Kelpie Wilson

Have We Hit the Limits of Human Population?

Without growth, there would be no economy as we know it. But modern culture, by and large, doesn't see that it can exist only in the medium of ceaseless growth and expansion, because a fish doesn't see the water it swims in. Only today, in the recent, breathless moments of the greatest economic crash since the Great Depression, do we begin to perceive the waters around us.

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Democrats Are Blowing Our Best Chance for Clean Energy

Take some of Big Oil's obscene profits and invest the money in developing clean renewable energy for the future. This is the Democrats' big idea on energy and it's a good one, but right now Democrats are botching it badly.

Last month, Congress failed for the tenth time this year to pass an extension of the renewable energy tax credits that have nurtured the infant wind and solar power industries in the US but are set to expire at the end of 2008. The tax credit extension should have been included in the big renewable energy bill that Congress passed at the end of 2007, but Republicans blocked the provision because they didn't like closing oil tax loopholes to pay for it.

Some Democrats, like Washington Senator Maria Cantwell, got it, and shifted the approach. Cantwell drafted a bipartisan bill, cosponsored by Nevada Republican John Ensign, to renew the tax credits without requiring a budget offset that would draw a Republican filibuster or a Bush veto.

The problem is that a contingent of House Democrats has continued to insist that no renewable energy tax credit extension be passed unless it can be paid for by cutting some other budget item or by adding revenue -- like increasing taxes on Big Oil. These "pay-go" rules are supposed to establish Democrats as the anti-deficit party and the House leadership has been unmovable on the principle when it applies to renewable energy.

But Democrats seem to have a double standard, turning into bendable Barbies when it comes to bailing out bankers or funding the Iraq war. Solar energy industry lobbyist Scot Sklar said that Congress has all sorts of "creative bookkeeping" techniques it can use to justify new spending, they just don't want to do it for renewable energy. The question is, why?

I spoke with S. David Freeman, author of Winning Our Energy Independence: An Energy Insider Shows How, about the situation. Freeman is a bona fide "energy guru," having worked on federal energy policy since the Kennedy administration, and he was spitting mad. He called the pay-go principle a "bureaucratic rule" and said Democrats could bypass it if they would "get their act together."

"They are using two different rules," he said. "They can go to war on credit, but they can't save the planet on credit. If Congress applied the pay-go rule to the war we would have no war in Iraq."

Freeman said that Congress is not getting the urgency of our energy and climate crisis. "We are in a fight for our lives and Congress acts like it's a Fourth of July picnic ... the Democrats won't do anything until the issue gets to a fever pitch."

NASA climate scientist James Hansen hammered on the urgency of the "fight for our lives" to congressional staffers at a briefing on June 24th. He said "we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb...a path yielding energy independence and a healthier environment is, barely, still possible. It requires a transformative change of direction in Washington in the next year."

For the renewable energy industry, it is already too late to avoid disruptions caused by letting the tax credit expire. The uncertainty around the tax credit is slowing investment now. Michael Eckhart, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) said, "This is outrageous and intolerable. The time to act is overdue. We're not calling for next week. It's months ago that this should have been done."

A study earlier this year by Navigant Consulting found that 112,000 jobs in the wind and solar industries could be lost if Congress lets the renewable energy tax credits expire. A study by GE Energy Financial Services showed that tax credits for wind will eventually pay for themselves by producing taxable economic growth. In these recessionary times, you would think that Congress could justify the small expense -- one month of Iraq war spending would pay for ten years of renewable energy tax credits -- as a vital economic stimulus.

In fact, this is exactly what some Republicans are now saying. Citing the need to protect renewable energy investment and jobs in Nevada, Senator Ensign is holding up the 300 billion dollar housing relief bill in an attempt to attach the Cantwell-Ensign renewable energy tax credit extension. "We are trying to get that on probably the only bill -- or at least one of the only bills -- that's going to be signed into law this year and that's the housing bill," Ensign said. But Ensign's fellow Nevadan, Senate leader Harry Reid, said the move was pointless because House Democrats will never accept it. He said it was "a waste of time to pass unpaid-for extenders."

Fox News reported that Reid got a letter from the 48-member "Blue Dog" group of Democrats warning that the housing bill would not pass the House if the renewable energy tax incentives were extended without offsets.

Usually in conflicts over federal energy policy, the battle lines are straightforward -- you just follow the money. But this case is different. Nearly all Democrats and most Republicans favor granting the renewable energy tax extensions. The battle is over how to pay for them, but is it a battle worth fighting at this point? After all, Democrats are likely to control Washington DC next year, at which point they can pass all the new taxes on Big Oil they want. Why kick the renewable industry in the groin in order to make a political point that no one really cares about?

Part of the problem is that public awareness of the issue is low. The renewable energy industry and environmental groups have not complained about the Democrats' behavior because they don't want to anger the Democratic leadership. That could be a big mistake. By not calling the Democrats on their election year posturing over deficit spending, they risk handing the issue to Republicans who will now be in a position to blame Democrats for slowing growth in wind and solar power.

Scott Sklar said that the only way to break through what he called "the silly season," is for voters to pay attention and get indignant. Sklar said, "This is what people don't understand. Projects are being cancelled now because Congress doesn't have its act together, and it's the biggest projects -- the ones that reduce tons of carbon dioxide and employ thousands of people. In an economic downturn in the United States, people are going to lose their jobs in clean energy and there's absolutely no reason for it."

If jobs and the economy are not enough to make you indignant, just remember those global warming tipping points.

Our Suicide Mission with Coal

As the global energy/climate crisis deepens, coal has become the starkest symbol and most telling measure of our predicament. Coal produces more carbon emissions than other energy sources -- more than twice that of natural gas per unit of energy output. Consequently, coal-fired power plants are responsible for about one-third of US emissions of carbon dioxide. Despite this, we are mining and burning more coal than ever.

On March 18, the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) released an analysis of EPA data showing that carbon dioxide emissions from the electric power industry increased by 2.9 percent in 2007 and have risen 5.9 percent since 2002. Coal is the culprit.

According to an Associated Press report, the cause of last year's increase was a combination of three factors: increased electricity demand; a shortage of hydroelectric power, leading to greater reliance on coal, and the reduced efficiency of aging coal-burning power plants.

While utilities around the nation have plans to construct more than 100 new coal-fired power plants, public concern over global warming and toxic pollution has put the brakes on many of them. Last year in Texas, public interest groups prevented TXU Energy from going ahead on eight new coal-fired plants that would have increased the state's emissions by 24 percent, according to the EIP report.

But as demand for electricity rises and cleaner fuels like natural gas get scarcer and more expensive, the relentless pressure to burn coal fuels delusions such as "clean coal."

"Clean coal" is a combination of two technologies, one of which is expensive and the other completely unproven. The expensive one is coal gasification, and it is a genuinely cleaner way of burning coal. It involves baking coal to drive off gasses that aren't much dirtier than natural gas, and the gasses then are burned for power production. This technology costs a minimum of 20 percent more than a conventional pulverized coal plant, which is why only two such plants exist in the United States.

The other part of the "clean coal" scheme involves carbon capture and storage. This technology is not proven and the potential costs are enormous. A US Department of Energy pilot project called FutureGen was recently canceled with the DOE citing soaring cost projections among its reasons for ending the project.

But even if the "clean coal" idea were workable, the realities of the coal fuel cycle ensure that coal can never be truly clean.

At the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, Oregon, in early March, a panel of citizen activists talked about the front and back ends of coal use: mining and waste disposal. Teri Blanton, of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth spoke about the heartbreak of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. The mining technique is dynamiting hundreds of thousand of acres of biologically diverse forest ecosystems to get at the coal underneath, and dumping the waste into streams. Blanton told the story of one of her neighbors who lost his land to a mining company. "When I say he lost his land," she said, "I mean he literally lost his land. One day he found that his land was just gone, blasted away to nothing."

According to the group Appalachian Voices, more than 800 square miles of mountains have already been destroyed by mountaintop removal and if the blasting continues unabated it will devastate an area the size of Delaware by 2010.

Coal mining also uses great quantities of water and pollutes streams in the process. Slurries of waste laden with toxic heavy metals are leaching into streams and river systems. Earthen impoundments that hold back the sludge are unstable and threaten communities. A sludge dam breach in 2000 in Martin County, Kentucky, dumped more than 300 million gallons of toxic sludge, killing virtually all aquatic life for 70 miles downstream of the spill.

Brad Bartlett of the Energy Minerals Law Center talked about the post-combustion end of coal. Air pollution controls at existing coal plants capture 125 million tons of pollutants, amounting to "the largest solid waste stream in the US," according to Bartlett. He said that it is not formally regulated as hazardous waste despite the presence of heavy metals and other toxins. Some of it is used to make building materials and roads, but the rest is just landfilled.

When you think of Alaska, you usually think of oil, not coal, but Vanessa Salinas of Alaskans for Responsible Mining said that Alaska also has huge amounts of coal -- about one-eighth of the world's coal reserves and half of US coal reserves. Currently there is only one operating coal mine in Alaska, but BHP Billiton, the largest mining company in the world, is conducting an extensive coal exploration program and four new strip mines are being proposed.

Alaskans should be more concerned than most people, Salinas said, because global warming impacts are being felt more strongly in the Arctic than anywhere else. On February 26, the tiny village of Kivalina sued two dozen oil, power and coal companies over their greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. Melting sea ice is exposing the village to erosion from storm waves and surges.

Coal burning also threatens Alaska's famed fishing industry. Coal is notorious for its mercury pollution, and older marine fish are showing increasing levels of mercury. Salinas blamed coal burning pollution from Asia and noted that most of the coal mined in Alaska would be shipped to Asia. In this way Alaskans would poison their own fishing industry.

Salinas has worked with Native Alaskans to stop these coal mines. She said Native people have told her that they feel coal functions as "the liver of the world" and it should be left in the ground. Coal as the "liver" of the world is not a bad metaphor. Coal is not just another mineral; it is biological. It is the remains of ancient life. The liver cleanses toxins from the body, and coal, if left in the ground, keeps our climate cool and our air and water clean.

While Alaskan coal is destined to be shipped to Asia, it looks like Appalachian and even Wyoming coal will increasingly be shipped to Europe. Recent reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post describe a spike in global coal consumption. With the falling dollar value, American coal is now a bargain for overseas buyers; however, that is in the context of an overall price rise that is unprecedented. Spot market coal prices have risen by 50 percent or more in recent months. Coal consumption worldwide has increased by 30 percent over the last six years.

American electricity consumers are used to hearing that coal is much cheaper than renewable alternatives like solar and wind, but that might not be true for long. Consumers haven't seen the impact of expensive coal yet because most utilities lock in coal supplies with long-term contracts. Electricity rates will begin to shoot upwards when those contracts expire in the years ahead.

There is no chance that prices will come back down again either, because Peak Coal, like Peak Oil, is fast approaching. Journalist David Strahan, in a January 17 article for New Scientist, has documented what's known about coal reserves. He concludes that the official figures, like the official figures for recoverable oil reserves, have been vastly inflated.

On March 18, Standard & Poor's released a study concluding that utilities and states with Renewable Portfolio Standards need to do a better job of revealing how expensive their mandates for renewable solar and wind power will be. By that same token, utilities should be required to reveal all of the current and future costs for dirty and increasingly expensive coal power.

Can Global Warming Be Slowed by Complex Concept of Carbon Trading?

By refusing to sign on to the Kyoto climate treaty, Americans have insulated ourselves from the complexities of the carbon market the European Union has been trading in for the last three years. But that state of ignorance, while not exactly blissful, is about to end.

On February 26 and 27, the international carbon trading financial community descended on San Francisco to present Carbon Forum America, the first American carbon trading conference to include a full trade show featuring 80 companies that manage carbon credit assets and trades, negotiate contracts, validate projects, and perform various other market services. Why California and why now?

California is the US leader on climate policy and now is the time the tea leaves are spelling out a coming certainty for investors. The first serious US climate change measure, the Lieberman-Warner bill, has passed out of a Senate committee. All three front-running presidential candidates have acknowledged a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions is inevitable.

US regional programs like the Western Climate Initiative are picking up steam, and 32 states have now adopted hard emissions targets. The conference sponsor, the International Emissions Trading Association, is banking on the idea US investors will embrace a worldwide carbon trading market that reached $60 billion in 2007 and could mushroom to $300 billion or more very soon. But what exactly is a carbon market?

At a press briefing, IETA president and CEO Henry Derwent acknowledged the concept was a difficult one to explain. "Carbon is an externality, not a commodity. People say, 'What on earth do I need that for? It's not a pork belly.'"

Derwent said investors should look at carbon trading as a form of derivative like a hedge fund. He defended the idea of traders making a profit from carbon trading. "They should be taking a margin for a service. If they do their job well they will provide the world with energy with a lower risk of climate change."

Environmental critics of a cap-and-trade system worry carbon traders, like other derivatives traders, will get carried away and game the system to produce excessive profits for themselves. But the biggest issue as the US contemplates its first national climate bill is the how to allocate the emissions under the cap.

The European Union Emissions Trading System established under the Kyoto protocol gave away emissions allocations to polluting industries in a grandfathering scheme. This depressed the price of carbon and got the market off to a slow start in 2005. The Lieberman-Warner bill would repeat this strategy in the US by giving away over half of the pollution allowances -- worth billions of dollars -- to big industries like coal-burning electric utilities.

By contrast, both Clinton and Obama advocate auctioning 100 percent of the allowances. One hundred percent auctioning is a litmus test for much of the environmental community, which sees the revenues as a crucial source of funds to pay for research and development of renewable energy and to support low-income people who will be hurt by higher prices.

In fact, a cap-and-trade system with 100 percent auctioning of allowances is functionally not very different from a carbon tax. At a Carbon Forum plenary session on potential federal greenhouse gas regulation, representatives of some big corporations weighed in on the auctions debate and other issues.

Ralph Moran, West Coast Climate Change director for British Petroleum, said his company supports some amount of auctioning, but it will dramatically increase the cost of doing business. He warned there was no guarantee government would use the revenues from auctions wisely. Rich Rosenzwieg, Chief Operations Officer of Natsource, a carbon trading firm, continued the theme of mistrust in government. He said we should start small with auctions because "the public won't support giving government billions of dollars in revenue."

He said the revenue stream would end up in a "roach motel" where the money goes in but may not come back out to the taxpayer. Rosenzwieg also stressed the need for flexibility and said we should not expect to "solve the problem in ten years." Katharine Brass, director of General Electric's Ecomagination program, spoke about a looming gap in US electricity production due to the recent cancellation of many new coal-fired generators. That capacity was needed to meet projected demand, she said, and it will take ten years to bring on new coal plants with carbon capture and storage, even if we could start now.

But last month, the Bush administration canceled FutureGen, the only pilot program to develop the untested technology. California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi closed the conference with a stirring address. In an obvious reference to the Bush administration's refusal to allow California to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, Garamendi detailed all of the ways in which global warming is now impacting and will impact California in the future.

While drought and warming are reducing mountain snow pack and drying up the Colorado River, sea level rise will soon push salt water into the Central Delta. "The end result: the California water system as we know it today -- terminated. Doesn't work. We are going to spend billions upon billions of dollars to redesign our water system," Garamendi said.

California is taking action, he said, and state legislation (AB32, The Global Warming Solutions Act) will enable California to establish a carbon cap-and-trade program in the next two or three years. His hope is the California program will drive the coming federal policy: "We are eleven months away from a new regime in Washington and when that happens we want them to follow the California lead and that means we are moving very rapidly forward on a whole set of policy issues."

Garamendi wants California to auction its emissions allowance permits to create a fund to deal with aspects of the problem not covered by markets, like energy research and development and environmental justice. He also supports bringing in transportation, which accounts for 40 percent of California's greenhouse gas emissions. He said there have been lots of discussions of how to do that, but his view is, "If anyone figures out a way to have a cap-and-trade system that rewards individuals, then we will have a big winner because everyone will want to make an extra buck."

Getting individuals to engage by coming up with the right incentives would be "an awesome system," Garamendi said. "If any of you know of anywhere in the world where such a system is being tried, please let us know here in California." If Garamendi's enthusiasm is any guide, the new carbon-based economy is coming very soon, at least to California, with the rest of the country following shortly.

Mette Peterson, one of the Carbon Forum organizers, said the conference attendance exceeded expectations with 1,400 participants. She said American businesses were there to learn about the market and get positioned for the future. It looks like the smart money is gearing up to hedge against climate change.

Improving Our Green Job Prospects

On the one hand we have a deepening economic recession, a mortgage and debt crisis, and rising unemployment. On the other hand is the growing energy and climate crisis, shadowed by the specters of peak oil and planetary meltdown. Rising prices for energy, food and health care are hitting the poor and middle class hard. We have ourselves in quite a mess.

No one has all the answers to these problems, but there is one answer that everyone with any sense embraces as a necessary first step toward a permanent solution: we must create green jobs in the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries. But despite that clear path forward, somehow the political will is not there yet and our prospects for a green jobs program in 2008 do not look very good.

When you've got as many complex problems as we do, you have to make sure that your solutions are multi-dimensional and address as many facets of the problems as possible. That is why the economic stimulus package passed on February 8 was such a lost opportunity. For a mere $5.5 billion on top of the $168 billion package that passed, Congress could have extended the about-to-expire tax credits for renewable energy and added some new home energy efficiency credits. These measures would have kept the renewable energy job engine roaring along and put some contractors to work right away installing better insulation and more efficient appliances in homes.

Failure to extend these tax credits threatens the momentum of the fast-growing renewable energy industry. The head of the American Wind Energy Association, Randall Swisher, said: "With 116,000 jobs and nearly $19 billion in investment at risk in the renewable energy industries, the minority of the Senate has again frustrated the desire of millions of Americans across the political spectrum who overwhelmingly support clean, homegrown energy."

Job creation is the only real answer to the recession, but all we got was a short-term handout that won't do much at all to stimulate the economy, and Americans know it. An AP poll found that most people think that the best way to help the economy would be to pull our military out of Iraq, freeing billions of taxpayer dollars to meet pressing needs at home.

Only 19 percent said they would go out and spend the money when those $300 to $1,200 rebate checks arrive in May, while 45 percent said they would use it to help pay their bills. Paying off the mortgage and the credit card means that ultimately the biggest beneficiaries will be banks and mortgage companies. Since the tax rebates will increase the federal deficit, the overall effect will be to trade personal debt for national debt. Even if this works as a short-term stimulus, far more is needed for the long term.

Far more is needed because this is not a "business as usual" recession. In an interview with financial reporters at Energy Tech Stocks, the "Dean of Wall Street energy analysts," Charles T. Maxwell, predicted that peak oil will arrive sometime in the next two to seven years. Oil will shoot up to the range of $300 a barrel, pushing pump prices to $15 a gallon. Maxwell said that unlike past recessions, "This will not be six months of hell and then we come out of it."

A growing chorus of oil industry insiders and even CEOs of major oil companies are beginning to publicly agree with this assessment. But most American politicians -- including the presidential candidates still in the running -- have so far failed to acknowledge the imminence of peak oil. Without that acknowledgment, green jobs are seen as a nice thing for people and polar bears, but not as what they truly are -- the only lifeline that can save a civilization about to founder on the rocks of peak oil.

Ignoring peak oil is a huge mistake.

Charles T. Maxwell is not optimistic about our green job prospects. Energy Tech Stocks characterized his thoughts this way:

Princeton and Oxford-educated Maxwell believes that if the Democrats are in power, their core constituencies -- farmers, workers and intellectuals -- will be ranged against one another, resulting in an impasse. If the Republicans are in power, he expects whatever 'solution' they come up with to be politically untenable because it will be premised on people with money continuing to consume as before, with the have-nots expected to do without.Maxwell's assessment of the Republicans is indisputable. The Bush-Cheney record speaks for itself, as does the John McCain record. McCain played a linchpin role in the two most recent Republican filibusters of renewable energy programs. He failed to show up and vote for the strong version of the energy bill in December when the Democrats had 59 votes for the bill and McCain's vote for renewable energy would have ended the filibuster. On February 6, McCain did it again -- went AWOL when the Democrats had 59 votes to add green jobs to the stimulus package. Not only that, but according to the Sierra Club, his office is lying about the vote, claiming that he voted for clean energy when he did not.

Sadly, Maxwell may also be right about the Democrats, at least for now. Between auto workers and oil patch Democrats, the party has a lot of complicated agendas to balance. They also have political points to score that may help with the fall elections. But given peak oil and the ever-worsening news about climate change, we can no longer afford politics as usual.

Right now the Democrats are putting America's renewable energy industry at risk by failing to move an extension of tax credits for the wind and solar industries. On February 13, in a sign that the situation is becoming critical, more than 350 leaders and CEOs in the renewable energy industry called on Congress to extend the tax credits by March 1, 2008. The group of leaders warned that without immediate passage of the extensions, Congress will jeopardize 42,000 megawatts of planned renewable energy projects currently in development in 45 states -- an amount equivalent to 75 new base load power stations.

House Democrats have told reporters that they intend to introduce a new package of renewable energy supports that would include the tax credit extensions. They would offset the cost by repealing about $17 billion in tax breaks for big oil. While it makes a lot of sense to repeal those tax breaks (Exxon earned record profits last year of $40.6 billion -- do they really need another couple of billion in tax breaks to keep them afloat?), it won't do anything to help the renewable energy industry.

Ending tax breaks for big oil is surefire filibuster-bait and veto-bait, as Democrats learned when they had to pull the package from the December energy bill in order to get the bill passed and signed into law. Solar energy lobbyist Scott Sklar said that renewable energy industry leaders are frustrated. He questioned the priorities of Democrats and said, "It is more important to have a vital clean energy industry than to deal with some of those sub rosa issues [ending tax breaks for big oil] that in the end you might not be able to change at this time."

Sklar said that while renewable industry leaders are "trying to be polite and not burn any bridges," his view is "you can't crow about climate change and you can't crow about economic development and you can't crow about us losing jobs to Europe and Japan in clean energy and fail to pass the tax incentives. It is absolutely unacceptable."

If Congress can raise the national debt by $168 billion for a short-term economic stimulus, why can't it indulge in a little deficit spending on something that might actually strengthen the economy for the long term?

Sklar wants the Democrats in Congress to move on a stand-alone bill without trying to offset the costs. What's needed, he says, is a bill that covers the entire clean energy industry, starting with tax credits for wind, biomass and solar.

"They also need to support the technologies they've left out of other bills," he says, "such as solar daylighting, combined heat and power, geo-exchange, small wind, and the water energy technologies, which are tidal, wave, free-flow hydro, ocean thermal and ocean currents. And get it done this quarter."

I asked Sklar if there was any hope of the Republicans going along with this policy. His answer was:

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Does Our Energy Future Hinge on Iran?

Last weekend, a Reuters report revealed that the US military has stepped up its logistics to move a large amount of additional fuel supplies into the Persian Gulf.

Correspondent Stefan Ambrogi reported: "A Gulf oil industry source said the charters suggested there would be high naval activity, possibly including a demonstration to Iran that the U.S. Navy will protect the Strait of Hormuz oil shipping route during tensions over Tehran's nuclear programme."

According to the report, the US Military Sealift Command appears to be moving at least double the ordinary volume of liquid fuels for aviation and shipping into the Gulf. Ambrogi says that, "In the past ... fuel movements have provided advance clues of U.S. intentions." The report was based on information that came from an anonymous oil industry insider.

As concerned citizens worry about our president [possibly] launching another war in the Middle East, we ask ourselves: how can it be that the only way for us to find out our government's intentions is to intercept a semaphore signal like this?

We don't even really know why we are involved in the current war in Iraq. First we were told it was to protect us from WMDs, then to bring democracy to the Middle East. Many suspect the real goal was to exert control over oil. This goal finally became explicit in Bush's speech of September 13 when he justified the occupation of Iraq to protect the "global energy supply" from "extremists."

Concerned citizens now need to help their fellow Americans answer a question that reaches beyond the moral and even the legal evaluation of the Bush-Cheney press to attack Iran.

Will military action against Iran work to secure oil for US interests?

In order to answer this question, it must be put into the context of peak oil. Peak oil is simply the moment in time when the rate of oil production stops growing. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute reports world oil production has already dropped from 84.80 million barrels per day in 2006 to 84.62 million barrels per day during the first 10 months of 2007. Brown reports that the German Energy Watch Group is projecting that oil production will soon start to decline by seven percent a year and fall to 58 million barrels a day by 2020, barely more than half of what economists say the world will need twelve years from now.

The implications of peak oil for global security are profound. Lester Brown said: "When oil output is no longer expanding, no country can get more oil unless another gets less."

China is already feeling the pinch of oil shortages and has set up a monitoring system in parts of the country to give advance warning to try to get fuel where it is needed.

China's predicament brings up the question: Why are we sitting on Iraq's oil? In other words, what are US interests? Are we building giant permanent military bases in Iraq for the benefit of American SUV drivers? Or for the benefit of the US economy? But China is an intrinsic part of the US economy now, with its investment in our treasury. If we grab more oil at the expense of China, do we just hurt ourselves?

Michael Klare, author of the book "Blood and Oil," examines the logic of what's known as the "Washington consensus," the long-term commitment on the part of both Democrats and Republicans to use military force to secure Mideast oil supplies. Klare says, "Given this perspective, it is very hard for mainstream Democrats to challenge Bush when he says that an 'enduring' US military presence is needed in Iraq. ... By the same token, it will be hard for the Democrats to avert a US attack on Iran if this can be portrayed as a necessary move to prevent Tehran from threatening the long-term safety of Persian Gulf oil supplies."

The problem with this is that there is no evidence that Iran wants to disrupt oil supplies or invade any of its neighbors, including Iraq. And even if it did, as Jim Hightower said recently, "... all peace-seeking governments must be vigilant toward Iran's potential for belligerence. This requires steady engagement, smart diplomacy, military subtlety, and careful consideration of the complexities embodied within Iran's rich, proud, 6,000-year-old culture."

The Bush-Cheney shell game that is developing uses Iraq to justify attacking Iran and uses Iran to justify the continuing occupation of Iraq. But ultimately to what end?

As Michael Klare pointed out, no oil company will invest billions of dollars in oil production infrastructure without a stable and secure investment climate. And after nearly five years of US occupation, Iraq is no closer to having such a stable climate.

The global oil supply is starting to run out, and in response the Bush-Cheney bubba boys are running tanker loads of precious fuel into the Gulf to fuel a saber-rattling operation or worse. War, whether hot or cold, will never achieve the objective of securing oil supplies for US interests, but it might serve to obscure what is really going on.

Imagine what will happen when gas prices shoot up to $5 or $6 a gallon in the US. Now imagine how happy Dick Cheney will be if he can find an excuse to attack Iran, and Iran retaliates by disrupting the flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz. Oil shortages will be blamed on Iran, and peak oil as an issue will fall off the table.

A much better strategy for the US and the rest of the world would be to act on Lester Brown's suggestion of an immediate emergency meeting of the G-8 to coordinate decisive action to reduce oil use. Such a meeting could also begin a diplomatic process such as the UN process on climate change to decide how to rationally apportion what remains of the world's oil.

In a sensible world where the grownups were in charge, governments would come up with a plan to use the last of the oil to help all nations build up their renewable energy infrastructure. We cannot afford to waste another drop of oil, either on useless consumer garbage or on war.

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards -- I hope you get this message.

Giving Thanks For Oil and OPEC

When you sit down for your Thanksgiving meal this week, don't forget to thank the oil. No, not the extra extra virgin olive oil or the polyunsaturated high omega 3 vegetable oil, but the crude -- the dead dino, fossilized pond scum, ancient sunlight, rock oil -- aka, petroleum.

Remember as you give thanks for the bountiful Earth, that back of the bread lies the oil. We should acknowledge that our food production system and every other aspect of our lives are utterly dependent on fossil fuels. We should also remember that before World War II, this was not the case. We may even have relatives who remember those days. We should take a look at the children sitting around the table. They will not live in a world of cheap, abundant oil. Give thanks for that too.

Why should we give thanks that the future holds no cheap oil? There are several reasons, but the first is that cheap oil has fueled a 50-year-long party in the industrialized West that has left us with an unsustainable economy that is wrecking the planet. The recent awareness of global warming is beginning to put a damper on our out-of-control binge, but not fast enough to slow the heating of the planet. Rising oil prices will force a cutback in consumption. Rising oil prices will also chill the fantasy of endless growth and force us to confront the reality of planetary limits.

For several years now, "voices from the wilderness" have been gathering with louder volume to warn about the coming peak in world oil production. In 2005, petroleum geologist Kenneth Deffeyes predicted that the world output of crude oil would peak on Thanksgiving Day 2005, but he and other petroleum industry "outsiders" have been dismissed as "fringe" elements.

Not any longer. Over the past month, a number of oil industry insiders have made statements confirming that the annual growth in oil production has stopped. On Monday, November 19, The Wall Street Journal ran a front page story titled "Oil Officials See Limit Looming on Production." While the article emphasized opinions that tied flat oil-production curves to what they call "above ground" limits having to do with available drilling rigs, security concerns and the like, there is plenty of evidence that the underlying geology of oil is imposing absolute limits on the amount that can be produced.

Some oil industry executives seem to concur. The article quoted ConocoPhillips CEO James Mulva on the likelihood of meeting the projected demand of 120 million barrels a day by 2030: "I don't think we are going to see the supply going over 100 million barrels a day. Where is all that going to come from?" In a Business Week article, Mulva said that his company was considering diversifying into renewable energy. "We may not be able to do in the next 100 years what we did in the past 100 years," Mulva said. "So we have to ask ourselves how we can transform from just an oil and gas company into an energy company."

Meanwhile, sustainability analyst Lester Brown released an update last week titled, "Is World Oil Production Peaking?" Brown ran through the figures: "After climbing from 82.90 million barrels per day (mb/d) in 2004 to 84.15 mb/d in 2005, output only increased to 84.80 mb/d in 2006 and then declined to 84.62 mb/d during the first 10 months of 2007." Absent a big production increase from OPEC, the numbers indicate that the peak in world oil production may have already occurred in 2006, not far off from Kenneth Deffeye's prediction.

OPEC met last weekend in a summit -- only the third summit involving heads of state since the group was founded in 1960. U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman called on OPEC to raise production to alleviate high oil prices, but OPEC Secretary General Abdalla Salem el-Badri's response was, " ... frankly we don't see that we should add more oil."

Lester Brown says that despite claims from Saudi Arabia that they can produce more oil, Saudi output so far this year is down six percent from last year. Many analysts are now saying that OPEC can no longer increase production enough to bring oil prices down. All they can do is make prices go up by further constricting supply.

Besides throwing cold water on the idea of production increases, OPEC leaders also broached the subject of dropping the US dollar as the default currency for oil payments. And Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez proposed that OPEC should become more strategic in using its oil to benefit the world's poor.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia disagreed with Chavez, saying, "Oil is an energy for building and prosperity, it shouldn't become a means of conflict." The Saudis would limit the mission of OPEC to providing oil at a stable price to benefit global economic growth. Apart from the troubled times in 1973-74 when Arab states embargoed oil exports to protest America's support for Israel, OPEC has pretty much done what it was asked to by the United States. We should thank OPEC for doing its part to fuel the massive economic expansion of the past 30 years.

But OPEC's founding ideals were not about servicing global capitalism; they were about protecting the interests of third world countries from former colonial powers. One of the founders of OPEC was the Venezuelan economist Perez Alfonzo. Alfonzo believed that Venezuela's oil was a national asset that should be used for the good of the people. He lived modestly himself, walking wherever he could. Toward the end of his life, he wrote, "I am an ecologist first of all. I have always been an ecologist first of all ... . I feel OPEC is a good instrument of the Third World. It has just not been used properly."

Imagine how world economic development might have proceeded if OPEC had done more to ensure that oil was used for third world development and the alleviation of poverty. Instead, we saw phenomena like the oil glut of the 1990's that fueled the fad of giant SUVs. We got Hummers when we could have had hospitals, schools and help for the world's poor.

Now our eyes are being opened. Cheap oil is not infinite. It is not an American birthright. Now we can begin to cope with the consequences. It won't be easy, but it will be real.

Lester Brown reports that the German Energy Watch Group is projecting that oil production will now decline by seven percent a year and fall to 58 million barrels a day by 2020. Brown points out that the United States is more vulnerable to an oil production decline than some other countries: "For example, the United States -- which has long neglected public transportation -- is particularly vulnerable because 88 percent of the US workforce travels to work by car."

Brown, who founded the World Watch Institute in 1974, is like Perez Alfonzo. He has long urged a different path for economic development. To cope with what he calls "a seismic event, marking one of the great fault lines in world economic history," he proposes calling an emergency meeting of the G-8 to coordinate decisive action to reduce oil use. He says, "If governments fail to act quickly and decisively to reduce oil use, oil prices could soar as demand outruns supply, leading to a global recession or -- in a worst-case scenario -- a 1930s-type global depression."

It seems like we might have a choice then: either back to the 70's with gas rationing, speed limits and lowered thermostats, or back to the 30's.

We should be thankful that we have a choice. It may not be the choice we want, but it's the choice we have.

Unfortunately, there are still plenty of voices trying to downplay this message of oil depletion and lull us back to sleep. Last week, NPR did a series of special reports on high oil prices. Smooth tones and heavily modulated language made the listener feel that the troubles were a just a temporary speed bump, certainly no "seismic shift."

The stories seemed to evoke every reason for high prices but a geological limit on supply, from the falling value of the dollar, to Iran, to "excessive demand" from China and India. Listeners were reassured that the high prices would stimulate more production and that prices would eventually fall again. The current high prices were described as "an 'oil bubble,' one that will pop, sooner or later." The unstated message was: "Don't wake up! At least not until after Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year! Please give us one more great retail season so the American consumer can continue to fill his/her divinely sanctioned role as the driver of the world economy!

The US Congress has yet to pass an energy bill that would begin to shift investment from the fossil fuel economy to one based on conservation, efficiency and renewable energy. Groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, the US Chamber of Commerce and big utilities like Southern Company are lobbying to prevent investment in renewable energy. The American Petroleum Institute even commissioned a study to prove that the renewable energy provisions would cause energy prices to rise.

Democratic Congressional leaders have promised us an energy bill by Christmas. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says it could be "a nice Christmas present for the American people." But this bill is in danger. Only one thing can ensure a strong energy bill.

Over this Thanksgiving recess, members of Congress must hear from multitudes of clear-headed people who understand that oil production has peaked, that energy prices are going to rise no matter what we do, and that the best choice for the future is to invest the resources we have left in a new renewable energy infrastructure.

That would be something to be truly thankful for.

Democratic Leaders Poised to Sabotage Hope for Renewable Energy

Last Thursday, Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid said that they would jettison the renewable energy provisions in both the House and Senate versions of the 2007 energy bill in the interest of passing a bill before the Thanksgiving recess begins on November 17.

Republicans have been holding up action on the bill for months now, refusing to participate in conference committee meetings to reconcile the House and Senate versions. The big sticking points for Republicans have been support for renewable energy and ending billions of dollars in subsidies for oil companies. Democrats would like to use the oil subsidy money to support solar and wind power.

Representatives of the renewable energy industry were dismayed by the Democrats' abandonment. "This is basically Congress delivering an early Christmas present to the American public -- and it's a lump of coal," said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). "We are feeling disgusted because this energy bill goes right back to maintaining the status quo."

The renewable energy provisions in the bill come in two forms: a Renewable Electricity Standard that requires utilities to supply 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind, and tax provisions, including a production tax credit for wind power and a tax credit to encourage investment in solar power equipment.

While the Renewable Electricity Standard would be a new federal program (31 states already have some kind of renewable mandate), the tax incentives for solar and wind would continue programs already in place. Losing these tax breaks would be devastating to the renewable energy industry, said solar lobbyist Scott Sklar of the Stella Group: "It will cause sales and investment to implode."

By giving up on renewable energy, lawmakers are losing an opportunity to increase energy security and strengthen the economy. Last week the American Solar Energy Society released a report on the economic benefits of investment in renewable energy, finding that major investments in renewables and energy efficiency retrofits could produce 40 million jobs and generate $4.5 trillion in US revenue by 2030.

The latest turn in the energy bill would actually force the country a few steps backward. Scott Sklar said that unlike in past years, there is little chance that the renewable tax incentives will be attached to another bill for passage this year.

If those tax incentives are lost, Americans will feel the pain quickly. Randall Swisher, head of the American Wind Energy Association said that the rapid growth of the American wind industry would go into a stall. "Getting into 2008, we will start to see uncertainty creep in in terms of getting projects financed and, even more importantly, attracting manufacturers to this country, bringing with them the jobs that are a critical part of what this industry can deliver for the future of this country," said Swisher.

The Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) was one of the provisions that passed only in the House version of the energy bill. Some Republicans, along with President Bush, have strongly opposed the mandate. Senator Domenici, ranking member of the Senate energy committee, cited complaints from utilities in the Southeast that they lacked renewable resources required to meet a 15 percent standard, but renewable energy experts say it won't be that challenging.

Domenici and some other Republicans want to keep the current state-by-state approach. They say it makes the most of regional differences in renewable resources. Scott Sklar warns that a strictly regional approach would shrink the potential of renewable energy.

"If the goal is to build a national, sustainable set of clean energy industries, the entire US market needs to be included," Sklar said. "Blending tax credits, an RES and national interconnection standards is the core government tool box to accelerate and enhance these technologies and build these industries. With energy imports increasing, prices increasing, climate change emissions increasing, our electric infrastructure aging, now is not the time to balkanize energy efficiency and production, but [to] set goals and nurture new technologies and new markets."

Republican maneuvers to kill the energy bill also came to light last week when Senator Domenici introduced a pair of amendments to the farm bill now being debated in the Senate. Domenici wants to migrate two of his favored energy provisions -- the ethanol mandate and $50 billion in nuclear power loan guarantees -- into the more viable farm bill. The loan guarantee title is called "loan guarantees for renewable fuel facilities," and never mentions nuclear power specifically. Dave Roberts, a writer at the green magazine Grist, called the move "sneaky."

With agribusiness lobbying hard for it, transferring the ethanol mandate to the farm bill would weaken bipartisan support for the energy bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters last week that the language should stay in the energy bill and that Democrats were going to "do an energy package separate from the farm bill."

With the Democratic leadership willing to sacrifice renewable energy provisions to pass an energy bill, what will be left? One controversial provision that may make it to the final bill is a watered-down version of the Senate's auto fuel efficiency standard. This provision has a lot going for it politically.

First, it has the support of President Bush and many Republicans. In an October 15 letter to Speaker Pelosi, Bush outlined a framework for an energy bill that would get his support. It would not include a Renewable Electricity Standard, but it would "reform and strengthen the fuel economy standard for cars."

In the letter, Bush then goes on to spell out the loopholes he wants inserted into a fuel economy standard. There must be separate standards for cars and light trucks (no holding SUVs to high standards) and there must be a cost-benefit analysis safety valve.

Fuel economy for cars is also polling very well. A bipartisan poll conducted last week found that voters connect better fuel efficiency with national security. Pollster Mark Mellman said: "The overwhelming support for CAFE standards cuts across all the traditional demographics in this country." Overall, 86 percent of voters said they support requiring automakers to increase fuel economy -- 90 percent of Democrats, 83 percent of independents and 83 percent of Republicans. Only health care costs and the Iraq war show similar levels of concern at 79 percent and 72 percent respectively.

Passing a weak fuel economy standard may let both the parties say they have done something about energy security, but it won't do much to build a renewable energy economy for the future.

But some Democrats are still willing to fight for the renewable energy provisions. Colorado Congressman Mark Udall said that he will meet with Speaker Pelosi this Wednesday about the energy bill.

Judith Kohler, writing for The Associated Press, reports that Udall believes support for renewable energy is a more important priority for the energy bill than increasing the CAFE standard. He is also meeting with senators to share his experiences with Colorado's successful Renewable Electricity Standard and to reassure senators from Southern states that energy experts believe they will be able to meet a Renewable Electricity Standard.

Udall is co-chair of the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus in the House. Referring to his work on the House version of the energy bill that passed last August, he said, "Those of us who fought really hard in August are not going to rest until the final decision is made."

Bioneers to the Rescue

The annual Bioneers conference has a reputation for creative and deep thinking about sustainability and the environment, but during all my years as an environmental activist, I never managed to attend. On October 19-21, I finally made it to the conference in San Rafael, California. It was an opportunity to feel the pulse of the environmental movement today and reflect on how it has grown and changed since Bioneers began in 1990, the same year that I became a full-time environmental activist.

In 1990, I was working as a signature-gathering coordinator for a California forestry initiative that would have ended clear-cutting in California forests. I organized volunteers to hit the streets with petitions throughout the East Bay, and not just the street corners in Berkeley where signatures were as easy to gather as apples on the ground. Looking toward the election in the fall, I recruited the two housewives in working-class Freemont who would staff a table at the mall on Saturday, and the lone environmentalist in conservative Concord. But one day, at my table in Oakland, I was approached by an elderly black man with anger in his eyes.

"What are you doing, worrying about trees," he said, "when black people are still dying on the streets." The civil rights movement wasn't finished, he told me, and he couldn't understand why liberal whites had given up and turned their attention to frivolous things like trees. I had no idea how to respond, but later, a middle-aged black woman came by my table and told me how important it was to save forests. She shared her memories of her Louisiana home and the forests she had known there. A few weeks later, on Earth Day, we were invited to bring our petition to a church in the refinery town of Richmond, where the Rev. Jesse Jackson would speak.

Jackson's beautiful sermon wove together concern for the Earth, civil rights and justice. Afterwards, young black children came up to my table, where I had a picture of the redwoods, and asked me where that was. "Is that in Africa? Are there monkeys? Can I go there?" These children had never seen a redwood, even though the nearest grove stood barely a dozen miles away, just over the bridge, in Marin County. I wanted to do something about that, but I never did.

At the Bioneers conference, I heard from courageous people who have moved mountains to make the connection between environmentalism and civil rights. Van Jones, of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, is spearheading what he calls "social uplift" environmentalism. His Green for All campaign promotes training of inner city workers for green collar environmental jobs. One program, based in that same low-income town wedged in around giant petroleum refinery tanks where I saw Jesse Jackson speak 17 years ago, is called Solar Richmond. Solar Richmond just graduated its first class of underprivileged youth trained to be solar electric installers.

Van Jones wants to connect "the people who most need saving with the jobs that most need doing." But when he testified about green jobs before Congress recently, he was told that because it can cost up to $10,000 to get an inner city youth "job ready," his ideas were not cost effective. Van Jones wants us to think about how much it costs to deal with the social disruption of unemployment that leads to violence, drugs and prison. Green jobs are the future, he says, and we can't afford to leave anyone behind. We can no longer accept "throwaway" species like the polar bear, "throwaway" people like poor blacks, Latinos and Native Americans, or "throwaway" communities like Richmond, California.

Speaker Majora Carter grew up in the South Bronx, another "throwaway" community. She described the difficulties of growing up in a community abandoned to garbage dumps, prisons and asphalt. But she did not abandon her community. She started Sustainable South Bronx, and has raised $30,000,000 to build the South Bronx Greenway and other green projects in her neighborhood. "My folks are from down South," she said; "they always used to talk about the crick -- that means the creek -- and how nice it was. That connection to nature is our birthright, but we have less access to green spaces than any other part of the city."

Carter is fighting plans for another prison in her neighborhood. She wonders why government can't invest in green jobs instead: "Why are we still building monuments to our failure when we could be building monuments to hope and possibility?"

While these two speakers were highlights, Bioneers had much more to offer. The Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers was present, along with many other indigenous speakers. And there were women. Alice Walker, Eve Ensler and Joanna Macy were high on my list of admired women. This was one of the few conferences I have attended where I did not leave thinking that women didn't get equal time at the podium. To the contrary, there was a strong acknowledgement everywhere that a revival of the feminine principle in politics and life is essential for building a new culture that can live with the earth without destroying it.

Bioneers makes connections between culture and environment. It also encourages a new approach to technology, using a concept called "biomimicry." Biomimicry is technical innovation inspired by nature's designs. One example is new tough materials that are created with a low-temperature process inspired by abalone shell. Another is identifying new medicines by observing what plants a sick chimp or monkey chooses to eat from the forest. Still another example of biomimicry is designing gardens that mimic natural ecosystems for improved productivity in a small space.

Inventor Jay Harman presented a family of designs for fans and impellers based on the natural spirals found in seashells and blossoms. My favorite was a mixer for giant municipal water tanks. When water is stored for long periods, it can stagnate and become unhealthy. Harman's mixer is tiny, barely bigger than my fist. Turning in the middle of the tank, nothing much happens at first, but over time it sets up a natural vortex in the tank that keeps the water circulating and fresh. Harman said even if you stop the mixer, the vortex will keep on spinning for days.

While ideas and inspiration abounded at Bioneers, the gathering could have used more attention to grassroots activism. I was disappointed that there was no visible information about the energy bill that Democrats are getting ready to bring to a vote. Both House and Senate versions have money designated for green job-training programs that could begin to move the Green for All vision to reality. Right now is a critical moment for this bill as Republicans are maneuvering hard to hold up a conference committee and block the bill. There should have been letter-writing tables scattered throughout the venue.

Another disconcerting fact about Bioneers is the cost of attending. While there were many scholarships for youth and some for activists, the $300 to $400 cost for registration and meals is too much for most working class people. Fortunately, you can hear many former Bioneers speakers at the network of Green Festivals that are staged in several major cities. A three-day pass to the San Francisco Green Festival on November 9-11 is only $25.

Still, it was a treat to hear all of the dedicated and inspirational eco-pioneers who shared the podium at Bioneers 2007. The final plenary was most outstanding. Burmese activist Ka Hsaw Wa, founder of EarthRights International, told the story of his tribal people tortured and abused by the military in the service of a US oil company, Unocal, which was building a gas pipeline through their territory. EarthRights International became the first group to successfully sue a US corporation for human rights abuses committed abroad. Today they are asking for public pressure on Chevron, Unocal's parent company, to use its influence with the Burmese junta to stop the violence in that country.

Ka Hsaw Wa called for a new view of globalization where "there is no 'mine' in this house." He said: "We know the companies and their military partners have lots of money, guns, power and influence. But they do not have what we have. We have truth, we have justice, we have courage, and most importantly, we have each other to protect this house where there is no 'mine.' We will win."

As I left this final, emotionally stirring session of the Bioneers conference, I found myself in a line for the women's room where a young woman grabbed my arm and said, "Can you believe all the love that is here?" She had tears in her eyes and a smile on her face. Her name was TBird Luv (she has a website, search it out) and she is an artist. "It's the oneness that I feel here, Mother Earth telling us we are all one."

I asked TBird Luv why she came to Bioneers and she told me that she had spent years working on her art and her spirituality but it was now time to "come out and do something for the earth." As a child of many races -- African, European and Native American -- she told me that she could feel the oneness integrating in her own body.

As the planetary environmental crisis grows more threatening and impacts more people, the environmental movement will continue to evolve. The idea that we are all one people on a small planet has, like Jay Harman's water tank mixer, been stirring the heart of humanity for some time. This, more than any particular technical innovation, is what will solve our ecological crisis.

If we feel a quickening now of this idea of oneness, it is no surprise. Perhaps, before we know it, individuals, families, companies, states and nations will align in a galaxy of highly functional networks and spin us into a green future.

One can always hope.

Global Warming Challenges Environmental Law

On April 2, 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the State of Massachusetts in the landmark global warming case, Massachusetts v. EPA. Environmentalists were pleased that the high court ruled on the merits of the case, agreeing that carbon dioxide meets the definition of a pollutant and that the EPA has run out of excuses for not regulating it.

But some legal scholars were even more gratified by another aspect of the case, the court's ruling on the right of the plaintiffs to sue, known as their "standing." Michael C. Dorf, a law professor at Columbia University, said that "the most important practical effect of Massachusetts v. EPA may be what it does to standing doctrine. And on that point, the decision marks a welcome turn away from recent precedents that imposed gratuitous obstacles to courts' reaching decisions on the merits."

On the other side, Case Western Reserve law professor Jonathan H. Adler decried the court's admission of standing, saying that "Justice Stevens almost certainly lowered the standing bar for future environmental litigants." Adler had participated in amicus briefs submitted in the case by the Cato Institute.

Prior to the court's ruling, many analysts speculated that it would dismiss the case based on the standing issue. The court could have ruled that the coalition of states and environmental groups lacked standing to bring the case to court because they could not show a concrete and imminent harm that was redressable through the courts. The minority, consisting of Justices Roberts, Scalia, Alito and Thomas, would have denied standing to the plaintiffs based on these tests.

The tests for standing have been tightened considerably since the 1970s, and justices who take a narrow view of standing have kept countless environmental and civil rights cases out of the courts, denying petitioners the right to be heard on the merits of their cases. Lily Henning, in an article in Legal Times, explains that an extreme narrow view of standing has become a constitutional litmus test for conservatives and that "the philosophy grew in popularity -- both in the courts and among government lawyers -- during the Reagan administration."

The Reagan administration is where Chief Justice Roberts cut his teeth. In one of his early memos, Roberts said: "It will be our policy to raise standing and other justiciability challenges to the fullest extent possible." During Roberts's confirmation process as Supreme Court chief justice, a letter from environmental groups to the Senate Judiciary Committee pointed out that Roberts's statement was sweeping and unqualified and "it was not limited to cases in which the Justice Department believed there was no standing or even to cases where there was a serious question."

Raising the bar on standing in order to deny citizen access to the courts whenever possible became a key plank in the quest for the "unitary executive" espoused by the Federalist Society and other neocon groups. These groups promoted the notion that all of the executive powers of the government must be consolidated and tightly controlled by the president. From this perspective, citizen lawsuits to enforce government regulations amount to "stealing power" from the executive branch and they should be thrown out of court whenever possible.

Commenting on the nomination of Justice Alito to the Supreme Court last year, Robert Parry of Consortium News said:

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Supreme Court Deals Win for Environment

Last Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Massachusetts v. EPA, produced what some are calling its most important environmental ruling in a generation, telling the EPA that unless it determines that global warming causes no harm, it must begin regulating CO2 emissions.

The case began with a lawsuit in 1999 by environmental groups, later joined by a number of states, asserting that under the authority of the Clean Air Act, the EPA had to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars. The auto industry then joined in the lawsuit, coming to EPA's defense.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers also brought a separate suit against California after the state passed its own law regulating CO2 emissions in 2002. The bill, AB 1493, sponsored by California Rep. Fran Pavley, requires new cars and trucks sold in California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 22 percent by 2012 and 30 percent by 2016.

Detroit maintains that California has no right to make its own CO2 regulations because regulating CO2 has to mean regulating fuel economy and that is the prerogative of the Department of Transportation. On that basis, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers sued California and two states that adopted its regulations, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Monday's ruling should moot Detroit's lawsuit against California, Rhode Island and Vermont because the Supreme Court made it very clear that CO2 is defined as a pollutant. California has the right to promulgate its own air quality regulations under the Clean Air Act because it had strict air pollution rules in place at the time the act was passed. The Clean Air Act is a minimum standard, and California and other states following California's lead can exceed those standards if they wish.

Courts have stayed the auto industry's lawsuit in California and Rhode Island, but not in Vermont. The judge in Vermont held a hearing on Wednesday to determine if the auto industry's case should go forward. Environmentalists were hoping he would toss it out, but he didn't. Judge William Sessions III said bringing the case to trial means "there will be a full record to go forward to the appeals court or the Supreme Court or a higher authority, if there is a higher authority." The trial begins next week.

While Detroit may not know much about climate science, it doesn't take a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing. Reacting to the Supreme Court verdict, Dave McCurdy, chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said, "There needs to be a national, federal, economy-wide approach to addressing greenhouse gases." He also said the auto industry was eager to work with Congress and the EPA to make the changes uniform and "constructive."

In the aftermath of Massachusetts v. EPA, Detroit is now calling for legislation and uniform national standards. California is a threat because it has the power to lift standards higher. The auto industry would prefer to pre-empt California and then get a weak standard passed while the Bush administration is still in charge.

That's why writer Bill McKibben says "... it's more important than ever that those of us who know enough and care enough to take action ratchet up the pressure. The oil companies and the coal barons read the newspapers too -- they know that their days of a free ride are coming to a close, and the only question now is how high the fare is going to be." McKibben calls for people to join a nationwide rally for climate change action on April 14 called Step It Up '07.

In the long run, automakers would be better off if they would embrace strong regulation now, because it might be the only thing that can save them from themselves. If you read the business news, you see that Detroit is not doing very well these days. Ford lost a record $12.7 billion last year and plans to close nine plants by next year.

The U.S. big three are bleeding market share to Asian manufactures. Why is that? Ron Pinelli, president of Autodata Corporation, an industry statistics firm, said it is because "the products that the import brands have are just the ones that are hitting a chord with Americans right now. The domestic makers, the reason their sales are down, is they're still dependent on their trucks."

Shareholders of DaimlerChrysler recently lambasted their CEO for the company's tone-deafness in continuing to produce gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks even after high oil prices prompted Americans to begin the shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles. "How could it happen that you were so surprised by the developments in the United States?" asked banker Henning Gebhardt. "Turning away from gas-guzzling vehicles was not really a surprise."

People want a change because gas prices have gone up and, unlike in the past, it's sinking in that they won't be going back down again. Last week the Government Accountability Office released its first report on peak oil, concluding that we will indeed run out of oil and that production declines could actually begin very soon. While the term "peak oil" is not often used in public debate, the term "energy security" is used and well understood. People are getting the idea that their big gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs are fueling the US war in Iraq, and they don't like it.

If Detroit were willing to change, there could be help available. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois) and Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Washington) have floated a proposal for transition financing that would relieve some of the health care burden of auto companies that volunteered to develop new hybrids and other fuel-efficient technologies. The Apollo Alliance, a labor and environment coalition, has more ideas like this.

But there is little indication that the US auto industry is ready to embrace change. At Ford's upcoming annual meeting on May 10, shareholders will vote on a resolution to set goals for reducing total greenhouse gas emissions from the company's products and operations. The board of directors is recommending a "no" vote on that resolution.

In order to really change, Ford and other automakers may need to get more public pressure. This week at the New York Auto Show, the Freedom from Oil campaign dropped a banner inside the Javits Convention Center challenging Toyota. The banner showed a picture of Toyota's big truck, the Tundra, driving over a globe with the tagline, "Toyota: The Truck That's Changing the Climate."

Mike Hudema, co-director of the Freedom from Oil campaign said: "Toyota can't have it both ways; Toyota can't call themselves an environmental leader while fighting legislation to curb greenhouse gas pollution and accelerating into the truck market."

As a member of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Toyota is part of the lawsuit against the states that will be heard in Vermont next week. The Freedom from Oil Campaign issued demands that Toyota drop out of that lawsuit; stop lobbying efforts against fuel-economy standards; lead the way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions; and make a concrete production commitment with a timeline for putting Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles onto the roads as soon as possible.

Toyota, Ford and all the others should listen up because it is not only the earth's climate that is changing. It is the business climate too.

How to Live a Low-Energy Lifestyle

Al Gore is really doing it, bringing climate awareness to the doorsteps of opinion makers and forcing them to consider all of its implications. Of course, no good deed ever goes unpunished in this country.

Aside from all the sniping about his annual home power bill (which turns out to be so high partly because he spends an extra five grand or so to buy wind power and might also have something to do with a vice president's security needs), lots of the usual "free market uber alles" types are accusing him and all green-minded folks of forcing them to wear the dreaded "hair shirt" of mandatory reductions in their energy use.

Incredibly, those who aren't complaining about the sacrifices are indignant about Gore making it all seem too easy. In Robert J. Samuelson's New York Times editorial last week titled "Hollywood's Climate Follies," he accuses Gore of painting the issue as "saints vs. sinners" and failing to acknowledge that "the lifestyles that produce greenhouse gases are deeply ingrained in modern economies and societies. ... Those who believe that addressing global warming is a moral imperative face an equivalent moral imperative to be candid about the costs, difficulties and uncertainties."

It's hard to tell exactly what triggered Samuelson's outrage, but it seems to be a line from Gore's Oscar acceptance speech where he said, "We have everything we need to get started, with the possible exception of the will to act. That's a renewable resource. Let's renew it."

But what will it take to renew that resource? Everywhere the conventional wisdom is that Americans will never give up their big cars, big houses, air conditioning set at 65 degrees on hot summer afternoons and incandescent light bulbs blazing throughout the house. This is the American way of life, and the idea that it cannot last seems to drive some people into hysterical fits. Don't just do something, panic! Al Gore and the greenies want to send us back to the 1970s!

There's no decade more reviled than the 1970s. Everything about it, from the funky earth-tone fashions, to the granola-chomping hippies, to disco, has been the butt of countless jokes. What I remember most about the '70s though, was getting my driver's license and then having to wait in line to buy gas because OPEC had decided to act like capitalists and charge what the market would bear. That formative experience set me on a career path concerned with energy and the environment. It also committed me to lifestyle choices that have led to me to where I am now -- sitting on a hillside in Oregon just beyond reach of the power grid.

With all the attention now on what are admittedly going to be the great challenges and sacrifices that lie ahead, I feel it incumbent to serve as an ambassador for the American low-energy lifestyle. It's really not so bad, folks.

That said, there's no way in which I feel I am some sort of paragon of sustainable living. I'm not. I drive a car, I buy too many cheap, imported consumer goods, and I take lots of hot baths and showers. In many ways, my life is like that of any typical suburban homeowner of modest means. Except that I make my own power for 11 months out of the year.

It's only 11 months, because after the rains start in November, it still takes a month for the creek to rise high enough to run the small hydropower generator that gets me through the cloudy winter months. So there's a month of running the gas generator, at least part of the time. But from April to October, there's plenty of sunshine to keep my batteries charged. And my system is a relatively small one. I have 700 watts of solar power that cost me about $5,000 to purchase and install.

My small power system is enough because I have taken several easy measures to keep my energy use within my means. No. 1 is to turn things off when they are not in use -- this includes light bulbs as well as the plethora of electronics and appliances that sit around sucking up standby power. Seventy-five percent of the electricity used to power home electronics is consumed while the products are turned off. Across the United States, this equals the annual output of 12 power plants and costs consumers over $1 billion each year. Buy some power strips so you can take back control over these "vampire loads."

Light bulbs are also crucial. Lighting is about 25 percent of US electricity use. Compact fluorescent (CF) light bulbs use about one-third the energy of incandescent bulbs. I hear a lot of griping about compact fluorescents -- the color is weird, they're not as bright, etc., and I don't understand it. I've been using them for ten years now and they have gotten so much better! The old ones were an awful blue color and they cost 10 or 15 bucks a piece. Now you can get them in a full spectrum of colors for less than two dollars. I don't miss incandescents a bit. Except for the sauna -- don't put a CF bulb where it will get too hot, like a recessed lighting fixture. I'm going to get one of the LED bulbs for my wood-fired sauna.

My small power system won't allow me to run electric heat or air conditioning. I have a wood stove for heat that also supplies hot water in the winter, and I don't need air conditioning here in Oregon. I have a propane refrigerator, bought back before we added the backup gas generator. I may switch to a superefficient, electric-powered refrigerator at some point. That leaves laundry. Luckily, the other member of my household seems to enjoy the trip to the town laundromat. It's a chance to hang out at the bagel shop and socialize.

Does all this amount to a hair shirt? Am I suffering, or do I feel deprived? No. When I need light, I have light. I've got a computer, phone and home entertainment whenever I want it. I stay warm, and I eat good food. I have friends and neighbors who share my values. We eat home-grown vegetables, play home-grown music and celebrate life. We eat (gasp!) granola.

I think there was a campaign against the hippies -- I'll never understand why we got such bad press, except that I think we were bad for business. We tended to value community over consumerism. But despite the repression, there are many ways that the hippie ideals have carried through into the mainstream culture.

The back-to-the-land movement may have started with the Foxfire series, that wonderful compendium of Appalachian traditional arts and crafts, but it ended with Martha Stewart. The American handcraft tradition is something we still long for. When we can't afford the shipping for cheap Chinese goods, maybe we'll support native handcrafters again. One person's hair shirt is another person's hand-knitted sweater from soft, locally grown Merino wool.

Living with the earth rhythms the way you do off-grid isn't for everyone, and it doesn't have to be. You don't have to like the hippie style or aesthetic. But you might have to start looking more Euro or Japanese than you really want to. The Japanese use half the energy we do, yet still maintain an affluent lifestyle. Many European countries do the same. We can look to Japan and Europe for models, but we can also do it our own way.

Now is our chance to develop the American low-energy lifestyle. You can see how I do it. Multiply my investment by ten and you can outfit a regular suburban house in California to meet all of its own energy needs plus charge an electric car. See "The Near-Zero-Energy Home Makeover" in Solar Today. But not everyone can afford to make that kind of personal investment in solar energy. We have to pull together to make it happen. It's mostly a matter of changing our priorities.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has projected that the final cost of the Iraq war will be at least a trillion dollars. I wondered how much solar power that money would buy, so I made a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation. The installed cost of solar power is currently about $9 a watt, so $20,000 would buy a 2.2 kilowatt solar power system. That is enough power for a household with modest needs to spin the meter backward a good portion of the time. A trillion dollars would put a system like that on 50 million roofs.

Our parents and grandparents rose to the challenges of WWII and retooled our domestic industries into a finely honed war machine in a matter of months. There was no whining about "hair shirts" and sacrifice. There's a part of us that longs to make the kind of noble sacrifice we are called on to do in wartime. Many, many people are looking at their children today and wondering what they can do to leave them a world cool enough to live in. They are ready to do something now but don't know where to start. Here are the first two things everyone should do right now.

Start by turning things off. That's a very American mode from my growing up. Parents who lived through the Depression were always telling you to turn the lights off. Thrift is a virtue.

The other immediate sacrifice we all should make is to devote whatever amount of time it takes to contact all of our state and federal representatives and instruct them to start legislating Al Gore's 10-point action plan into reality. Do it now. There is no time to waste.

Note: Here's my advice for anyone who wants to start investing in a home energy system now. The variety of federal and state incentives programs is confusing, so start by going to Findsolar.com, a website supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the solar power industry. There you will find a database of qualified solar installers, along with a handy tool to estimate the size, cost and payback time of a system that meets your needs, taking into account your area's solar potential and the state programs you are eligible for. One word of caution: The estimator asks you to input your current average monthly power bill as a way of calculating your energy needs. This may lead to a much larger system than you really need. If you haven't already taken steps to reduce your use, do that first. In our experience of living off-grid, we have learned that it is much cheaper to invest in energy-saving light bulbs and appliances than to buy additional solar modules.

The Plan for Replacing Fossil Fuels

Whether they realize it or not, policymakers dealing with energy and climate issues are now deeply engaged in the wedges game. What is the wedges game? It is a useful way of thinking about how to replace energy technologies that produce greenhouse emissions with less-harmful alternatives.

Princeton professors Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala first introduced the concept several years ago, and it has really taken off. The basic concept is this: we have an industrial society built on a shaky foundation of fossil fuels that must be replaced. There is no one technology that can substitute directly for fossil fuels, but by combining technologies and new lifestyle choices, we can ramp down our emissions to a safe level. Each option is termed a "climate stabilization wedge" because it will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize the climate.

Wedges include solar power, wind power, more efficient appliances, green buildings, coal-plant carbon capture and storage, public transportation, auto fuel efficiency, nuclear power and so on. Socolow and Pacala have turned their idea into an actual role-playing game that is being adapted for use in schools.

The wedges game certainly has all the elements of a fast-paced, exciting game: you have to keep the atmospheric CO2 concentration under 450 ppm, but your society is now on track to double its carbon emissions in the next 50 years. If you fail, your planet may lose its Arctic ice cap, which is likely to tip the climate into runaway heating mode and destroy human civilization. If it were just a game, it would be lots of fun, but unfortunately, it is very real.

Richard Richels, a senior engineer at the Electric Power Research Institute, thinks that the wedges idea is useful for helping people to understand that there is no silver bullet solution to the climate-energy crisis. However, Richels is concerned that letting participants just choose the wedges they like best does not consider real-world cost factors.

"You've got to get the economics in there," he said. "If the train is really going to leave the station on this issue, the price of the ride is going to have to be affordable." But who determines what is affordable and feasible?

We can find an answer to that question by comparing the public impact of two recent studies that assess the feasibility of different kinds of climate wedges. In early February, the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) released a study showing how the energy efficiency and renewable energy wedges together can reduce US emissions enough to meet the goal of keeping CO2 under 450-500 ppm.

Two weeks later, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) released an assessment of carbon reduction wedges for the utility industry that snipped out only tiny slices for increases in efficiency and renewables, while chopping out big fat wedges for new nuclear plants and coal-carbon capture and storage. Both the EPRI and the ASES studies focus on emissions reductions that can be achieved by 2030.

While the EPRI study was covered in the New York Times and elsewhere, the ASES study was covered by only two news organizations, The Daily Camera out of Boulder, Colorado, and my article at Truthout, also reprinted by AlterNet.

Neither the EPRI study nor the ASES study considers the economic costs of its scenarios in a comprehensive way. Each relies instead on the independent judgment of experts in their fields about what is achievable both technically and economically.

The difference in their assessments of renewable energy is striking. EPRI allows renewable energy to grow from today's 1.6 percent to only 6.7 percent of our electric energy portfolio by 2030. ASES says it can grow much more -- to 40 percent by 2030.

I emailed Charles Kutscher, editor of the ASES report, to ask him why he thinks the EPRI report downplays renewables so heavily. His answer is worth quoting in full:

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Will a Multi-Million Dollar Contest Be the Answer to Global Warming?

Like most American kids in the 1960s, I was an avid Star Trek fan and I rooted for every new development in the U.S. space program. I'll never forget staying up past midnight to watch Neil Armstrong take Man's first steps on the moon.

But by the time of the first shuttle disaster in 1986, I was less concerned with the Star Trek mission and more concerned with the fate of the Earth. Apart from the human tragedy of the disaster, the setback to the space shuttle program didn't seem to matter much, and the image of the Challenger flameout at 48,000 feet over Florida seemed symbolic of the utter failure of Western society to create a sustainable civilization on Planet Earth.

The recent release of the IPCC's fourth assessment on climate change is just one more milestone documenting the disintegration of Earth's planetary life-support systems. The world must act quickly, but I am not impressed by the announcement last week that Sir Richard Branson, founder of a company that is building a fleet of excursion vehicles for the space tourism market, has offered a $25 million prize for the invention of new carbon-sequestration technologies.

Branson's space travel company, called Virgin Galactic (in line with his other ventures, Virgin Media, Virgin Trains and Virgin Airways), is building five suborbital spacecraft based on Burt Rutan's X-Prize winning design, SpaceShipOne. Tourists will pay about $200,000 a ticket to spew greenhouse gases into the upper atmosphere and enjoy an hour of bouncing around in microgravity. Presumably, it was the success of the X-Prize competition in producing this space toy that inspired Branson to offer the carbon-sequestration prize, which he calls the Earth Challenge. Sadly, Branson's prize may do more harm than good.

There are two big problems with the Earth Challenge prize. First, and most important, it sends the wrong message to those who are just waking up to the true threat of climate change: it says we can solve this problem by inventing the right techno-fix. Branson himself said it at his news conference announcing the prize: "Man created the problem; therefore Man should solve the problem."

If "Man" is about to jump in and fix the carbon problem, then we'll all be able to carry on with business as usual, right? Yikes! If this perception becomes widespread, then there will be no motivation to change our wasteful habits. We can relax, because we have plenty of coal in the ground and our techno-heroes will find a way to capture and store those pesky carbon molecules out of the way somewhere.

Encouraging complacency is one problem. Then there's the problem that any techno-fix solution big enough to make a difference has the potential for dangerous unintended consequences of planetary magnitude.

Ideas like pumping CO2 deep into the ground or the ocean may sound promising, but can create new disasters. For instance, the oceans have already been absorbing much of the CO2 generated during the fossil fuel era, and as a result, they are turning acidic. No one knows how much more acidic the oceans can become before the calcium shells of animals like clams and corals begin to dissolve.

We can also inject CO2 into old oil and gas fields and coal beds -- it is being done right now in Norway, Texas and Canada. But in order to be effective as a carbon-sequestration strategy, hundreds of underground reservoirs would need to be created and maintained.

Jeff Goodell, writing in his book Big Coal, says that each reservoir would spread out "fifty or so square miles underground, which means that if carbon sequestration does indeed become widespread, tens of thousands of people will be living above giant bubbles of CO2." Leakage is a problem, he says, "CO2 is buoyant underground and can migrate through cracks and faults in the earth, pooling in unexpected places." A 20 percent concentration of odorless CO2 can cause a person to lose consciousness in "a breath or two" and asphyxiate.

And here's an unintended consequence I have never heard discussed -- what happens to all of the oxygen in the CO2 molecules that get sequestered? When plants pull CO2 out of the air and use it to grow stems and roots, they recycle the oxygen back into the atmosphere. Are we in danger of burying a needful portion of our oxygen deep in the Earth?

Ultimately, Branson's Earth Challenge prize reflects the same attitude that got us into the climate crisis in the first place. It's a wet dream for engineers who now get to play with a whole planet, acting out their favorite science fiction scenarios. If they want to terraform a planet, I say send them to Mars, but don't experiment with the Earth.

In his landmark critique of Technological Man, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, historian William Irwin Thompson observes: "When we have moved beyond the desolation of all our male vanities, from the stock market to the stock pile of rockets, we will be more open and receptive. Open and bleeding like that archaic wound, the vulva, we will be prepared to receive the conception of a new civilization."

The truth is that we already have all the technology that we need to save ourselves. Most of the world does not drive cars, use air conditioning or fly in airplanes, let alone spaceships. Provide an African village with a few solar panels and they can have lights at night, and a refrigerator to store medicines. Add a satellite dish and a computer, and they have the world's knowledge and culture at their fingertips. If the environment around them is healthy, it can provide everything else they need for a good life -- water, food, clothing, shelter, musical instruments and the enjoyment of nature.

The new, post-carbon civilization will require that we be open to radically new ways of living. At the same time that the industrialized world helps African villagers upgrade their lifestyles to include electric lights and computers, it needs to downgrade its own lifestyles to eliminate wasteful consumption and feel the Earth again.

But what will motivate the rich populations of the industrial world to do this?

Conventional wisdom says that they will never give up their wasteful luxuries. They will embrace every techno-fix imaginable before making even the smallest sacrifices, because they feel that they have already won the prize.

The prize, in fact, is their monopoly over fossil fuels and the concern is that someone -- greens, Arabs, Venezuelans or Russians -- will take it away. It's no accident that Daniel Yergin's definitive history of the oil industry is called The Prize.

We must come to see that the ultimate prize is not sitting on top of a pile of consumer goods; the ultimate prize is the miracle of our continued life on this beautiful planet. Unfortunately, Richard Branson's offering of a carbon-sequestration prize perpetuates the dangerous illusion that we can avoid the hard choices because Technological Man will always prevail.

That said, however, perhaps Branson's contest will surprise me. His roster of judges includes the brilliant Australian evolutionary biologist Tim Flannery, who has written The Weather Makers, the best book yet on climate change. Flannery is well-qualified to root out false solutions and sniff out unintended consequences.

And there are many practical things we can do to enhance the natural carbon-sequestration ability of fields and forests, like planting and fertilizing trees and using no-till agriculture. There is even a potentially revolutionary technique waiting to be developed that could greatly accelerate carbon storage in soils.

The technique is called "Terra Preta," Portuguese for "black earth." It is not new. It was invented by an ancient agricultural civilization in the Amazon that made charcoal and buried it the soil. The charcoal absorbs and holds nutrients from manure and supports beneficial microbes. Some of these fertile soils are more than 1000 years old. You can read more about Terra Preta in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann.

There is a company called Eprida that is developing a process to manufacture this agricultural charcoal with a biofuel as a co-product. Perhaps they will apply for the Earth Challenge prize and perhaps, if the judges are open to it, their process or some similar process will win the prize.

Survival requires that we restore a balance to our relationship with the Earth. This is the balance that Henry Adams wrote of upon his visit to the great Paris Exposition of 1900, in The Education of Henry Adams. The experience was heady for him as he recognized that the world was then teetering between the pull of two great forces: the powerful engines of the future he encountered in the Hall of Dynamos, and all the spiritual truths of the ancient world as represented by the Virgin of Chartres:

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Renewables Can Turn the Tide on Global Warming

The American Solar Energy Association (ASES), with the backing of several U.S. representatives and a senator, released its new nuts and bolts approach to reducing carbon emissions with a combination of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.

The report comes at an opportune time: the release of the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) latest climate change report is expected to finally clear up any lingering uncertainty about the role fossil fuel burning and other human activities have in changing the Earth's climate. As the deniers and obstructionists lose all credibility, the debate now turns to solutions.

The ASES report, titled "Tackling Climate Change in the US -- Potential Carbon Emissions Reductions From Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by 2030," makes this extraordinary claim: "Energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies have the potential to provide most, if not all, of the US carbon emissions reductions that will be needed to help limit the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to 450 to 500 ppm."

The ASES report was presented at a press briefing in the Capitol with the support of Senator Jeff Bingaman, Chair of the Senate Energy and Resources Committee, Representative Henry Waxman, Representative Chris Shays, Sierra Club president Carl Pope, and NASA's chief climate change scientist, Dr. James Hansen.

Hansen's backing is especially important because the report is aimed at meeting a target for emissions reductions that he and other scientists agree is the minimum necessary to preserve a habitable planet. The target is to keep the global average temperature from rising by more than one degree Celsius, and to do that, it will be necessary to limit atmospheric CO2 levels to 450 to 500 ppm. That means reducing U.S. emissions by 60 percent to 80 percent by mid-century.

Over the past several years, as the dimensions of the energy and climate crisis have unfolded, the press, the public and politicians have embraced various "silver bullet" solutions one after another according to the fad of the day: at one moment it's hydrogen, then ethanol, then nuclear power, then wind. Today there is a growing recognition that no single energy technology can replace fossil fuels, but there is still no recipe that tells us how to combine energy technologies into a healthful brew that can save our planet and our civilization.

The ASES report takes a unique approach. Instead of turning to the systems analysts who normally tackle such problems, ASES asked the experts in each technology to estimate how much carbon-emitting energy their technologies could displace. Each technology is conceived of as a "wedge" in a stack of wedges that add up to a replacement for fossil fuels. The report consists of separate papers on each technology, including energy efficiency, concentrating solar power, photovoltaics, windpower, biofuels and geothermal.

Each paper was written by experts in the technology, presumably giving the most realistic possible assessment of the capabilities of the technology. And each technology was evaluated in terms of its current capabilities without relying on any major new technical breakthroughs, although some research and development to increase efficiency and reduce costs was assumed. The papers took economic factors into account and real world constraints like the silicon supply shortage that has hampered photovoltaic productions.

Despite its conservative assumptions, the ASES report concludes that renewables and efficiency alone can meet the goal of a 60 to 80 percent emissions reduction by mid-century while the economy continues to grow. Energy efficiency accounts for 57 percent of the reductions, and the renewable energy technologies provide the other 43 percent.

While the report does not estimate a total cost for the deployment of the technologies, it does assume that some government support for R&D and production tax credits will be available. At the press briefing, James Hansen also said that while much could be accomplished without a carbon tax, attaching some kind of economic cost to carbon emissions would be essential to keep the effort on track.

Representative Henry Waxman reiterated the need for a price on carbon: "Unless we put a price on carbon emissions I don't see how we can avoid them continuing to emit carbon from other sources. I mean people are already starting to go to the Rocky Mountains and try to cook oil out of the tar shale there, which you can do, but that's an indication of just how addicted we are to oil."

The report presents a serious challenge to the policy makers who have assumed that the U.S. would need to increase its use of carbon-intensive coal, oil shale and tar sands to meet energy needs. It also challenges the idea that we need to ramp up nuclear power to provide carbon-free energy.

Although President Bush often refers to nuclear power as "renewable energy," the ASES report did not assume any nuclear expansion. A group of more than 100 businesses and organizations recently took Bush to task over his misleading statements about nuclear power in a letter, saying: "Please be advised that nuclear power is neither a renewable nor a clean source of energy. For that matter, oil, coal, and natural gas are also not renewable or clean sources of energy."

The groups believe that Bush is defining nuclear energy as "renewable" so that it might be included in a future federal Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard or supported by federal tax incentives or R&D programs specifically designed to promote renewable energy technologies.

The nuclear issue exposed a difference of opinion among the ASES report's supporters at the press briefing last Thursday. Senator Bingaman expressed his support for new reactors and his view that nuclear power is a viable carbon-free energy source, saying, "Nuclear power, I think, is almost certain to be emphasized to a greater extent if a cap and trade system is put in place."

Bingaman is currently drafting a bill for a federal Renewable Portfolio Standard that would require utilities to provide a certain percentage of power generation from renewables, and he may add support for nuclear power to that bill.

Representative Waxman appeared more cautious about nuclear power, pointing out that it requires subsidies and "therefore, may be more costly" than the renewable technologies.

Carl Pope of the Sierra Club was more specific: "With present technology, without massive government subsidies, nuclear power does not appear to be competitive with [increased] efficiency or wind ... I think what this report reveals, however, is that even if nuclear power never becomes competitive, and it isn't today, we can still solve our global warming problem. And that means we should not be artificially forcing nuclear power into the market mix as some of the current proposals would do."

Pope also addressed an important question about the feasibility of the ASES report's renewable energy scenario. He said: "One of the reactions it's very easy to have when you read a report like this is, it's too good to be true. If all these things were possible, why aren't they already being done? And the unfortunate answer to that question is they are not being done because we have massive examples of policy failure and market failure in our energy sector."

Pope cited a number of problems, like building codes that don't allow white, reflective roofs to reduce summertime cooling loads, grid regulations that limit solar and wind production, and builders who have no incentive to build energy efficient buildings because they don't have to pay the energy bills. Pope vowed that the Sierra Club would aggressively pursue solutions to these problems. He promised that "This is not a report that will be sitting on a shelf."

Interestingly, the ASES report was released just as Exxon Mobil was about to announce the largest annual profits of any corporation in history. The company has topped its 2005 record by 9 percent, for a total profit of $39.5 billion in 2006.

Representative Edward J. Markey blamed the Bush administration and the previous Republican Congress for passing "energy bills full of goodies." No doubt the Sierra Club's Carl Pope would agree that continued subsidies and tax breaks for the oil industry are another instance of "policy failure and market failure in our energy sector."

Download a copy of the American Solar Energy Society report.

Will Our Petro-Dependency Destroy Our Democracy?

Are we in Iraq to bring freedom to the Iraqi people, as Bush says, or are we in Iraq to preserve the "easy motoring" freedom of American consumers by staking our claim to Iraq's oil?

For those who have even a passing acquaintance with the geopolitical reality of how the world's remaining oil is distributed, the answer is obvious: "It's the oil, stupid." Iraq has the world's second-largest reserve of the light, sweet crude oil that sells for billions upon billions of dollars in the world economy.

And, while some analysts explain Bush's Iraq troop surge as a means to preserve his self-image as "commander in chief" by prolonging the war until he can leave his office and the mess to the next administration, it is more likely, as explained by Chris Floyd, that the surge is buying time until the Iraqi government ratifies the new hydrocarbon law that divvies up Iraq's oil profits.

The hydrocarbon law is being sold to the public as a solution to the knotty problem of how to distribute oil profits among the Kurds, Sunnis and Shia in order to contain the growing civil war, but it does much more than that. The most critical part of the law is how it will essentially privatize most of Iraq's oil, granting profits and control to Exxon, Chevron, Shell and other oil companies.

The Independent, a British newspaper, obtained a leaked copy of the draft law and reported that its provisions would lock Iraqi oil into 30-year Production Sharing Agreements with private oil corporations on what are absolute beggar's terms.

The PSAs would divert up to 70 percent of the oil profits to private companies while they are developing new oil fields, and 20 percent of the profits thereafter. PSAs are not a common arrangement -- most of the world's oil is owned and controlled by state-run oil companies, as was Iraq's when its oil was nationalized in 1972.

But even where PSAs are in place, a fair profit-sharing arrangement is considered to be on the order of 10 percent, not 20 percent. Similarly, the exorbitant 70 percent of profits to pay for oil-field development is way out of line with the physics of oil production in Iraq. Lying just beneath the sand, Iraq's oil today is some of the easiest in the world to produce.

Most Iraqis have no idea of the content of the new hydrocarbon law. What will happen when they find out? The Independent quotes a statement from a recent meeting of Iraqi trade union leaders:

"The Iraqi people refuse to allow the future of their oil to be decided behind closed doors. The occupier seeks and wishes to secure ... energy resources at a time when the Iraqi people are seeking to determine their own future, while still under conditions of occupation."

The Bush administration hopes to dampen this kind of reaction by promising each individual Iraqi a share of the oil profits. Tony Snow compared the hydrocarbon law to Alaska's Permanent Fund that distributes a share of oil revenues drawn from state land to every Alaska resident. But will Iraqis trust a promise like that?

The Independent's take is that the "perception that Iraq's wealth is being carved up among foreigners can only add further fuel to the flames of the insurgency, defeating the purpose of sending more American troops to a country already described in a U.S. intelligence report as a cause celebre for terrorism."

But Bush and his allies among the U.S. elites will never give up on Iraq's great oil prize. As Chris Floyd said about the likely failure of the troop surge and the hydrocarbon law: "If the effort flames out in a disastrous crash that makes the situation worse as it almost certainly will Bush will simply back another horse."

Meanwhile, on the home front, Global Public Media reported last week on a Senate Energy Committee hearing on "The Geopolitics of Oil." Senators heard from experts that a new "Axis of Oil" has emerged, with Russia and China playing lead roles in a game of "keep away" -- blocking the U.S. from its traditional lion's share of world oil supplies.

The reporter said the atmosphere in the hearing room had "an almost palpable sense of graveness and alarm" as senators heard the panel of experts recommend the establishment of a Pentagon-level energy security director and a massive nuclear-power buildup to replace gasoline by providing electricity for a new fleet of electric cars.

These are the first steps in what security studies expert Michael Klare calls an emerging "energo-fascism." In a recent article, Klare describes three indicators of energo-fascism that I summarize as: 1. the transformation of the U.S. military into a global oil protection service; 2. the emerging Axis of Oil and the power struggles of governments in relation to it, and 3. the greater reliance on nuclear power and the increase in security apparatus that it entails.

Iraqis may revolt when they hear how the hydrocarbon law infringes on their freedom and self-determination, but what about us? What about our freedom? Is there any sign that the Congress we elected will do anything at all to resist the brave new energo-facist world?

House Democrats, as part of their first 100 hours legislative agenda, will vote on a bill this week to cut an estimated $13 billion worth of subsidies to the oil industry. The money saved will be placed into a renewable energy fund. This is a good start, but there are disturbing signs that the Democrats are not really looking at the big picture about energy. The big picture must encompass energy security, the threat of "energo-facism," and the inconvenient truth of global climate change.

Scott Sklar, a solar industry lobbyist, said in a recent podcast that there is little chance that the Democrats will propose any kind of overarching, big-picture energy legislation. Legislation will be "piecemeal," he said, and flawed. Sklar described a piece of renewable-energy legislation being drafted by the Senate Energy Committee chairman, Jeff Bingaman, that includes support for nuclear power and coal.

And so it is up to "we the people" to defend our freedom from emerging "energo-facism."

Dave Roberts, a writer at the online green magazine Grist, proposes that greens unite around the energy issue and "push in the same direction." The direction is decentralization. Decentralization means increased security and freedom, as Roberts explains:

"The decentralization and democratization of energy production and the development of a more conscious, thoughtful consumer lifestyle will yield an economy powered by less cheap oil and more valuable human labor -- along with a foreign policy conducted from a position of security and independence."

Roberts even has a nifty acronym for the anti-surge of this agenda for independence. He calls it URGE2, for "Use renewably generated electricity, efficiently."

Roberts says that "Entrenched elites will always favor switching out one set of large-scale, concentrated sources of energy for another," and "It's up to greens to lobby on behalf of the broader public interest." But is it just up to greens to fight energo-facism?

Where are all the libertarians and small-government advocates? Where is Grover Norquist the guy who wants to shrink government small enough so he can "drown it in the bathtub?" A government that has to provide oil and nuclear security services spanning the globe will inevitably evolve into a fascist state of monstrous proportions. We can see it happening now as our Iraq adventure spawns ever-increasing terrorism that requires ever-escalating forces to contain.

A renewable-energy economy could be a decentralized free-market paradise. Imagine a network of small power producers, ranging from the family that invests in some extra solar panels to the city that owns a fleet of wind turbines -- all feeding electricity into a robust electric grid, sharing electrons with Internet-like intelligence and resilience.

The future is coming fast, and we'll choose it through our actions as citizens, consumers and voters. The question remains: Do we have the energy for freedom?

Making Carbon Trading a Fair Trade

A recent issue of New Scientist magazine carried an article with this disturbing headline: "Africa Barred From Carbon Trading." Advocates for African farmers were claiming that European Union policies on carbon credits amounted to a carbon trade embargo on Africa.

Louis Verchon of the World Agroforestry Centre said that if the EU would implement a new scheme to credit farmers who capture carbon on their land, "millions of dollars in carbon credits could begin flowing to the world's rural poor."

The World Agroforestry Centre, in conjunction with researchers from Michigan State University, has developed a method using satellite imagery and infrared sensing that measures carbon storage in African farmland. The Centre has completed a pilot program in western Kenya and is ready to encourage poor farmers to plant trees as soon as it can qualify for carbon credits under the Kyoto protocol.

But Europe's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is not willing to recognize the new method of verifying carbon storage in farmland, questioning whether the program will result in additional carbon storage and whether the storage will be permanent. The ETS is the largest multi-country, multi-sector greenhouse gas emission trading scheme in the world.

The issue of carbon storage, or carbon "sinks" as they are known, is very controversial in the world of Kyoto agreement implementation. Non-governmental organizations that advocate for forests and indigenous people have worked hard to exclude the use of forestry credits to offset fossil fuel burning, and with good reason.

To date, most forestry offsets have been for big monoculture plantations of fast-growing eucalyptus or pine trees, some of them genetically modified. Though timber companies and professional foresters say otherwise, such plantations are likely to act as net carbon emitters over their lifetimes and also cause additional environmental and social problems.

Monoculture tree plantations are often established on land recently cleared of primary forest. Larry Lohman of the World Rainforest Movement reports that in the 1980s, 75 percent of new tree plantations in the tropics were planted in places that ten years earlier had been natural forests. A plantation will never be able to store as much carbon as the original biologically diverse forest.

Monoculture tree plantations are ecologically unstable. Plantations are more vulnerable to disease and wildfire, which can release carbon instantly back into the atmosphere. When they are harvested, the wood may go into long-lasting wood products, or it may be chipped and pulped into shorter-lived products like paper. Or it may go into a landfill and be released as a devastating methane burp decades later. Disturbing the soil for planting and harvesting reduces its capacity to store carbon, and tree plantations are thirsty, drinking up scarce water resources.

When tree plantations are established on land that indigenous people have rights to, the damage is compounded. Larry Lohman writes: "Like the enclosure movement of early modern Europe, through which common lands were taken away from the rural poor and broken up, privatized and traded into the hands of the better-off, the movement for carbon 'offset' plantations is in essence a movement to extend and normalize inequality."

The rural poor pay twice, once by suffering the effects of climate change caused by affluent countries, and again by having their land taken to offset the guilt of affluent people.

The World Agroforestry Centre program is very different from a monoculture plantation. It is about helping rural Africans to integrate more trees into their agricultural production systems, with many benefits besides storing carbon. The right kinds of trees can increase the productivity and resilience of the land. Trees provide food, fuel, fertilizer, and medicine. Medicinal trees are the main source of medication for 80 percent of Africa's population.

These small African farmers are motivated to maintain the sustainable productivity (and carbon storage) of their land in a way that a multinational timber company can never be. Climate security is better entrusted to the hands of African villagers and people like Wangari Mathaai, founder of Kenya's Greenbelt Movement.

Fortunately, there is an increasing recognition of the need to preserve indigenous cultures and forests as the key to sustainable development.

On the island of Borneo, in Southeast Asia, the indigenous Penan tribe continues to blockade logging roads into a critically important rainforest, their ancestral forest. The EU has provided a grant to support better forest management, but more is needed. The EU's envoy to Malaysia was set to give a speech in Sarawak calling for increased emphasis on preserving rainforests and the rights of forest people, and less emphasis on logging.

The Penan are the guardians of a huge reserve of carbon. Every year, 13 million hectares of rainforests are cut down, an area the size of Greece. Deforestation is responsible for 20 percent of global carbon emissions, equivalent to that of the transportation sector. Why not give the Penan and people like them credit for keeping so much carbon out of our common atmosphere?

At climate meetings last year, a group of tropical countries proposed that carbon credits be allowed for "avoided deforestation," i.e., leaving the forests alone. Some progress on this idea was made at the recent Kyoto implementation talks in Nairobi, Kenya. More countries endorsed the idea, and mechanisms were discussed that could lead to a new protocol for the next round of climate accords in 2012. The Stern economic report on climate change confirms that paying tropical countries to keep their forests intact is a financially sound strategy.

Preserving rainforests is such a good idea that it's hard to see why the world needs to wait until 2012 to do it. As individuals, we don't need to wait. We can avoid buying items made from tropical hardwoods. We can also support forest protection groups. There are many excellent groups working to save rainforests, but one that stands out for its effective campaigns is the .

You could also join a forest protection group and join the global village united to cool the planet. This holiday season, you might consider buying a membership in a forest protection group for a loved one.

But remember, buying something is not enough. Americans emit a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases, and we need to drastically cut our use of fossil fuels. The best, most permanent and secure way to store carbon is to keep coal, oil and gas in the ground.

A Step Shy of Book-Burning

It never got down to actual book-burning, but the Republican choke-hold on government would clearly have taken us there. In August, under the guise of fiscal responsibility, the Bush Environmental Protection Agency began closing most of its research libraries, both to the public and to its own staff.

The EPA's professional staff objected strongly, insisting that closing the libraries would hamstring them in their jobs. In a letter to Congress protesting the closures, public employees said, "We believe that this budget cut is just one of many Bush administration initiatives to reduce the effectiveness of the US Environmental Protection Agency, and to continue to demoralize its employees."

The EPA's precipitous move to close the libraries was based on a $2 million cut in Bush's proposed $8 billion EPA budget for 2007. EPA bureaucrats did not wait to see if Congress might restore the funds or shift budget priorities in order to save the libraries; it acted immediately to box up documents for deep storage, and shut the doors.

While the official EPA line is that all of the documents will be eventually be digitized and made available online, this will cost money that the agency does not have, so for practical purposes, all of the thousands of reports and maps that now exist only on paper or microfiche will be lost to the public and to agency scientists. They might as well just burn them.

Closing the EPA libraries is the perfect symbol to characterize the methods of the Bush administration. Since 2000, the Republicans have cemented their reputation as ushers of a new dark age. They have sought to shroud the light of science by closing libraries and by suppressing scientific reports. They have gagged their own scientists and persecuted whistleblowers. They have cloaked government in secrecy, a prime example being Dick Cheney's secret meetings with oil companies to draft an industry-friendly national energy policy. But that era is now winding down.

Just before the election, Barbara Boxer and other senators sent a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee calling for restored access to the libraries. There is every reason to hope that the Democrats will follow through with their newly won power and get those libraries reopened. But this will be just the beginning of a Herculean task to clean the muck out of the stables and restore an environmental regulatory function to government.

For those who have labored in the environmental trenches, who know the true size of the mountain of excrement that blocks our path to good environmental policy, even the task of listing the environmental tasks to be done feels overwhelming.

In the early days of the Bush reign, the Natural Resources Defense Council began compiling all of the Bush administration rollbacks and assaults on environmental quality. By the November 2004 elections, it had listed more than 300 Bush "crimes against nature." NRDC stopped counting a year later, but you can still see the list at their web site.

So it's hard to say what the Democrats' environmental priorities should be. Climate change, energy, clean air and water, forest and wildlands protection, toxics, endangered species -- they are all important, urgent and critical. The common thread through all of these environmental issues is the need to understand and follow the science. That requires two things: good information and good people. Without the presidency, the Democrats will be limited in their ability to enact new policies, but they should do their utmost to block bad appointees, encourage and protect whistleblowers, and pump some money back into starved and understaffed agencies like the EPA and the Forest Service.

Some recent history shows what can be accomplished under less than optimum conditions. I began my career as a forest advocate in the latter half of the Reagan/Bush I years. That government was characterized by the anti-environmental "we might as well use it all up because Jesus is coming" philosophy of Secretary of the Interior James Watt.

Our hopes were raised when Clinton took office, but passing health care reform, not forest protection legislation was his priority. We got a "forest conference" instead and instructions to the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to protect spotted owls. A court ruling was the only backstop. Then, after the Gingrich revolution, there was no chance to pass proactive wilderness or forest protection legislation.

But forest advocates continued to lobby the Clinton administration, and after eight years, we began to sense a sea-change in the managing agencies. They became much friendlier to science. Not only did Clinton manage to appoint Mike Dombeck, a wildlife biologist, as Forest Service Chief, but the number and status of the "-ologists," the biologists, hydrologists, geologists, and other scientists had risen. We found that even in the absence of strong conservation directives, with good people in place and respect for the science, forest management was greatly improved.

Then that dark day fell in November 2000. By Thanksgiving, as we swallowed hanging chads with our turkey, we knew that our carefully built edifice of protection for forests would be attacked. We hoped to limit the damage, but Bush and company have had a long and destructive run.

Still, it could have been worse. If anything, I think the environmental movement is stronger now than it was when Bush took office. As the environment continues to degrade, people are no longer taking environmental protection for granted. As the public sees what a dark ages approach to the environment looks like, there is a greater appreciation for science.

In the end, it comes down to people. People have voted out the Republicans and voted in the light of reason. Without access to information, reason cannot operate. Let there be libraries!

Once Upon a Forest

I was on a radio program out of Detroit last week, and the host asked me how things were going in the great forests of the Pacific Northwest. "Do people still sit in trees there?" he asked. "Are they still cutting down the big trees?"

My answer to both questions was yes. People do still sit in trees and protest logging. But these days, the protests rarely make the national news. The mainstream media has never allocated enough space to cover environmental news (while most newspapers have special sections on health, science and technology, special environment sections are rare), and what space there is goes to the hottest issue of the moment. These days, understandably, it is global warming.

But the health and stability of the climate is intimately tied to the health and stability of forests. Destruction of forests and other wild land is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing somewhere between 20 percent and 30 percent of the total.

For this reason alone, the newest assault on America's forests, House Resolution 4200, should be big news. HR 4200 passed out of the House Resources Committee last week (with the votes of six Democrats -- showing that the timber industry spreads its influence around liberally). It goes to the Agriculture Committee for markup this week and then to a vote.

Also known as the "Walden logging bill," after its sponsor, Oregon congressman Greg Walden, HR 4200, the "Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act" would mandate logging after natural disturbances like fires, droughts and windstorms. This bill would exempt salvage logging from every relevant environmental law, including the Endangered Species Act. The bill includes no protections for old-growth reserves, roadless forests, salmon streams or other sensitive areas. Making matters worse, it is an assault on public safety that would steal taxpayer dollars from fire prevention work in order to subsidize commercial logging.

Proponents of the Walden logging bill claim they need to slash environmental protections for burned forests because otherwise environmentalists will use the protections to appeal logging plans. Often, they say, appeals can drag out long enough that the burned timber rots and becomes worthless, and if the timber can't be sold then there won't be enough money for replanting. Thus the politicians, who know best, must override the misguided environmentalists in order to "save" the forests.

There are two very large problems with this line of reasoning: the science and the facts. Chris Mooney, in his book "The Republican War on Science," has documented the Right's extremely well-orchestrated attack on science. Republicans have invented something they call "sound science," which is basically any science that gives them the results that they want, as opposed to independent science that gives the wrong answers. The attacks on science have been many and varied, ranging from distorting and misrepresenting reports from agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the outright silencing of scientists like NASA's James Hansen who try to sound the alarm about climate change. In the case of salvage logging, there is a particularly bizarre story to tell.

The story starts with the ignition of the Biscuit Fire in the Siskiyou National Forest in the summer of 2002. The fire eventually burned through about 500,000 acres. Some acres burned heavily, some burned lightly, and some not at all as the fire skipped and swirled its way through the steep wild canyons of the Siskiyou terrain.

With so much acreage burned, environmentalists knew that the pressure to log dead and dying trees, known as "salvage logging" or "post-fire logging" would be intense. Even though such logging does not help a forest recover, they prepared themselves to work with the Forest Service to design a salvage logging program that would do the least possible damage, and a plan to log about 100 million board feet moved ahead.

The timber sale planning was almost complete by the summer of 2003, when the Forest Service put it on hold for some new information, a study paid for by the Douglas County Commissioners on behalf of the timber industry. The study, conducted by forest engineer John Sessions at Oregon State University, showed that, with advanced engineering methods, loggers could feasibly pull 2 billion board feet -- 20 times more wood -- out of the burned areas. This was the study that delayed the logging plan. Environmentalists had nothing to do with it.

Implementing the Sessions Report delayed the start of logging by a year. During that year, micro-organisms went to work on the ash and fallen needles, turning them to soil. Seeds sprouted, and tiny fir and pine trees rooted themselves, their first bright green branches unfurling. Tall trees, blackened and dying, continued to stand and provide shade for the tender seedlings and homes for woodpeckers and other creatures as the ancient ones slowly rotted under the remains of their cindered bark.

The upshot of this corporate-sponsored delay? By the end of 2005, about 70 million board feet had been logged. Meanwhile, a group of graduate students at Oregon State University completed a study of forest regeneration in the Biscuit burn. They found that without logging, forests were beginning to regrow on their own, but where salvage logging had occurred, new seedlings were killed as heavy equipment scraped the ground and disturbed the soil. The study was submitted to the prestigious journal Science and accepted for publication.

But the study enraged proponents of Walden's logging bill, as well as some pro-salvage logging professors in OSU's Department of Forestry (which gets about 10 percent of its funding from the timber industry). They asked the editors of Science to pull the report. Science refused. The paper had gone through the regular peer-review process and been accepted.

Then, after report appeared in Science, the Bureau of Land Management, which had funded the study, put a hold on the remaining funds left in the grant. BLM officials said the students had violated their contract by attempting to influence legislation pending in Congress -- the Walden logging bill.

So, to recap the situation: When a forest engineering study that is funded by timber industry boosters is used to bolster legislation proposed by a congressman who is funded by the timber industry (Greg Walden gets more money from the timber industry than any other House member -- over $100,000 in 2004 alone), that is called "sound science."

But when a group of independent graduate students studying ecology go out and make observations and measurements on the ground and get their paper accepted for publication by the most prestigious scientific journal in America, and that paper happens to contradict assertions used to justify pending legislation, that is called "junk science."

"Proponents of expedited logging can't provide a significant body of evidence that a nationwide program of logging in forests recovering from disturbance is scientifically justified," said Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist for the World Wildlife Fund. "Of the more than 30 scientific papers on post-fire logging published to date, not a single one indicates that logging provides benefits to ecosystems regenerating after disturbance."

Walden's bill is wrong on the science. And Greg Walden has lied to justify the need for his emergency logging law, blaming environmentalists for the delay in the logging plan that was actually caused by the timber industry's logging study.

America is beginning to wake up to the fact that the scientists were right about climate change all along, and that while the media is guilty of ignoring those warnings, the Bush administration is guilty of both censoring the science and of outright lying. It would be tragic to let a similar pack of lies bring the ax down on our last native forests.

Good Riddance to Gale Norton

The rights of the public to the nation's natural resources outweigh private rights. -- Teddy Roosevelt

Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded. -- John Muir
As the Teapot Dome scandal of Warren G. Harding's presidency was one milestone in the history of American resource piracy, the tenure of Gale Norton as Secretary of the Interior is surely another.

Harding's Interior Secretary, Albert Fall, failed in his scheme to sell off the Teapot Dome oil reserves and pocket the money. He was prosecuted and sentenced to a year in prison. Gale Norton's timely exit on the heels of the Abramoff scandal that implicates top Interior Department officials could mean that she is worried, but it is not likely that she will face any prosecution for her giveaways to industry.

Harding, like G.W. Bush, had little regard for proper English -- Harding called for a return to "normalcy," while Bush says we should not "misunderestimate" him. On Harding's death, the poet E. E. Cummings said: "The only man, woman or child who wrote a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors is dead." But just as Bush surpasses Harding as a mangler of language, so the Bush administration far outstrips the Harding administration in the game of looting.

Gone are the days when corrupt officials took payments in "little black bags," as Albert Fall received his $100,000 payment for the Teapot Dome oil lease from Harry F. Sinclair. Fall also received a shipment from Sinclair of "six heifers, a yearling bull, two six-months-old boars, four sows and ... an English thoroughbred horse."

Today our new reality is that the tycoons and the officials are actually the same persons, or at least part of the same hive. Like insects that go through a complex life cycle from larva to pupa tof egg-laying adult, people like Gale Norton and her deputy secretary Stephen J. Griles will go from lobbyist to regulator to corporate board member. At every stage of the life cycle they have one purpose: to direct the flow of resources back to the corporate nest.

And so, when Norton claims she is leaving the Interior Department to set "new goals to achieve in the private sector," you know that she will be well supplied with hogs, heifers and whatever lucrative lawyering job she wants.

Gale Norton's number one tool, which she used like a common thief slips a credit card up a door jamb to spring a cheap lock, is the ideology known as "Wise Use." The "Wise Use" doctrine is founded on anti-government rhetoric that advocates eliminating any environmental regulations that might restrict economic development. Because she was so well known as a "Wise Use" ideologue, only John Ashcroft was a more controversial cabinet appointment in Bush's first term.

During her tenure as Secretary, Norton advanced this agenda through regulatory rollbacks, suppression of science, preferential treatment, and collusion with industry. For the most part, she was unable to enshrine "Wise Use" principles in regulations, with the exception of her new National Park Service regulations.

Norton proceeded to revamp the Park Service regulations despite the lack of any identified need for new rules. Now in the final phase of adoption, the new directive drastically changes the mission of our national parks from preservation to commercially sponsored recreation. If these rules are adopted, park managers won't be able to prevent development that harms wildlife and other natural features, and corporate logos will spring up like daisies.

These rules also require newly hired staff to take what amounts to a loyalty oath to the policies of the current administration. A loyalty oath may be the solution to the sticky problem of science that Norton kept running into. When her agency biologists reported that drilling in the Arctic Refuge would harm caribou, Norton rewrote the report before submitting it to Congress. She also suppressed a finding by the US Fish & Wildlife Service that new Army Corps rules for permitting development would devastate wetlands.

In fact, Norton created a climate of intimidation at the Interior Department that functions almost as effectively as an unconstitutional loyalty oath would: Last year the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility took a survey of Fish & Wildlife Service biologists and found that more than half of the respondents said agency officials had reversed or withdrawn the biologists' scientific conclusions under pressure from industry groups.

Lying to Congress and suppressing scientific findings. How is it that these are not prosecutable offenses?

In 2001, Oregon potato farmers in the upper portion of the Klamath River suffering from a prolonged drought demanded that the Interior Department give them water dedicated to fish. Gale Norton complied, and in 2002, at least 35,000 salmon died at the mouth of the Klamath. The Klamath runs are now so low that the Fisheries Service is preparing to close the salmon fishing season, ruining a $150 million dollar industry. Gale Norton is responsible. Why can't she be indicted for ruining a precious and irreplaceable natural resource?

Norton's supporters, like the National Association of Manufacturers, praise her primarily for her role in opening up the West to massive amounts of new energy development. Interior Department staff began referring to Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico as the "OPEC states," as the drilling permits multiplied and flew through the bureaucracy with minimal review and consultation with local citizens.

Norton's own proudest accomplishment, she says, was implementing her "four C's" program -- a supposedly new approach to public involvement that included "communication, consultation and cooperation, all in the service of conservation."

Unfortunately, the four C's seem only to apply to industry and not to local people. Take for instance the town of Grand Junction, Colorado. Last September the BLM informed the city that a few hundred acres in the town's watershed used for drinking water supplies would be offered for oil and gas drilling. Then in December, at the end of the public comment period, the BLM told the town that actually several thousand acres would be leased for drilling. The agency withheld the information because it would otherwise "taint" the competitive bidding process. The town does not want any drilling at all in their watershed. Why can't Gale Norton be indicted for destroying a town's water supply?

I can testify that the same process is happening in BLM's western forest lands where, on orders from Gale Norton, the BLM is tossing the Northwest Forest Plan out the window and preparing to log every last old growth forest that they manage in Washington, Oregon and California. Many public meetings are held, but they are all a waste of time because the communication, consultation and cooperation are not intended for local people but only for the timber industry.

Under Gale Norton's leadership, the Department of Interior has become nothing less than a big box store for the mining, timber, oil, gas, and coal industries. As CEO, Norton has eliminated all rivals to give her corporate customers "low, low prices every day." Meanwhile, fish and wildlife and all the rest of us who need clean air and water underwrite the true cost.

Bush's new nominee for Secretary of the Interior, Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne, is known for his animosity toward protecting the last wild roadless areas in Idaho. Unless something changes in Congress or the White House, unless Gale Norton is somehow made to pay the price for her looting of public resources, there is no doubt that he will keep the store open for business.

The Bottom of the Oil Barrel

Every time conservationists have criticized the energy industries for the pollution and climate destruction it takes to pull oil, coal, gas and uranium out of the ground and turn it into energy, the retort is always the same: "You eco-freaks want everybody to freeze in the dark!"

Only in a society with no concern beyond next quarter's bottom line can such an accusation stick. Far from wanting everyone to freeze in the dark, conservationists are concerned with the long term sustainability of civilization, and they promote renewable energy that won't destroy the only planet we have to live on.

But still we hear it. In Congress just the other day, Texas Rep. Ted Poe, arguing for his bill to end the off-shore oil drilling moratorium, said we must open up these areas, "Otherwise, Madam Speaker, we will freeze in the dark. That is just the way it is."

Rep. Poe and the politicians who support opening the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling all insist that tapping these sources will reduce America's dependence on foreign oil, but they fail to recognize that these are America's very last reserves of oil and gas. When we use them up -- and all the oil from the Arctic Refuge would fuel the U.S. economy for less than a full year -- then where will we be? We will freeze in the dark, ladies and gentlemen. That is just the way it is unless we get serious about renewable energy now.

Up until now, freezing in the dark has always been a "someday" thing, but after this year's hurricane season devastated domestic oil and gas production, suddenly we face real shortages of heating oil and gas for our furnaces this winter. Heating oil supplies are even lower than expected post-Katrina-Rita because refineries have concentrated on producing gasoline to knock pump prices down at the expense of filling the nation's heating oil reserves. Government analysts predict that people will pay an average of $360 more this year to heat their homes. Some, obviously, will pay much more than that, and for the poor, any increase will be far more than they can afford.

If you are poor and have to choose between heating and eating, LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program), is where you can try to find help. But LIHEAP is chronically under-funded. Typically only about 75 percent of those who apply get any assistance before the money runs out. This year, there is even less money budgeted for the program, and Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans were defeated in their attempts to add funding for LIHEAP to the just-passed budget reconciliation spending measure.

Last week some Republican senators decided to appeal to the quaint notion of noblesse oblige and asked that oil companies voluntarily donate a portion of their profits to fund the heating assistance program for the poor. They gently suggested that such a move might soothe the angry mobs that would soon be demanding the heads of oil companies, and failing that, of senators. But Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, speaking for the Bush administration and the Oil Lords, sniffed and declared the proposal very too much like "a tax."

This year's hurricane season was far from devastating to oil company earnings. The sky-high gas prices that followed the storms produced Category Five profits. In fact, shutting down refinery capacity was just the medicine prescribed by energy analysts when industry profits flagged in the mid-nineties. See Energy Hog Lessons for the details.

Rumblings about price gouging have led to several Congressional proposals for a windfall profits tax. Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island said he will introduce a measure this week to add $2.9 billion to LIHEAP through a temporary windfall profits tax. Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-ND, and Chris Dodd, D-Conn., will try to insert a more permanent 50 percent tax on the sale of oil over $40 a barrel into the tax portion of the budget reconciliation bill later this month. Their proposal would give cash back to consumers in the form of an income tax rebate.

The price-gouging talk has also led the Senate Energy and Commerce committees to summon oil company CEOs to a hearing that will take place this Wednesday. Executives from Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP and Shell will be asked to justify their post-hurricane profits. The companies are on the defensive. They are expected to say that their profits are not unusual or excessive. Senator Dorgan's windfall tax proposal would allow companies to first deduct their costs for oil exploration, investment in refineries or in alternative sources of energy, so they might not end up paying any tax at all. Companies will say they are already doing these things and so a windfall tax is unnecessary.

But are oil companies really making the investments they would need to make in order to keep us all from freezing in the dark a decade or two from now? Congress wants oil companies to spend a lot of money on oil exploration, but all indications are that there is not a whole lot more oil out there to find, and what exists is in increasingly remote and hard to develop places, like the Arctic or deep off-shore in the hurricane-prone gulf. It is easier and cheaper for oil companies to invest in acquiring other companies that hold proven reserves than to invest in exploration. That's why Congress went ballistic when China tried to buy Unocal earlier this year. Unocal had a healthy backlog of proven reserves in its portfolio.

We should not forget that the number one business of publicly traded oil companies is not to produce energy but to keep their share prices high. In the first three quarters of this year, Exxon Mobil spent $12.3 billion on exploration and refinery investments and $12.1 billion repurchasing its own stock. This is why we the people should demand a windfall profits tax. But we should not support a tax that would just put a few hundred dollars back in each of our pockets. That might help pay this year's heating bills, but it won't deal with "someday."

The solution is to direct windfall profits tax dollars to a renewable energy development fund to create the new energy infrastructure that will bring us heat and light after the oil runs out. If we trust in the oil companies to do the job or wait around for "the market" to get it right, we are not going to like the result. The only warm and well-lighted rooms will be in the gated fortress communities inhabited by the Oil Lords.

Making a Mockery of Conservation

A senior energy analyst at the recent API (American Petroleum Institute) convention warned that if the U.S. petroleum industry doesn't reduce its refining capacity, it will never see any substantial increase in refining margins...
- Internal Chevron document, November 30, 1995
Billionaire oil baron John Paul Getty knew that the secret to accumulating great wealth was to never miss an opportunity. He even installed a pay telephone at his English country estate to ensure that guests paid for their own calls. If he wasn't going to get your dime one way, he'd get it another.

The Bush regime follows the same methods to accumulate wealth and power, and they've had no trouble finding ways to use the recent hurricane disasters to keep fortunes flowing their way.

Bush and the Republicans have a well-known agenda of removing all regulatory restrictions on industry. They have already suspended labor and contracting laws to "speed" Gulf Coast reconstruction. Now they are using the disaster-spawned energy crunch to break down environmental laws and restrictions that they failed to destroy with last summer's energy bill. Three big ones are now in their sights: the Clean Air Act, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and restrictions on offshore oil drilling.

The House is scheduled to vote today on what's being called the "refinery bill" after the perceived need to hurry up and build a lot of new oil refineries. All summer long (since well before hurricane season), the business press was blaming high gas prices on a lack of refinery capacity. Supposedly, strict environmental laws have kept new refineries from being built. But the reality is far different.

Several years ago, Senator Ron Wyden's office started looking into the issue of U.S. refinery capacity and found documents -- oil industry internal memos -- that show that oil companies deliberately shut down refineries all through the 1990s in order to keep supply throttled and profit margins high.

Wyden stated: "Information I have received during my ongoing investigation raises serious concerns that the nation's major oil suppliers have set out in a strategic effort to orchestrate a financial triple play, a coordinated effort that would reduce supply, raise prices at the pump and relax environmental regulations."

Between 1995 and 2001, 24 refinery closings took offline nearly 830,000 barrels of oil per day. At the same time, oil industry profits rose hugely. Taking the example of Texaco, the report found that while the company's production steadily decreased from 1998 to 2000, its net income more than quadrupled during the same period. Texaco gets high marks as an energy hog. You can read Wyden's report here. [PDF]

Now that they've got the reduced supply and high prices they wanted, the oil industry is working on the relaxing-environmental-rules part of their triple play, and that's what the refinery bill is really about.

The real target of the refinery bill is the Clean Air Act's New Source Review (NSR). The NSR program requires owners of aging power plants and industrial facilities to modernize pollution controls whenever they expand their facilities and increase emissions. But the refinery bill doesn't just exempt refineries from New Source Review requirements. It exempts ALL energy industry facilities -- approximately 20,000 large industrial facilities and power plants across the country -- not just on the Gulf Coast.

The refinery bill would also allow cities with the worst smog problems to simply skip their cleanup deadlines for years. And it would take refinery permitting authority away from states, keeping the power flowing to the federal government.

The bill would also repeal the one environmental accomplishment that the Bush administration can take credit for: EPA's new clean diesel standards. A great chance to clean up that mistake!

The public learned this week that House Republicans would not try to open up the Arctic Refuge and protected offshore areas to oil drilling with this refinery bill, but it will be a short respite. Republicans will insert both items into the budget reconciliation process that starts at the end of October. That's how it works. They never miss an opportunity.

It was a little disconcerting to see that the Bush administration has actually launched an energy conservation program as announced this week. It's just not like them. Could they be slipping? Trying to give something back to the little people? Perhaps something like the two-billion-dollar program the Canadian government just approved to give rebates to people struggling with high energy costs?

But no worries, Bush's program is nothing but an ad campaign that uses a cartoon mascot, "Energy Hog," to pass out tips to consumers to help "put the chill on winter energy bills."

The only problem is that Energy Hog is dressed like a punk anarchist, with spiky hair and piercings. He looks nothing at all like J. Paul Getty. Kids might get the wrong idea.

Halliburton Could Win Big with New Energy Bill

This week, members of the Senate and House will begin their conference to resolve the differences in the energy bill. The 800-page Senate version of the bill comes at a price of $18 billion in annual tax incentives plus $40 billion or so in authorized expenditures over the next decade (the House version totals are in the $90 billion range). The bill includes everything from unprecedented subsidies for nuclear power to buried treasure for New Deal-hating financiers, like the repeal of PUHCA, the Public Utilities Holding Company Act.

PUHCA repeal, as discussed in my earlier article, Exponential Enrons Ahead, would radically change the structure of the US utility industry and open the regulatory doors to massive consolidation. With PUHCA gone, for the first time since 1935, there would be no restrictions on utility holding companies. Among other things, holding companies would be free to raid the assets of utilities to feed speculative investments in completely unrelated businesses -- just the kind of behavior that Enron engaged in with such disastrous results. Another change would be opening up US utility ownership to foreign investors. For more on this, read Lynn Hargis' perspective on Truthout, When China Owns Our Utilities.

One of the strangest things about the PUHCA repeal story is how completely it has been blacked out of the mainstream media. Until recently, the only stories to be found on the issue were in the business press.

Since my June 23 article, a few (a very few) mainstream newspapers have picked up the story.

Most papers around the country ran a summary of the energy bill during the week it that it passed the Senate, but amazingly, only one paper even mentioned the PUHCA repeal provision. The Daily Herald (Provo,UT) ran an article titled Lawmakers Praise Energy Bill, with the following information:

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Exponential Enrons Ahead

One of the least-discussed provisions in the Bush energy bill that has passed the House and is now fast-tracked in the Senate is PUHCA repeal. "Pooka repeal," you say, "what's that?"

The Public Utilities Holding Company Act (PUHCA) is a cornerstone New Deal financial reform signed into law in 1935. It was the biggest battle in FDR's first term. Utilities had become cash cows for power moguls who created complex holding company pyramids for milking ultra-reliable ratepayer income to feed speculative investments. The crash of 1929 knocked these structures flat and took down millions of small investors who had been sold on the reliability of utilities as an investment.

Does any of that sound familiar?

Both the House and Senate versions of the energy bill now contain the PUHCA repeal provision. At the insistence of Democrats, the Senate added in some extra oversight by FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), but it is a thin reed compared to PUHCA.

Supporters of PUHCA point out that for 50 years, we have had reliable, cheap electric power that has allowed strong economic growth, and that no PUHCA-regulated energy holding company has ever gone bankrupt. Furthermore, it was partial PUHCA repeals in the 1990s that opened the door to Enron, Westar and other energy debacles. To repeal PUHCA now is equivalent to blowing up the barn after the horses have escaped, never mind shutting the barn door.

PUHCA subjects utility finances and operations to strict regulation by the states and federal government. Most importantly, it restricts ownership of utilities to public or private entities that are in the business of producing power, and keeps speculators out. Replacing this kind of control with mere oversight is a joke. It is like trying to rebuild the barn with splinters.

Lynn Hargis is an attorney with a long professional career in power generation, including ten years at FERC. For the past two years, she has held a volunteer position at Public Citizen educating the public about the perils of PUHCA repeal. She says that "it is clearly impossible for a state (or even federal) utility commission, with its limited staff, to review, much less understand and control, the books and records of a huge conglomerate ..." Once PUHCA is gone, she predicts, "there will be a white-hot fury of buying and selling utilities and utility assets -- it will be a revival of the 1920s, when three huge companies owned half of all utilities."

There has been a lot of media focus on the $18 billion in tax incentives contained in the Senate energy bill, but almost nothing about PUHCA repeal, even though the latter is by far the greatest prize: according to Lynn Hargis the value of all regulated utilities exceeds one trillion dollars.

Hargis says there will be so much money chasing these utilities that even the venerable public-owned and municipal-owned utilities (PUDs and MUDs) won't be able to hold out.

And get ready to start paying your power bill to Halliburton because some of the companies best positioned to take advantage of this deregulation are oil companies: "The top five oil companies now control 50 percent of US oil production. If they also controlled public utilities, they would be too powerful for any government to regulate," said Hargis.

Also, the impact on renewable energy could be devastating. "If GE owns your utility," Hargis told me, "nothing will be able to stop them from shoving a nuclear plant down your throat. This will kill renewables."

David Sokol is CEO of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway that is now in the process of acquiring PacificCorp, a western utility based in Portland, Oregon. In a 2002 issue of Electric Perspectives, an industry newsletter, Sokol made the case for PUHCA repeal, calling it "the most blatantly out-of-date energy law." In fact, the law as it stands would prevent him from acquiring PacificCorp.

Sokol claims that: "Consumers have saved tens of billion of dollars since Congress began the process of opening wholesale electricity markets to competition 10 years ago." He also argues that by restricting utility ownership, PUHCA is keeping new capital out of the energy industry that is needed for upgrading the electric power transmission grid.

I spoke with Jack Casazza, an electrical engineer who was a Senior VP for an investor-owned utility and who now serves on a task force investigating the power blackout of August 14, 2003. Casazza scoffs at the idea that regulation is keeping needed grid upgrades from happening. "Warren Buffett doesn't know what he's talking about," he said, "and he doesn't have very good technical people. Utilities today have no problem investing in transmission facilities if they are needed and provide economic returns."

On the other hand, grid reliability is an issue of vital concern, and labor is the key. Jim Spellane, communications director for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), said that the problem with grid reliability arose with deregulation in the 1990s. "It squeezed things like maintenance and worker training."

Casazza echoed that opinion and said that one significant cause of the 2003 blackout was labor reductions. He wondered how Warren Buffett "would get the 25 percent rates of return he is used to. He can't cut labor, that's already been cut."

The IBEW issued a statement on June 15 praising the Senate Energy Committee for including the new FERC authority in the bill, while recognizing that the greater regulatory powers of PUHCA were still needed. The union had flatly opposed any PUHCA repeal in the past, but Spellane said, "We could see this energy bill has legs. It is going to pass and we want to make sure that the FERC oversight does not get stripped out along the way." House Republicans are against even that minimum amount of consumer protection and Spellane said the IBEW will oppose the final bill if it does not include it.

Senator Ron Wyden was the only member of the Energy Committee who voted against sending the bill to the Senate floor. A top reason given for his dissatisfaction was repeal: "The bill also repeals the Public Utility Holding Company Act (PUHCA) without providing adequate safeguards to prevent captive ratepayers from getting fleeced to support unregulated businesses of utility parent companies."

Jack Casazza is wistful for the utilities of the past. "I'm a believer in capitalism," he said, "and I believe in getting a reasonable return on my investment. But the company I came up in believed that you don't hurt the customer. I have grandchildren and I want to see this country run so they benefit, not so Warren Buffett can put money in his pocket."

Lynn Hargis fears we are headed for another Great Depression. She said, "Not only is it going to be horrible for the whole country, but nobody is even talking about it."

Arctic Refuge on the Brink

It's just one wildlife refuge in Alaska, but it seems to have Washington, D.C. tied in knots. A million and a half acres of wilderness in the far north, with a small puddle of oil beneath its surface – who would think a place like that could cause such turmoil in Washington?

President Bush went on the stump last week in Ohio, calling for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development, stating it would "create thousands of jobs" and reduce oil imports. He said we need to drill there "for the sake of national security," to end our dependence on foreign oil. He called on Congress to pass an energy bill that includes the opening of the refuge.

But the U.S. Geological Survey has concluded there are probably only 3.2 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil in the Arctic Refuge. That amounts to just a six-month supply for the U.S. The price for that oil is the spoiling of a pristine wilderness that is a vital nursery for one of the largest remaining caribou herds and a home to polar bears, arctic foxes, white wolves and migratory birds.

Since coming to office, Bush has tried hard to get Congress to open the refuge and has been rebuffed more than once by the Senate. Yet with Republican victories last fall, he may now have the votes he needs – if he can avoid a filibuster. The filibuster is the Republican bete noir, the only thing that stands between them and total domination of all three branches of government. Senate Majority leader Bill Frist has threatened to remove the 200-year-old Senate rule that allows a minority to use endless debate to block voting. Doing away with the filibuster would mark a radical change in the Senate that's being dubbed "the nuclear option."

The Republican strategy for the Arctic Refuge turns on circumventing the filibuster. They are scheduling a vote for this Wednesday that will knock out any filibuster option.

Here's how they'll do it: First Bush includes $2.4 billion in hypothetical Arctic Refuge oil leasing revenues in his budget. Then Congress puts Arctic Refuge revenues in its budget resolutions, even though drilling in the refuge is still illegal. This is no problem because there is a later process called budget reconciliation where items in the budget resolution that need authorizing legislation can be addressed. The catch-22 is that, like the budget resolution process, the budget reconciliation process is filibuster-proof. The Arctic Refuge could then be opened up by a simple majority vote of 51 senators.

That's the theory. In practice it may turn out a little different. Some of the traditional allies like Big Oil have lost their appetite for the wildlife refuge. BP, Conoco-Phillips and Chevron-Texaco have all pulled out of Arctic Power, the industry group lobbying for access. The refuge's oil pool is too small and not worth the trouble.

Meanwhile, over in the House, budget committee chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) failed to include the Arctic Refuge revenue in his budget markup. Nussle said that including the language could derail his entire bill.

A letter from 13 House Republicans, led by Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, asked Nussle to avoid the refuge and the ensuing debate. The letter stated: "While we welcome open debate on the issue of opening the refuge to drilling, we believe that the best vehicle for such debate is as part of a larger energy bill, not the budget or resolution."

Opening the Arctic Refuge is starting to look like real tarbaby even to Republicans. Congressman Joe Barton, the Texan who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is trying to keep the refuge out of his energy bill so it has a better chance of passing. The Arctic Refuge helped to kill last year's energy bill. Drilling in a wildlife refuge is just not popular with the American people, who would rather save the wilderness and invest money in more fuel-efficient cars.

Maybe that's why Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens says he is "clinically depressed" over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Stevens told reporters on Friday that if he fails to get the refuge this time he might just quit the Senate. Whether Senate Republicans can bring the House along now or later in a conference committee, or whether a budget resolution passes at all this year, are open questions. Still, Senate Republicans probably have the votes to proceed with their budget resolution strategy. When it comes to oil, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

Get Ready for the Peak Experience

Two new realities are fast converging on the public consciousness with what may be serendipitous timing: climate change and peak oil. After years of controversy and denial, there finally seems to be a solid consensus that climate change is here; that it threatens everything from agriculture to human health; and that it will probably turn out to be even worse than predicted.

"Peak oil" is a still-obscure term you will soon be hearing a lot more often. It simply refers to the peak of oil production. Oil was made over millions of years as ancient life was crushed and buried under the earth, and they ain't making any more of it – at least not on any timescale that is meaningful to us – so like any limited commodity (think Picassos or antique porcelain), the supply will rise to meet demand and then begin to fall. As supply falls, prices will go up, perhaps drastically.

Like a hiker climbing through clouds, we can't know where the peak is until we reach it and feel the ground falling away beneath our feet. But wait – why are there clouds? Why can't we see the peak before we get there? Don't we have monitoring agencies that exist to make predictions about things like when the oil supply will peak?

As far as the average consumer and SUV buyer is concerned, the climb has been a stairway to heaven. The coming decline in oil production is rarely mentioned in public, and when it is, it is portrayed as so impossibly far off in the future that there is no sense in talking about it. The obscuring clouds have been deliberately generated by a collusion of oil industry, financial and government interests. They don't want us to know that we are about to fall off the world as we know it.

So I was mildly shocked to hear Texas oilman and corporate raider, T. Boone Pickens declare on NPR's Morning Edition last week: "The peak is now."

Pickens is certainly not the last word on peak prediction, but other serious analysts come close to his views. Petroleum geologist Kenneth Deffeyes, author of the breakthrough book "Hubbert's Peak," predicts the peak will fall on Thanksgiving Day in 2005. Others are more reluctant to pinpoint the peak and say it may be a few more years yet, but certainly before 2010. That's five, six years at the most to get our ducks in a row and ready to face a world of vastly accelerating oil prices.

Contrast this news with what governments and oil companies and have been saying. According to the US Energy Information Agency, oil production won't peak until 2035.

On the corporate side, British Petroleum publishes an annual Statistical Review of World Energy that is widely cited. Responding directly to the critics who point to an early peak, Lord Browne, chief executive for British Petroleum, wrote in the latest edition of the Review, "At current levels of consumption, there are sufficient reserves to meet oil demand for some 40 years and to meet natural gas demand for well over 60 years." There is no acceleration of oil depletion, he maintained.

But last week the Energy Institute of London released an independent analysis of BP's data showing that total world production declined by 1.14 million barrels a day last year. On top of that, the analysis found that the annual rate of decline is accelerating.

Oil companies do not want the word to get out. On Aug. 24, Shell Oil agreed to pay a $150 million fine for inflating its proven reserves by 4.5 billion barrels. Shell is the third largest oil company in the world and one fifth of their stated reserves were a lie. They did it to protect their stock value.

From the perspective of climate change, news that oil is peaking sooner rather than later is good news. We need to end the fossil fuel addiction anyway, and only higher oil prices will tilt the economics in favor of solar, wind and other renewables.

But we have got ourselves in a very dangerous situation. The potential exists for oil prices to increase quickly and radically. There won't be much time to manufacture the new energy infrastructure. Belt tightening will be needed. Economies could turn to dirty coal for a quick energy fix and the competition for the remaining oil could heat up into further wars.

For this reason, accurate, widely disseminated information about energy is absolutely critical. At all costs, we must not allow the media game that went on with global warming to happen with peak oil.

A recent study ("Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press," in Global Environmental Change) examined coverage of global warming in newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. The study found that these papers of record responded to industry propaganda campaigns to discredit global warming by regularly setting up a handful of industry-trained critics as "balance" against the larger scientific consensus. Confusion reigned in the public mind, and a precious decade was lost.

Now Gaia is asserting herself. Seas are turning acid, corals bleaching, vapors and smoke are bleeding into the stratosphere where all is not well with the ozone skin. Massive forest fires, storms, floods and heat waves are waking people up. When the news comes in through your window, or tears off your roof, TV seems irrelevant.

This newfound awareness of global warming will be of great help as we attempt to quickly map out the path to a new energy future. As we climb down from the peak, the way is perilous and uncertain. There will be a temptation to go all out for extracting oil and gas from heavy oil shales, tar sands and coal. This will only dig us deeper into the global warming hole. Knowing that the hole is there will help keep us on the straight and narrow path to a truly renewable society based on solar, wind, hydro, tidal and biomass.

The new energy economy will be diffuse as different technologies are used to harvest the energy resources particular to each region. Solar and wind are low-density energy sources and we will have to work harder for our energy. Oil's high energy density is what makes it possible for a handful of people to control it and the politics and economy of the world.

Many will cry that the end of oil means the end of the American Dream. It could mean that, but only if we let it. The American Dream is not the endless accumulation of stuff and sprawl. The American Dream is not empire without end and the garrison state. The American Dream is freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

For too long, the world has been chained to the petro-dollar. New possibilities await. Let us go forward not in fear, but in the spirit of adventure.

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