Lately, I’ve been wondering if the battles being fought to maintain federal energy and environment policies and programs are clouding the nation’s collective understanding of what the war being waged against the Trump administration is really about?
Before suggesting what it—the metaphorical war of which I write--should be about, let me say it is not about The Donald. At least, it is not only about him, much as he would probably like it to be. Trump is but the current poster boy for climate deniers. Granted he has a lot to do with the current disheveled state of federal climate affairs. The Big D, however, is merely the intellectually slavish embodiment of the nation’s much more significant problem—the lack of an integrated, stable, long-term energy and environment policy.
The problem pre-dates Trump. Although, #President-Lie-Baby can truthfully claim credit for plumbing new depths of the off-again portion of the feast and famine cycle that characterizes federal clean energy and environmental programs and policies. His is not the first administration to dismiss clean energy technologies as fitting subsidiaries of the Rube Goldberg Industrial Empire.
As Trump is not the actual problem, he offers little hope of being the solution. When was the last time Congress—any Congress—enacted or even considered a national energy and environment policy? The answer is not in the lifetime of most anyone who might be reading this article.
Federal decisionmakers have not considered and acted on energy and the environment in the context of an integrated national policy at least since the efforts that led to the creation of the US Department of Energy in 1977. Even then, the consideration of the environment was incidental to the energy portions of the organization effort. The connection, however, was at least made.
The findings of Congress listed in the DOE Organization Act are as relevant today as they were then.
SEC. 101. The Congress of the United States finds that--
(3) a strong national energy program is needed to meet the present and future energy needs of the Nation consistent with overall national economic, environmental and social goals;
(4) responsibility for energy policy, regulation, and research, development, and demonstration is fragmented in many departments and agencies and thus does not allow for the comprehensive, centralized focus necessary for effective coordination of energy supply and conservation programs.
The Department was established among other things to further the public’s interest in a ready supply of energy sources through the research, development, and demonstration of new technologies, e.g., renewables and nuclear and to coordinate national energy policies and programs throughout the federal government. It was to do its works while enhancing environmental quality.
SEC. 102. The Congress, therefore, declares that the establishment of 42 USC 7112 a Department of Energy is in the public interest and will promote the general welfare by assuring coordinated and effective administration of Federal energy policy and programs. It is the purpose of this Act--
(1) to establish a Department of Energy in the executive branch;
(2) to achieve, through the Department, effective management of energy functions of the Federal Government, including consultation with the heads of other Federal departments and agencies in order to encourage them to establish and observe policies consistent with a coordinated energy policy, and to promote maximum possible energy conservation measures in connection with the activities within their respective jurisdictions; 91 STAT. 568 PUBLIC LAW 95-91—AUG. 4, 1977
(3) to provide for a mechanism through which a coordinated national energy policy can be formulated and implemented to ' deal with the short-, mid- and long-term energy problems of the Nation; and to develop plans and programs for dealing with domestic energy production and import shortages;
(4) to create and implement a comprehensive energy conservation strategy that will receive the highest priority in the national energy program;
(5) to carry out the planning, coordination, support, and management of a balanced and comp-rehensive energy research and development program, including—
(A) assessing the requirements for energy research and development;
(B) developing priorities necessary to meet those requirements;
(C) undertaking programs for the optimal development; of the various forms of energy production and conservation; and
(D) disseminating information resulting from such programs, including disseminating information on the commercial feasibility and use of energy from fossil, nuclear, solar, geothermal, and other energy technologies;
(6) to place major emphasis on the development and commercial use of solar, geothermal, recycling and other technologies utilizing renewable energy resources;
(13) to assure incorporation of national environmental protection goals in the formulation and implementation of energy programs, and to advance the goals of restoring, protecting, and enhancing environmental quality, and assuring public health and safety. (Emphasis added)
The reference to environmental protection in the DOE Act followed an earlier Congressional directive. Section 5902 of the Federal Nonnuclear Energy Research and Development Act of 1974 stated:
(a) It is the policy of the Congress to develop on an urgent basis the technological capabilities to support the broadest range of energy policy options through conservation and use of domestic resources by socially and environmentally acceptable means. (Emphasis added)
Notwithstanding these and other energy acts since then, the nation has never actually had an integrated climate policy. Over the many decades I’ve been in Capital City, it has operated under a series of energy acts, e.g., ESA, EPACT , EPA and EISA, and a series of environmental directives primarily based on acts passed before 1977, e.g., Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species. Singularity is the key descriptor of the legislation in these queues.
The various pieces of energy legislation were intended to address specific problems, e.g., supply interruptions, or to support particular technologies, e.g., solar, biomass, natural gas, and nuclear, while the environmental legislation has mostly amended acts passed before 1977. Related in a generic sort of way these acts, like every energy or environmental law since fail to connect the climate dots.
Climate change theory was not unknown in the 1970s. The magnitude of its impact, however, was just being understood. Had climate-science been at the level it is today; it is at least arguable that better integration of energy and environmental policies would have occurred.
“Back in the day,” Republicans and Democrats were much more willing to work together for the benefit of the nation and not just groups of their core supporters. Had there been an Internet at the time, the meme used to represent it would have been a burning Cuyahoga River.
The various energy and environmental acts being fought over by climate defenders and deniers today were first enacted in the 1970s—a time when environmental protection was not a matter of partisanship but considered by political leaders as an appropriate expectation of citizenship. It was a time when even the nation’s most embattled president recognized the federal government’s obligation to regulate harmful emissions and saw his way clear to do something about it.
For a man who once said environmentalists wanted to live like a bunch of damned animals, Nixon did a lot to protect their habitats and to keep them safe even today. Even before the oil embargo of 1973, Nixon recognized the potential for short fuel supplies and rising prices. In a first-ever presidential message to Congress on energy, Nixon spoke of the need to diversify energy supplies.
Nixon proposed in his first and subsequent message in 1973 the formation of a cabinet-level Department of Energy and Natural Resources that would be responsible for the balanced utilization and conservation of America's energy and natural resources. The new Department was to be in addition to a new Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA). ERDA was the successor agency to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the forerunner of the DOE. ERDA had already been given the charge to focus a significant amount of effort on energy conservation and the development of solar and geothermal energy sources both through its organizational mandate and the enactment of the Nonnuclear Research and Development Act of 1974.
Notwithstanding all the legislative language referencing the need for an integrated energy and environmental policy, politics has consistently gotten in the way. Today is indeed proof of the stultifying impact of partisan politics on national energy and environment policies. Hardly anything related to energy or the environment is able to move through the political gauntlet. What does move is immediately challenged in court by one side or the other.
I understand both intellectually and empirically how—in the midst of battle—the grander scheme of things is lost. I am concerned, however, that even should climate defenders win every battle against the Trumpian empire the war would still be lost.
Why? Because the sum total of all battles and skirmishes being fought in the major theaters—legislative, administrative, legal, and public opinion—still wouldn’t add up to anything approximating an integrated national energy and environmental policy that is either current or that could serve as the core of a successful climate change strategy going forward.
Let’s face it. The world is in a sh*tload of trouble when it comes to climate. Even major oil companies are now standing up in court and admitting carbon, and other greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet to the detriment of current and future generations. It is never good to stress Mother Nature.
Combatting climate change is the metaphorical war I spoke of earlier. It is not going to be won by fighting individual battles only to maintain Obama era regulatory proposals or to overturn President Lie-Baby’s misguided tariffs or specious use of a president’s national security powers to maintain coal plants even the utilities wish would be turned into scrap. As historic a step as it was, the Paris Accord was obsolete before the ink dried. Even should the promised targets be met, they are hardly sufficient to keep the world from crossing the River Styx into a dark environmental underworld.
Climate change is not a matter of energy or the environment. As with most of life’s major problems, climate change is not a singular matter. Rather, it is the total of its connected causes and consequences. Unless and until the nation takes a collective step back to demand of the federal government integrated near, mid, and long-term solutions to match the complexity of the challenge, the climate war will be lost no matter how many battles against the orange haired demon may be one.
Combatting climate change is about bringing down the levels of carbon and other greenhouse gases. It cannot be singularly solved by replacing fossil fuels with solar, wind and other renewables. Knowledge of the harmful causes and consequences of climate change continues to grow. As our knowledge expands so too does the possibility of new technologies, designs, and practices that should be used to drive federal climate programs and policies.
A random set of occurrences have recently served to remind me of my beginnings in the energy/environment movement. The solution to climate change is an all of the above national policy—not as an excuse to prop up aging coal and nuclear plants but to expand the conversations and continue the actions of nearly 50 years ago.
An all-of-the-above national policy is not just about finding researching, developing and demonstrating new technologies that can then be passed on to the private sector to create new economic opportunities. It must also be about improving existing practices if possible. Technologies and practices that will not soon go away. Yes, I am speaking of sequestering coal’s carbon emissions, building new nuclear plants and accepting the need to store waste for thousands of years, if not for an eternity. I am also speaking of new building designs, better use of materials and moving beyond current manufacturing and agricultural practices.
Federal politicians of the 1970s had the right idea in attempting to reorganize and integrate the multiple federal energy and environmental programs and policies. The details may have been a bit off and must be updated given all that we have learned in the interim. The direction, however, was spot on.
Senator Cantwell (D-WA), Senator Murkowski’s (R-AK) co-sponsor of the Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017, has said of the legislation there is so much change going on in the energy sector now, we need to have an energy bill every year. She is right but only insofar as any energy bill is drafted and considered in relation to what is required to win the bigger war on climate change.
Unfortunately, the only federal energy or environmental legislation that will ever become law in the current partisan atmosphere can only be achieved by largely avoiding the hot-button topics of climate change and oil and gas exploration that have thwarted other measures.
I fear that what is politically achievable today is far short of what is needed. It is time to think, once again, what the climate war is really about and to stop fighting ourselves.
This is not my final word on the subject. Look for future installments at www.civilnotion.com on this theme in the coming months.
Lead image: Pogo by Walt Kelly
Cuyahoga River photo www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Cuyahoga_River_Fire
Politics, environment, President Trump, US Congress, alternative energy
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.