Another Setback for Renewables

The Wonk Room posted a run-down late last week (cross-posted here by Overbrook grantee Grist.org) on the prospective Republican Representatives vying to lead the House Energy Committee. Until now led by Representative Henry Waxman, co-author with Rep. Edward Markey of last year's ACES (American Clean Energy and Security Act), the House Energy Committee had been poised to influence substantive change in the Federal regulation of greenhouse gases. Not so any longer -- perusing the cast of characters lining up to fill Waxman's spot, it is a disheartening day for environmentalists and businesses promoting renewable energy.

Michigan Representative Fred Upton, as the most senior member of the contenders, is a likely choice to head the House Energy Committee. Although Upton is not a blatant climate change denier, he has characterized proposed energy legislation as "job-killing," and his top donors are energy utilities. Other contenders are John Shimkus, who described proposed climate legislation as a threat greater than terrorism and war, Cliff Stearns, an ardent proponent of drilling in ANWR and Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who bizarrely apologized to BP this summer for what he perceived to be unfairly harsh treatment by Congress in the aftermath of the Gulf disaster.

This news coupled with two New York Times stories this weekend prove once again the growing need for grassroots watchdogs and activists. One article discusses the competitive trouble wind power companies are having against fossil fuel utilities, because the upfront costs of wind are higher. A line from the story explains, "a growing number of projects are being canceled or delayed because governments are unwilling to add even small amounts to consumers’ electricity bills." This, while consumers seem willing (if chagrined) to pay steadily rising bills for cable television.

The other weekend Times story profiles individuals who, in exchange for payment, have leased their private land to oil companies for hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," one of the most environmentally-destructive methods of extracting oil and natural gas there is. Read about fracking here on Overbrook grantee Earthworks' web site.

It seems as though a main obstacle to weaning off of fossil fuels toward a renewable economy is, once again, the behavior and attitudes of consumers and voters. A challenge for environmental groups in coming years will be to shift focus away from the instant gratification of cheap energy, (which, considering oil spills, blow-outs, carbon emissions, deleterious health effects and more, is far from "cheap") toward a longer-term view of the greater benefits to come through clean energy. This is no easy feat in the midst of an economic crisis, for sure. But once voters begin to view a clean environment, health, and greater savings over time as rights and expectations rather than special "perqs," national energy trends will surely change, along with the congressmen and women who represent us.