What’s Up With American Power?

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson


From Washington comes word that on Wednesday, May 12, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (Party of Joe–CT) will introduce their comprehensive climate change and energy bill. Absent from the rollout will be Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who on April 26, after months of collaborating on what was to have been the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill, announced he couldn’t go on with it out of fear that the Democratic leadership was going to address immigration first.

Apparently of the opinion that senators – most of whom can walk and talk on their cell phones at the same time, and some of whom can thumb their smart phones while (ostensibly) listening to the President of the United States address them – can’t handle two pieces of legislation at once, Graham may have unwittingly tipped his hand by using the word “cynical” in explaining his withdrawal from the energy bill. He wrote

“As I have previously indicated, a serious debate on energy legislation is significantly compromised with the cynical politics of comprehensive immigration reform hanging over the Senate.”

When it comes to cynics, it takes one to know one.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he wants to deal with both energy and immigration in this session. That’s “wants,” not “will.” Actually, there is no comprehensive immigration reform legislation, cynical or not, pending in the senate.

Kerry and Leiberman are lavish in their praise of Graham’s earlier efforts on behalf of climate-energy legislation but clear in their view that the environment can’t wait for him to rejoin them. For his part, Graham is gloomy about prospects for passage of energy legislation in the face of the Gulf Coast oil spill, among other things. The Kerry-Lieberman statement is here, Graham’s is here.

Features of the Kerry-Lieberman bill just about have to be cap-and-trade for carbon dioxide emissions, something about offshore oil drilling (don’t expect it to be forbidden), more funding for nuclear power plant development, and enough money for job creation in all three areas that senators will have some fancy dancing to do in the fall to explain to job-hungry constituents why they voted against it. But many will – quite possibly enough that nothing will be done this year.

Just as it is for every living creature, plant life included, survival is the first instinct of Homo politicus.

It’s hard to refrain from speculating on Graham’s real reason from pulling out of what was supposed to a three-way deal among a Democrat, a Republican, and a Whatever, but I’ll try, except to note that I doubt leaders of the former Party of No got to him. Last week was notable for the unanimous passage of the Faster FOIA Act of 2010, FOIA (FOY-uh) standing for the Freedom of Information Act. The law’s sponsor, the wonderful Patrick (I wish he was my senator) Leahy, D-VT, was joined by three Democrats and one Republican, and not a single senator voted against it. (I know that’s what “unanimous” means. I just said it twice in honor of the fact that miracles do sometimes happen.)

FOIA is important to democracy; it’s the way investigative reporters and, through them, the general public find out about things the government would just as soon they didn’t find out about. This bill (the House has yet to act, the president has yet to sign it) merely appoints a commission to find out why government responds so slowly and to suggest how to speed it up. But even so, voting for it is a step the Republicans didn’t really have to take.

If ever Graham thought he might get back on the energy-climate change game board when people calmed down about the BP oil spill, he was ill advised to use the word cynical in his news release. It’s a word that could come back to bite him if his plans change.

I can hardly wait to learn what Kerry and Lieberman have named their legislation. Bills, it seems, are named to serve as whips you can wrap around the necks of those who vote against them when election time comes. The one Kerry filed in February was short-titled the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act. The grammatical construction of the title is interesting: Is it “clean energy jobs and…” or “clean energy, jobs and…” I mean, was it meant to provide clean energy for its own sake, or only to produce jobs? And the “American Power” part? What red-blooded patriot could be against American Power? Isn’t power what our foreign policy is all about? Aren’t we supposed to be, by divine right, the most powerful nation in the world? What’s American Power have to do with climate change and clean energy, anyway?

I’d like to see the bill entitled the If We Don’t Pass This One Fast We’re All Going to Fry and We Won’t Have to Wait for Hell, Either Act. Now, there would be an honest statement of the situation the legislation is designed (I hope) to address.

When it comes to energy sources, I love solar, wind, and hydro power. I even pay extra on my electric bill to induce National Grid to buy enough of those kinds of power to supply my house. But there’s not enough of those “clean” sources to power everything. And, lest you think that wind is free, please note that Massachusetts electric-bill payers are already on notice that our bills will go up in 2013, when(if) Cape Wind comes online.

I have deep emotional objections to off-shore oil drilling. I have equally deep emotional objections to nuclear power plants. I also have deep emotional objections to freezing in the dark. And don’t get me started on coal. These facts make me eminently unqualified to decide what technologies to favor, in the legislative sense.

But I’ll tell you this: When it comes to energy, nothing is free. Nothing is safe. I heard tar-ball-on-alabama-beachsome talking head the other day say something about legislation to place oil platforms a safe distance from land. And I’m here to tell you, there is no such thing.

During World War II, hundreds of oil tankers were torpedoed in the Atlantic between the east coast and Europe – I’m guessing at least a thousand miles off the American coast. The summer of 1945, my family spent a week in Atlantic City, NJ, along with two other families whose children were around the same age as my sister and I were. The mothers sat under a huge beach umbrella on the dry sand, playing Canasta and Mah Jong all day. We kids played at the water’s edge in the wet sand, building sand castles, digging for sand crabs, running in and out of the water splashing each other.

Then came the tar balls, and the misery of having your hind end and the soles of your feet scrubbed with a scrub brush before you could go back into the house we were renting.

There is no safe distance. Dump oil a thousand miles out and eventually tar balls will reach the shore. There is nothing to stop them from floating with the current. They’ll come, killing sandpipers and sea gulls and any other form of sea life you can name; infuriating mothers for whom cleanliness is godliness, not just next to it; and visiting indignities on little kids who ran into the shallows to have fun.

The moral: When people say an energy source is safe, you say, “Define safe.” When people say Energy Source A is too risky, you say, “What’s better?” We have to stop speaking in platitudes and generalities and get on with the job of saving our planet, and ourselves. We can’t just say no; we have to say yes to something. We can’t just say yes; we have to say, Yes, but here’s how we’ll do it.

The only way to come to agreement on energy policy and climate change mitigation is to demand that decisions be based on the relative costs and benefits of each option, not on what is politically acceptable to lobbyists of any persuasion. We have to insist on this.


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