Friday, December 11, 2009

"We have a long way to go..."

The U.S. delegation has a separate U.S. Center here at the convention whose purpose seems at least as much about P.R. than anything else. And frankly, given the state of world opinion maybe that is appropriate. But it is also being used to create a level of dissonance between the U.S. historically and what the Obama administration seems to want to do.

This week, there have been three different cabinet-level speakers at the U.S. Center; Lisa Jackson of the EPA, Tom Vilsack - Sec. of Agriculture, and this morning we had Gary Locke - Sec of Commerce. Based on the high level people that are being asked to come to Copenhagen and give presentations, the administration is eager to convey a good impression and explain just how different they are from the last two Bush administrations.

Locke said we have "a moral obligation to act" on climate change. He spoke about those back in the U.S. who "see peril" in acting on risks that seem vague and far off in the future while they are struggling with everyday financial hardships. At first I thought he was talking about Sen. Inhofe and other climate skeptics in Congress but he was instead referring to the American public who may have to be carried into any agreement kicking and screaming.

He said all the right things. The environmental costs of global warming are "bad for business", by investing in infrastructure we would be "laying a foundation for a economy built on sustainability" and poised to enter the new green economy, that the debate about clean energy verses economic growth is a "false choice".

But then reality started to kick in and I started feeling bad for Gary Locke. He concentrated on energy and the fundamental role it plays in both the creation of greenhouse gasses and driving our economy. The only real solution is to essentially restructure the energy sector. We can begin by increasing energy efficiency but "the more fundamental changes get difficult". I felt bad for him in that I do believe that he and the rest of the Obama administration want to do something about climate change, energy and refocusing economic subsidies away from fossil fuels to renewable sources and green technologies. But wanting to do something and having the means to do so are two different things.

I fear there are too many structural impediments and the costs will be too high for any meaningful change to be filtered into U.S. policy. The energy grid is aging, inefficient, and doesn't even make use of digital switching. Much of the energy infrastructure has been built around fossil fuels. We have 35 miles long trains that move monumental volumes of coal from the western U.S. to the eastern seaboard and the southern states. There have been billions invested in the 55,000 miles of crude oil and 305,000 miles of natural gas pipelines that crisscross the country. Perhaps just as importantly, these industries have real money. They are not going to simply turn a blind eye while national energy policy gets reconfigured to cut their business out from under them. Oil and gas turn to gold, and gold is turned into political clout in a way that would make an alchemist green with envy.

On the cost end, by everyone's admission the solutions to transforming the existing energy economy all require structural support that will cost a lot of money. How do you build a smart grid and provide incentives to upstart renewable energy businesses so that they can compete on cost with coal, oil, and natural gas without huge investments? How can you pay for this in the midst of a recession where the federal government is bleeding money to prop up the financial sector and car companies that have mismanaged themselves into obsolescence for decades? How is the cost justified when there are so many other structural crises (healthcare, Afghanistan, Iraq, the erosion of higher education etc.) that this administration has to contend with. Lastly, I am not sure that anyone has the capital necessary to pay the political costs that would have to be incurred to make such a drastic, fundamental change in the way the energy sector is structured.


  1. Mike,

    Brilliant piece - well stated.


  2. I think it will need forward looking leaders form the private sector in partnership with gov. Love him or not, maybe T. Boone Pickens will suceed in getting thing moving in the right direction.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.