By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

In Washington, the loudest voices have the biggest pocketbooks. And they’re taking the US on a death march with fossil fuels.

Unlike most advanced nations, where green energy has taken firm root, the US tarries, only half-committed to clean energy while guzzling more oil per capita than any other nation. We know this habit is unsustainable. It continues because oil is profitable. And Big Oil buys acquiescence from Washington.

That’s a crude, but accurate assessment. No pun intended.

You’d think these mammoth companies would want to seize the future, build wind turbines and solar farms. But with the exception of a few puny projects dabbling in biofuels and geothermal power, they are most determined to drain the earth of every last drop of oil. It has worked well for them so far.

The problem is, we’re reaching a point where oil extraction threatens our food supply, our forests and our water. It’s push, or drill, coming to shove; shove everything else out of the way that is.

So it was with the BP oil disaster, which devastated marine life in the Gulf of Mexico. And so it is with the tar sands extraction underway in the Western US and across a broad sweep of Canada.

Tar sands.

The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline may soon be fait accompli, because Republicans in the House, our representatives, sent President Obama a 60-day deadline to approve or deny the pipeline. The edict was attached as a rider to Obama’s pet payroll tax cut designed to give citizens a break during difficult economic times.

The 1,700-mile proposed pipeline would carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas. Even if it never leaks a drop of oil — unlikely because a precursor pipeline already has leaked several times in its first year of operation — it will facilitate the dirtiest type of fossil fuel extraction. Tar sands are extracted either through strip mining or by steam injected deep into the earth. The process sweeps away boreal forests and creates vast lakes of toxic tailings and poisoned “produced” water. By the time the bitumen is consumed, it’s produced two the three times the carbon emissions of regular crude oil.

After several protests, including a big outcry from Nebraskans concerned about the pipeline threatening the vast and already partially depleted Ogallala Aquifer, the Obama Administration called for additional review in November 2011.

The review, and planning a re-routing around the aquifer would take about a year…conveniently pushing the date for a final decision on Keystone past the 2012 election.

Now, however, Obama must decide about Keystone within two months. If he nixes the pipeline altogether, he will certainly being called a jobs killer. Approve it and he faces the wrath of everyone concerned about the environmental fallout of Keystone and its toxic cargo.

Conventional wisdom has it that Obama would rather be seen as bringing on the jobs — even if they are a relative handful of temporary construction jobs. That’s because he’s not been seen as a strong proponent of the American green movement.

On the other hand, the Obama Administration actually has been an advocate for the environment. Despite the President’s tendency to inch toward the right during every crisis, Obama and his cabinet leaders have pushed out a batch of sensible green initiatives: new car mileage standards, loan guarantees to build the electric car charging network; incentives for the wind and solar industries, and seed money for the beleaguered high-speed rail programs.

These projects and economic sectors could bring hundreds of thousands of jobs that would have staying power. The wind energy and solar energy industries each already support around 80,000 and 100,000 US jobs respectively, and promise more if the government would support them with tax incentives and renewable standards to help lock in private investment.

This potential green energy boom has been under-reported for the last three years, as the nation struggled with the economic downturn, the financial sector collapse (and resurrection), the health care and deficit debates.

The New York Times editorialized about these opportunities and others in a Jan. 1 editorial proposing that Obama needs to make a case about for how green energy jobs can compensate for the potential job loss of a Keystone denial. It also noted that House Speaker John Boehner’s contention that the pipeline will create 20,000 American is pure hyperbole. Even pipeline operator TransCanada reports that Keystone would create 6,000 to 6,500 temporary jobs. (A Cornell study places the number even lower.)

The NYT editorial continued:

The country obviously needs more jobs. Mr. Obama needs to lay out the case that industry, with government help, can create hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobs without incurring environmental risks — by upgrading old power plants to comply with environmental laws, retrofitting commercial and residential buildings that soak up nearly 40 percent of the country’s energy (and produce nearly 40 percent of its carbon emissions) and promoting growth in new industries like wind and solar power and advanced vehicles.

By even the most conservative estimates, the power plant upgrades required by the new rule governing mercury emissions are expected to create about 45,000 temporary construction jobs over the next five years, and as many as 8,000 permanent jobs as utilities install pollution control equipment. And while the projects are new and the numbers tentative, the Energy Department predicts that its loan guarantee programs could create more than 60,000 direct jobs in the solar and wind industries and in companies developing advanced batteries and other components for more fuel-efficient cars.

Much more needs to happen. Europe has encouraged the commercial development of carbon-reducing technologies with a robust mix of direct government investment and tax breaks, loans and laws that cap or tax greenhouse gas emissions. This country needs a comparably broad strategy that will create a pathway from the fossil fuels of today to the greener fuels of tomorrow.

As Chevron would say, We Agree.
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