By David L. Brown
The Supreme Court recently ruled that greenhouse gases (GHG) should be classified as pollutants and ordered the EPA to review its previous position through which it refused to regulate GHG (See my report posted April 2). Today, there is (possibly) welcome news that the ruling is apparently resulting in at least some semblance of action by the Bush Administration.
According to the Associated Press, in an address today from the Rose Garden Bush ordered federal agencies “to find a way to begin regulating vehicle emissions by the time he leaves office.” According to the report, “Bush said he wanted to move ahead, pending any separate legislative approaches. The new rules will ‘cut gasoline consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles,’ he said.” His instructions will affect the departments of Transportation, Agriculture, and Energy plus the Environmental Protection Agency.
That sounds like good news for the environment, but it may be nothing more than a political smokescreen. The AP report also included these points:
“This is a complex legal and technical matter and it’s going to take time to fully resolve,” Bush said.
“Bush has said previously that he recognizes the serious environmental problems created by such emissions and other so-called greenhouse gases. But he has urged against anything other than a voluntary approach, saying regulations could undercut economic activity.”
“There were few details immediately available about how the rules might look, but White House press secretary Tony Snow said Monday that the president’s position has not changed.”
“The market-based approach seems to work,” Snow said. “The question is: do you try to set up a mandatory system or do you try to set up an innovation-based system. The president prefers innovation.”
The environmental group Environmental Defense said the effort “will fall far short of fixing the climate problem” without mandatory caps on carbon emissions.
“Whether EPA will lead the fight against global warming or lead us to a hotter planet remains to be seen,” said Environmental Defense President Fred Krupp. “It’s time for this administration to join with the mainstream of American businesses and support a cap on carbon.”
Call me Mr. Suspicious, but it appears to me that the President is leaving himself a huge amount of wiggle room here. For one thing, setting a timetable for action to coincide with the end of his term in office raises my eyebrows because it seems akin to passing a hot potato to someone else. Secondly, the emphasis on “voluntary” action just doesn’t have much traction. We have been waiting for Detroit to “voluntarily” improve fuel efficiency for decades and the only result is that it has dedicated itself to producing “light trucks” including pickups and SUVs that are exempt from CAFE mileage standards. An appropriate image to symbolize the “success” of this voluntary program would be a hulking Hummer.
It may be true that “voluntary” action will in the end be the most effective, but not because we can count on Detroit, Big Oil, and all the other usual suspects to “do the right thing.” No, the action will actually be “involuntary,” forced by economic realities and consumer demand. The pressure for that demand is building. As I drove to work this morning, I noticed that regular gasoline was priced at $3.249 here in New Mexico. There is talk of $4 gas by summer, and that is going to change the “hearts and minds” of American consumers in a way that our occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq have failed to do for the indigenous peoples there.
The high pump prices are being blamed this time on a lack of refinery capacity, rather than high petroleum prices. It is a fact that Big Oil has built no new refineries in the US for three decades, and shows no intention of doing so. Is it perhaps a convenient coincidence that each year about this time several refineries need to be shut down for repairs, leaving the nation with a shortfall in gasoline supplies leading into the summer travel season? Hmm, and just why would Big Oil do anything like that? Oh, yeah, to keep retail prices high even though at present they are able to buy oil for about $10 less per barrel than it was at recent peaks.
Incidentally, the refusal of Big Oil to build new refining capacity tells us a lot about the true picture, because while the Oil Sheiks and Oil Barons tell us that there is an unending supply of petroleum still to be pumped, their actions in not building refineries belie their words. The fact is that the Oil Peak is upon us, either already passed or soon to come, and the sellers of oil want to keep us in the dark about that for as long as possible while they continue to suck dollars from our wallets and keep those Hummers humming.
The rising cost of petroleum-based energy, added to increasing evidence of climate effects, will provide the “voluntary” action in the long run. It is just too bad that our leadership in Washington doesn’t have the guts to meet the challenge straight on. Weasel words and putting off decisions into the future just won’t work anymore.