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Environmentalists and a clean-energy future

Partial solutions won't do; we must move the country, and the world, toward a true clean-energy future.

July 19, 2010|By Peter Teague

I always felt an uncomplicated pride in the small role I played in protecting the East and West coasts from offshore oil drilling — until the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

We had a great story: A small group of dedicated environmentalists took on the combined power of the oil industry and consecutive Republican administrations and won one of the most expansive and enduring victories in the movement's history. For nearly 30 years, new oil and gas development has been banned along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

In the mid-1980s, I was the environmental staffer for Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Monterey), who was then the lead congressional point person on offshore development issues. Working with advocates and organizers from eight coastal states, I helped secure annual congressional drilling moratoriums. A process that began as a heavy political lift in 1981 got easier over time, and in 1990, President George H.W. Bush, giving in to what had become a bipartisan political consensus, issued an executive order that extended the moratorium until 2012.

Watching the terrible images coming from the Gulf of Mexico now, I know that those who fought for a ban feel vindicated, and undoubtedly relief that there are no rigs along our shores. We may also be grateful that the catastrophe in the gulf has shifted the political calculus that led President Obama to reopen the debate on offshore drilling.

These are hardly comfortable thoughts. What our coalition of Republicans and Democrats, fishermen, property owners, business owners and conservationists did not include was people from the Gulf Coast. In fact, the success of our strategy always depended on giving the industry continued access to gulf waters. The number of oil rigs off Louisiana and Texas has grown to nearly 4,000, and new areas along the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama have been opened in the last few years.

And if we environmentalists are honest with ourselves, we'll also ask an even more uncomfortable set of questions. First, by stopping development off our coasts, have we inadvertently put additional pressure on the gulf? It's not as if we supported drilling there, but without finding ways to cut demand for oil and gas, hasn't this been the inevitable result? We've argued that the alternative to drilling is conservation and the development of clean energy — and Obama echoed those arguments when he addressed the nation from the Oval Office — but how effective have we been at moving that agenda?

Right after Obama spoke, " Comedy Central's" Jon Stewart ran clips of every president since Richard Nixon making virtually the same speech. We were reminded that the earnest call for clean fuels and energy independence has become a substance-free mantra, a way of suggesting a rationality and seriousness that our politics does not possess. Like our presidents, we've said the words, but the actuality has been the drilling moratorium, combined not with a national commitment to efficiency and alternative fuels but rather with oil development in the gulf, and the Niger River Delta, and the Amazon, and Indonesia and countless other places — out of sight and out of mind.

If we are to redeem our story, environmentalists will need to begin by acknowledging the obvious: In a complex, interdependent system, half a solution may be no solution at all. In this case, the moratorium without a concomitant reduction in demand for oil and gas only shifted the problem somewhere else, and the policies we've advocated to promote alternatives haven't worked.

Rather than ask the nation to confront the truth that it will be difficult and expensive to transition to a clean-energy economy, that there are no guarantees, we've helped to construct a convenient fantasy. We've insisted that we already have the technologies we need and that putting a politically plausible (that is, small) price on carbon could unleash a clean-energy revolution. We've pretended that a green future can be had cheaply, that capping carbon emissions will cause a shift to clean fuels, boost profits and create millions of jobs — the ultimate win-win — despite a lack of real-world evidence to support our claims. Just as we've done with the moratorium, we've tried to convince ourselves that fractions of a solution will suffice, when clearly they won't.

There is only one way for America to lead the way to a clean-energy future and break the cycle of destruction. We can't merely send gentle signals to the markets, or set up schemes for bankers to trade carbon credits. We must use the full power of the federal government's research, development and procurement capacities to produce clean energy cheaper than oil and coal. We'll need to catalyze large-scale private investment to remind the nation that we were once capable of making breathtaking advances by joining public and private resources, and that our prosperity is founded on the products of these investments.

The Chinese, South Koreans and Japanese have already established a substantial lead in the race to own the clean-energy markets of the future. Bill Gates and GE's Jeff Immelt get it, as does a growing number of business, energy and policy experts. It's time for environmentalists to get it too, to add our voices, resources and perspectives to the effort. We'll need to move beyond the flawed thinking that protects one area while sacrificing another, that advocates for 50% when only 100% will do.

Peter Teague is the director of the Ecological Innovation Program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York.

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