices -- and I don't mean $100 per barrel, I mean high triple digits. Will it be by 2010? We don't have any idea. It could be by the winter of 2006.

Oil price will ultimately be set by demand and supply. Current oil prices are ridiculously cheap. People find that hard to believe, particularly now, but consider this: $65 a barrel translates to 10 cents a cup. Ten times cheaper than bottled water. People who think that this is a really high price need to have their heads screwed back on.

You have an enormous amount, professionally, riding on the prediction that peak oil is nigh.

I'm basically betting my entire career.

What evidence did you find of looming production limits?

Let's start with the plummeting rate of discovery of critical oil fields. The French Petroleum Institute did a major study a couple of decades ago about the distribution of oil fields by basin, which lends itself to a chessboard analogy. What happens with phenomenal regularity worldwide is that within about five years of moving into a new area of potential oil reserves, prospectors tend to find the queen first, which is the second-largest; within a handful of years they find the king; and then over the next decade you find the next eight to 10 lords. And once you've found the royal family, the rest of the hydrocarbon deposits you'll ever find are basically peons in size. Research overwhelmingly shows that all the royal families have been discovered.

Can you describe your findings that most of the king- and queen-sized deposits are so old that they have to be injected with increasing amounts of water to produce the crude?

For decades, Saudi Arabia has been injecting water in each key oil field to keep reservoir pressure artificially high. The data show that Saudis are now injecting somewhere between 15 million and 18 million barrels a day of water to recover 8 million barrels a day of oil. This is not sustainable. Geologically speaking, the faster you produce a highly pressurized reservoir, the faster the reservoir pressure collapses. Conversely, the more gently you produce the field, the longer you can produce it at a steady rate, and the higher amount of oil you get out of the field.

I suppose it's safe to assume we're not poised to go gently into the twilight of global reserves.

To put it mildly. What they are doing is rapidly depleting the high-quality, high flow-rate oil, so they'll be left with vast amounts of oil that just won't come out of the ground without massive water input or thousands and thousands of wells being drilled.

What kind of response have you gotten to this book? I saw in a New York Times Magazine article by Peter Maass that Sadad al-Husseini, a former executive of state-owned Saudi Aramco, essentially corroborated your thesis.

Yes, he's a first-rate person. We've actually become quite good friends. I don't know to what extent I might have actually liberated him to speak more openly about the limits to Middle East oil. I think I've given quite a few Saudi insiders cover for being able to finally speak up and say, yes, that's actually what I thought, too.

In the U.S., the response within industry and among politicians has been overwhelmingly positive. About 10 people total have attacked the book, and my guess is that most of them have one commonality: a consulting client called Saudi Aramco.

It boggles my mind that data on oil reserves can be concealed. Knowing when we're going to run out would seem as critical to global security as knowing who has weapons of mass destruction. Why isn't disclosing oil data a responsibility on par with disclosing WMDs?

It should be. The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia spoke at Rice University about five weeks ago and he said, "We're as transparent as anybody." And he's right. Until we force that same standard of disclosure on Exxon and Shell and BP, then I don't think there's any reason to expect Saudi Arabia to behave better. What I'm suggesting is the whole world needs to go to a new standard. The problem, of course, is this: In political and corporate worlds there are currently significant disincentives to be forthright about these risks. That's why we're going to have to have some sort of enforced mandate. It won't happen voluntarily.

What would you advise the Bush administration to do?

Clamor for energy-data reform. That's the only thing the governments of the world can do this year. But they can't do it alone. I think the global mandate of how we have to attack this problem needs to be a very coordinated, central plan. We need to have international energy cooperation so we don't go into an accidental energy war.

Have you discussed these ideas with President Bush?

I have met with the president quite a few times on energy, but not since coming to these latest conclusions. But I have spoken very openly with senior politicians from both parties, and key people are paying attention.

I understand you are a strong proponent of allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the outer continental shelf.

Yes, ASAP. There's nothing we can do to solve our problems, but everything we do that helps is a bridge to buy us time. Ultimately, we have to actually create some new forms of energy that don't exist today. Solar and wind are, of course, electricity, so not helpful near-term on the transportation front, which is the most intractable part of the problem. Biofuels need to be intensely examined, but corn-based ethanol is a scam because it requires such intensive oil inputs.

What about the shift to hybrid engines and, ultimately, hydrogen?

There are some 220 million cars currently on the road in the U.S. alone. The problem with that concept, which so many people think is the way you end the energy war, is it will take 30 years to turn over the entire vehicle fleet. We don't have 15 or 20 years, much less 30.

We need to think on a grander scale. We have to find, for instance, far more energy-efficient methods of transporting products by rail and ship rather than trucks. We have to liberate the workforce from office-based jobs and let them work in their village, through the modern technology of emails and faxes and video conferencing. We have to address the distribution of food: Much of the food in supermarkets today comes from at least a continent or two away. We need to return to local farms. And we have to attack globalization: As energy prices soar, manufacturing things close to home will begin to make sense again.

What do you do personally to reduce your energy footprint?

Very little, actually. I do have a new Mercedes diesel car that on the open road gets up to 50 miles per gallon. But in fact I'm one of the problems right now. I'm flying around the country giving too many energy talks. If I really wanted to say I'm going to be a personal crusader, I'd actually shut up and stay home.

Raiders of the Lost Arctic

"The threat to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has never been greater than it is today," according to Brian Moore, legislative director for the Alaska Wilderness League.

And, though the battle over the refuge has a Groundhog Day quality to it -- haven't we heard this same alarm sounding before? -- this time advocates on both sides of the issue agree: Congress is closer than ever before to green-lighting oil and gas drilling in one of the largest remaining undeveloped wild areas in the United States.

Wednesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 13-9 to include in a hulking budget package a provision that would not only allow drilling on the coastal plain at the northern edge of the Arctic Refuge, but also require that the land be leased to energy developers as a means of generating revenue for the federal treasury.

If this congressional maneuver sounds familiar, that's because it's part of the second phase of a budget-bill deliberation process that began early this year. The initial "resolution" phase outlines possible budget cuts and increases within congressional committees -- suggestions that aren't legally enforceable; the second, called the "reconciliation" phase, hones these instructions and locks them in, carrying the force of law.

In March, a resolution package that contained similar language paving the way for drilling in the Arctic Refuge passed the Senate by a narrow margin, instructing committees to trim their budgets by specific amounts. The Energy Committee's goal for cuts or offsets was set at $2.4 billion over five years. That's almost exactly the amount that the Congressional Budget Office predicts the feds would receive over the next five years from sales of energy leases on the refuge's coastal plain.

Drilling advocates are piggybacking the Arctic Refuge provision onto the budget initiative because reconciliation bills are immune to filibuster, thus requiring only a simple majority vote to clear the Senate. That vote is scheduled to occur within the next few weeks, and though Democrats are expected to unanimously oppose the bill, the 55-44 GOP majority in the Senate gives drilling advocates a comfortable margin for victory, even if there are a few moderate-Republican defectors.

Critics argue that the refuge drilling provision is entirely out of place in a budget bill. "The whole point of the resolution process is to hammer out the budget -- it's not to reverse existing legislation or enact new legislation of any kind," says Eleanor Huffines, Alaska regional director for The Wilderness Society. This is the logic that Senate opponents of the bill, such as Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), will invoke if they proceed with plans to challenge the provision under the Byrd Rule, which requires a budget bill to have 60 affirmative votes if it includes extraneous provisions.

Advocates of the drilling language counter that the Byrd Rule is effectively moot in this case, given that a precedent already exists for this very maneuver: The GOP-controlled Congress of 1995 managed to successfully pass a refuge-drilling provision in a budget reconciliation bill, which was then promptly vetoed by President Clinton. This time, of course, there's no chance of a veto from the Oval Office.

Arctic Refuge defenders are quick to assert that there's still hope, but it likely hinges on strong opposition to other parts of the bill, not the drilling provision itself. The budget resolution was unanimously opposed by Democrats in both the House and Senate in March for fear it would spur draconian cuts to a broad swath of social programs, including Medicare, food stamps, and college loans. All Dems in Congress are expected to vote against the budget initiative on this go-round too, and they're getting support not just from environmental groups but from a wide range of organizations including the People for the American Way, the National Women's Law Center, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the AFL-CIO, all united under the umbrella group Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities.

"Many of the entitlement cuts hit the most needy segments of the population," says Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the Sierra Club. "But post-Katrina, efforts to short-shrift the disadvantaged are under much more scrutiny, so there's a groundswell of resistance to many components of this bill beyond drilling in the refuge."

Where There's a Drill, There's a Way

The refuge-drilling provision, in an attempt to fast-track the sale of drilling leases, would weaken the process of reviewing proposed extraction projects for their potential environmental impacts. It would also curtail the authority of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place constraints on methods of road-building and extraction in the interest of protecting land and wildlife. The environmental exemptions "are completely at odds with a precautionary approach to oil development in a sensitive area," says Huffines.

And while advocates of the drilling language claim that only 2,000 surface acres within the refuge would be disturbed by the building of infrastructure such as airstrips and gravel berms necessary to extraction, critics counter that this number doesn't account for the impact of building roads and other support facilities. They claim that the affected area would be far larger.

The provision requires that at least two major lease sales happen by 2010, but environmentalists argue that in order to come anywhere near generating the expected revenue, the entire 1.5 million acres of the refuge's coastal plain would have to be leased. Even then, drilling opponents don't see how the leases could bring in the amount the Congressional Budget Office predicts -- an estimated $5 billion, half of which would go to the feds and half to the state of Alaska. The average going rate for a drilling lease on a productive oil field in the U.S. is about $55 per acre. The feds would have to lease all 1.5 million acres of the coastal plain at $3,333 per acre -- more than 60 times the going rate -- to generate the expected revenue. The CBO's figures are "grossly exaggerated, if not fraudulent," says Huffines.

Surprisingly, while chances of victory for drilling advocates in the Senate are quite high, they're weaker in the House, say observers. The House has voted to allow drilling in the Arctic Refuge a handful of times in the last four years, but that was usually with support from moderate Democrats. The current highly controversial budget reconciliation package is expected to get a "no" vote from all House Democrats, and there are 24 House Republicans who've publicly voiced their opposition to the Arctic Refuge provision being included in the budget bill via a letter [PDF] to Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), chair of the House Resources Committee. "If those 24 GOP representatives stand by their convictions, the House could very well stop the ANWR provision in its tracks," said Moore of the Alaska Wilderness League.

But even if the Arctic Refuge provision is stripped out of the House version, the bill still has to go to conference committee, where compromises between the two chambers of Congress are struck. If drilling advocates are victorious in the Senate, they could negotiate during these deliberations to slip the provision back in.

Environmentalists, most Democrats, and the handful of moderate Republicans who've been fighting for decades to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are now waiting on pins and needles to see how the budget brouhaha will shake out.

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