With Congress gridlocked on climate legislation, environmental groups forge ahead

Despite the Gulf oil spill, a massive pipeline break in Michigan and broad concerns about global warming, ambitious climate-change and energy legislation is likely dead for the year. That poses a conundrum, going forward, for environmentalists: How to convince lawmakers of the need for legislation to sever the country’s decades-long ties to oil and to reform energy policy more generally?

The Sierra Club is determined to reduce U.S. oil dependence. (Flickr, The Sierra Club)

The Sierra Club is in the process of trying to answer that question. For the past six months, it has worked on a massive study on how to reduce the United States’ oil dependence in an economically and environmentally beneficial way. The group is also building a coalition of environmental advocates and lawmakers to support the project, which will quantify potential oil-use reductions across every industrial sector.

“Over the next 20 years, how steep can we make cuts in oil consumption while allowing the economy to flourish and while creating more jobs rather than penalizing individual workers or communities?” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune asked. “So, this will be a major priority of the club over the next several years — to build a broad based coalition of organizations and elected officials who will want to stand up for a very thoughtful and pragmatic, but visionary and aggressive plan to get off oil.”

Brune, who took over his post just one month before the oil spill started, recently sat down for an interview with me. He outlined the organization’s oil study, talked about the prospects for energy legislation and previewed the upcoming mid-term elections.

Here is an edited-down version of our talk:

What is the major issue going forward for the Sierra Club right now?
Our top issue remains fighting climate change in a way that increases the availability of clean energy like solar and wind, while also improving the public health benefits associated with decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels.

Is the focus now on Environmental Protection Agency regulations, Congress or both?
I would say both for sure. We see great opportunity in EPA rulemakings to increase public health benefits by forcing utilities in particular to account for the cost of their pollution. A top priority right now is organizing around EPA’s hearings on coal ash, to make sure that coal ash is treated as a hazardous waste. But, over the next couple of years, we’ll be looking at a whole series of rulemakings, many of which are focused on stationary sources like coal plants, but we’re also looking at EPA rulemakings to cut our dependence on oil.

Is there a serious concern about challenges to EPA’s regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act going forward?
Yeah, certainly many threats have been made to EPA’s authority to act under the Clean Air Act, attempts either to gut the Clean Air Act or eliminate EPA’s authority. So, we’re taking those threats very seriously. We also think that should there be a public debate about these issues that the public overwhelmingly supports strong, effective and cost-effective regulations that have come out of the EPA for the last 40 years under the Clean Air Act. We think there’s broad public support for retaining its authority.

In terms of Congress, it doesn’t seem that anything is going to happen on cap-and-trade any time soon. Is that your thinking as well?
Well, you know, I think it is difficult to predict too far into the future. We think Congress should act. We know that members were put into office with the expectation that there would be a meaningful, substantive response to climate change and that Congress would enact laws that would put a down payment on scaling up clean energy. So, we know that the demand is there. But whether or not senators in particular will respond remains to be seen.

Putting aside cap-and-trade, there’s been talk of a narrower energy bill. It looks like Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Sen. Brownback (R-Kans.) are introducing a renewable energy standard that they are hoping to get passed. Is there a specific RES target that you would like to see or is it that the policy needs to move forward as soon as possible?
Well, let me make a general point. There was far too much of a focus earlier this spring on a single bill to address climate change economy-wide. And, in reality, there are dozens of things that Congress can do to fight climate change and to increase energy security in the country. In regards to this particular RES bill, our focus is primarily on keeping it clean. We want to see a renewable energy standard that is focused on truly clean energy and doesn’t have absurd giveways to nuclear power or so-called clean coal or any one of the other handful of options. And then of course to increase those investments as quickly as possible.

Is there a number that’s being thrown around among your members now?
Yeah, but it’s not something I really want to discuss in the public right now.

What other things are you focusing on in Congress?

I’d say the top thing is a plan to get off oil. We just experienced the largest environmental disaster in our country’s history and in response, Congress has done nothing. There’s not even a plan to fully reform what used to be called MMS and there’s not yet a plan to hold oil companies fully accountable and to lift the liability cap. And most importantly, there’s no effective plan right now to significantly reduce our dependence on foreign oil. So, if there’s one thing that Congress can do in the next couple of months, it would be to challenge the oil industry and deliver us a plan to get off oil.

It’s been sort of an uphill battle trying to get an oil spill response bill to pass, something that is incredibly popular with the American people. And you’re right, it seems like the bill is getting held up on this idea of liability, whether or not an oil company should be held 100 percent liable for spilling thousands of gallons of oil into the ocean. What are your thoughts on that?

We shouldn’t be privatizing the gain and sharing the risk with the public. If oil companies are going to be benefiting from oil drilling, they also have to be able to absorb any of the risks associated with drilling.

Do you expect that Congress will pass an oil spill bill this year?

We do.

I wanted to also touch on the mid-term elections. It’s on everybody’s mind right now. What is the Sierra Club doing in terms of working with individual candidates?
So, there’s lots that we’re doing. The Sierra Club has 1.4 million members and supporters, so over the next several weeks, a big job of ours will be to educate our supporters about what’s at stake Nov. 2., trying to get people out to the polls and to engage our members to become volunteers. So, the Sierra Club endorses specific candidates.

We get very heavily involved in local and state propositions. Arguably our biggest priority this year is to defeat Prop 23, which would undermine the Global Warming Solutions Act, AB32, that was passed in California a few years ago. With that, we’re doing a massive voter mobilization drive. Individual members will be calling voters to encourage them to get out. We are also part of a coalition of groups that is doing advertising, thought we’re not doing any ourselves.

Are there any other races that are of particular concern for you?
We’re looking at the Senate races in Nevada and Missouri. Obviously, Harry Reid has been excellent in fighting the coal industry as well as supporting big investments in clean energy. We are also looking at the Florida race. Democratic Senate candidate Meek has a 100 percent League of Conservation Voting score. He’s been strongly in favor of Florida’s solar bills as well as the ban on offshore oil drilling. There’s obviously dozens or even hundreds of races in which the environmental voice is an important one.

There has been a lot said by the oil industry and Gulf coast lawmakers about the Obama administration’s offshore drilling moratorium’s impact on jobs, though there was a report that came out last week that said job losses might not be quite what people estimated. What’s the Sierra Club’s position on all of this? Should the moratorium be lifted?
No, I think that a full moratorium should be put in place. We’re mindful of the fact that we need to make stronger investments in clean energy jobs so that those who work in the oil industry who want to put food on the table for their families have viable alternatives in growing industries that they can work in.

To be clear, we’re not advocating turning off the spigot in the Gulf. There are more than 4,0000 rigs operating in the Gulf right now and we are not saying there should be no oil drilling in the Gulf, not until we have a clear plan to get off oil. But what we’re saying is that since it’s been proven now that oil drilling offshore is dirty and it’s dangerous and it’s deadly, we need to tighten up the safety regulations to make sure that disasters like this don’t happen in the future. And we need to stop investing in exploring for new oil and instead explore much more carefully and aggressively investments in solar and wind so that we’re not poisoning our coastlines as we’re trying to keep our lights on.

On pipeline safety. There have been a couple major disasters this year. Of course, the natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif. And before that there was an oil spill in Michigan from an oil sands pipeline. Looming over this you have a massive proposed pipeline project, the Keystone XL project, that is going to go from Canada to Texas. Has the Sierra Club been looking at the issue of pipeline safety through a new set of eyes now that we’ve had these disasters?
Yes, we have. There’s two things that we’re doing. Clearly, the cost of our reliance on oil — when you talk abut the Michigan spill, the Gulf oil spill and the Keystone pipeline — is so much higher than what we pay at the pump when you consider the foreign policy implications, the fact that our entire economy is held hostage to wild fluctuations in oil prices.

So, what we’ve done over the last six months since I started at the Sierra Club is to build out a much more aggressive, comprehensive plan for how our country can get off oil. Over the next 20 years, how steep can we make cuts in oil consumption while allowing the economy to flourish and while creating more jobs rather than penalizing individual workers or communities. So, this will be a major priority of the club over the next several years — to build a broad based coalition of organizations and elected officials who will want to stand up for a very thoughtful and pragmatic, but visionary and aggressive plan to get off oil.

And then, regarding natural gas, we don’t think we can simultaneously phase out coal, oil and gas at the same time. Gas will need to stick around for a while. But there the challenge is to have much higher and much tighter safety standards so we’re not in this disastrous position again and again and again where people are losing their lives due to an industry is ineffectively regulated.

On oil sands or, as some call them, tar sands. There were senators in Canada last week reviewing oil sands production in there. Is there a message you would like to send to them in terms of how oil sands should be treated? Because there’s an argument out there that it’s better to get oil from Canada, despite the high greenhouse gas emissions of oil sands production, because we’re no longer reliant on the Middle East.
I think that’s just misguided thinking. The Pentagon says that climate change is one of the top national security threats in the 21st century. We have to deal effectively with climate change. Importing oil from the tar sands is 2-3 times more greenhouse gas intensive than conventional oil. You don’t solve a problem by making it worse. So, I understand that the notion that we have oil that is under the sands of our neighbors to the north is attractive to people who think we can have a simply pipeline solve a lot of problems. But the reality is that if we rely too much on a different source of oil that is dirtier, that will accelerate climate change rather than reduce it’s impacts, we’re only going to be replacing one set of problems with an entirely different set of problems. The only effective way to address this problem systemically is to adopt a plan to get America off oil.

Can you be more specific about this plan?
We’ll have a plan that we can introduce probably in the next 3-6 months. It looks at every major industrial source of oil consumption, from the oil that’s used in medium- and heavy-duty trucks, light trucks, cars and SUVs, the oil used for pesticides and paints. Whatever the major source of consumption is, we’re looking at a major, comprehensive plan to phase it out where and whenever possible.

What’s the time frame of this phase-out?
The big challenge is political will. For example, clearly it is technically possible, one would presume, to produce nothing but plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles in the next couple years. Whether that’s politically possible, of course remains to be seen. If the United States were to mobilize as we did in World War II and completely transition the entire automobile fleet to produce a new technology, clearly that could be done.

What we need to do is measure the distance between what we can do and what we’re willing to do as a country and develop what we feel as responsible and pragmatic, but also aggressive tactics to achieve energy independence. To help inform that decision we would look at the cost of different decisions under different time scenarios, the benefits economically, environmentally or socially depending on our foreign policy and what would the oil savings be in real-world terms. Then we’d highlight a few different options. We’ll have the data shortly. Then we’ll figure out how to use it. We’ve commissioned this first study just as the Sierra Club, but we anticipate doing more with a broad coalition.

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Andrew Restuccia

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