All eyes are on the United Nations Climate Change conference talks that kick off in Copenhagen, Denmark, this week. Known as the COP15 summit, the international negotiations will center on cap-and-trade and offset schemes to combat global warming, not a global carbon tax or strict regulation that are being called for by some sectors of the climate change movement.
"Governments going to Copenhagen claim to have [emission] goals for 2050, which they will achieve with the ‘cap-and-trade’ mechanism. They are lying through their teeth," wrote renowned climate scientist James Hansen in London’s Observer last week. "Unless they order Russia to leave its gas in the ground and Saudi Arabia to leave its oil in the ground (which nobody has proposed), they must phase out coal and prohibit unconventional fossil fuels."
Back in the United States, one big environmental group does not seem to be listening to Dr. Hansen’s plea. The Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has long touted cap-and-trade as a realistic solution to solving the climate crisis.
The NRDC’s position is rather simple: pollution allowances and other market mechanisms can help to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, that great global warming pollutant, while simultaneously creating green jobs. The largest CO2 emitters in the United States are coal-fired power plants.
Dan Lashof, who serves as director for NRDC’s Climate Center, believes that cap-and-trade is the best, most effective way to curb CO2 pollution – essentially a win for the environment and a win for the economy.
"Billions of dollars in allowances are at stake under the proposals to cap and reduce global warming pollution," said Lashof. "The value of pollution allowances should benefit consumers and smart programs that deliver real pollution reductions, not polluters."
Not everyone agrees with Lashof and the NRDC’s position. Last week in New York, leading environmental economist and co-director of the Carbon Tax Center, Charles Komanoff, along with James Hansen and hundreds of other activists protested outside the NRDC’s midtown offices for exactly the position Lashof espouses.
Critics believe there are simply too many loopholes and trapdoors in cap-and-trade models that would allow for offset credits to go to companies that will not deserve them. As a result, more CO2 will be pumped into the atmosphere and companies will profit by rigging the system.
As the NRDC is currently supporting the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade climate bill that is trudging its way through Congress, two prominent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employees have spoken out, hoping to stop the legislation dead in its tracks.
"Together, the illusion of greenhouse-gas reductions and the creation of powerful lobbies seeking to protect newly created profits in permits and offsets would lock in climate degradation for a decade or more," wrote EPA lawyers Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel in an October Washington Post editorial. Both have been vocal about their opposition to cap-and-trade.
In early November, the EPA asked Williams and Zabel to silence their criticism and remove from Youtube a popular video they made on the subject, or risk facing "disciplinary action."
Williams and Zabel, who are married, were forced by the EPA to remove their video titled "The Huge Mistake," despite the fact that they made it clear that the views shared within the video were their own and not the agency’s.
"EPA is abusing ethics rules to gag two conscientious employees who have every right to speak out as citizens," stated Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility’s executive director, Jeff Ruch, who reposted the original script and accompanying video. "EPA and every other federal agency should have simple, clear guidelines so that government workers can express themselves freely without political prior restraints."
The Sierra Club, which has been cautiously supportive of cap-and-trade in the past, is also taking a bit of flack for a recent retreat from its official position of opposing all new coal plants from being developed.
While the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign saw a major victory in Utah last week, where they halted Sevier Power Company from building a coal-fired power plant, a different tale unfolded in Idaho.
On November 30, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality issued a permit for a future coal plant, which will require the facility to reduce its CO2 output by almost 60 percent compared to what a similar sized coal plant would emit.
The proposed Power County fertilizer plant became the first in the country required to abide by such stringent regulations. At the core of the deal, which was brokered among Southeast Idaho Energy, the state of Idaho, the Sierra Club and the Idaho Conservation League, is the idea that coal can be "clean."
The Sierra Club has been at the forefront in many of the successful lawsuits to halt to new coal-plant development, but the Idaho agreement was the first time the group embraced "clean-coal" technology, where CO2 will be captured in a process called carbon sequestration.
"Other companies are getting money from the federal government and making the ratepayers take the risk," Sierra Club attorney Andrea Issod stated after the permit announcement. "Southeast Idaho is bearing the risk on their own [to sequester carbon dioxide]."
Southeast Idaho Energy, the developer of the plant, will separate the CO2 during the "gasification" stage of coal-firing and transport it to Wyoming, where it will be thrust underground to help other natural resource companies extract oil and natural gas.
It was a compromise that did not sit well with some environmentalists, who do not believe coal can be clean or that a new plant, even one that reduces its CO2 output, should ever be constructed. Any new coal-fired power station, even the Power County fertilizer plant in Idaho, they argue, will contribute additional CO2 into the atmosphere, even if it is a bit less than its predecessors.
"Using CO2 to force more gas and oil out of Wyoming’s Frontier Formation will not lead to the kinds of cuts in emissions that are necessary and will lead to even more coal mining and prolonging the life of existing power plants," said Mike Roselle of Climate Ground Zero, an environmental outfit that is using nonviolent civil disobedience as a tactic to end the practice of extracting coal through mountaintop removal in West Virginia.
Another criticism levied at the Sierra Club is that their Idaho deal also eliminates the risk that other environmental groups will hang the plant’s permitting process up in court proceedings for years to come.
"The Sierra Club’s commitment to business as usual is not only unfortunate; it is in my view immoral," added Roselle of Climate Ground Zero. "Coal is killing our planet, and its mining, processing and burning pose serious heath hazards to everyone. Why not use this considerable amount of money to invest in clean energy instead?"
Is the Sierra Club’s action in Idaho a sign of more to come? Is the NRDC’s cap-and-trade mantra, which does not eliminate the possibility of more coal plants being built, moving the climate movement backward instead of forward?
"Is it feasible to phase out coal and avoid use of unconventional fossil fuels?" asks James Hansen in the Observer. "Yes, but only if governments face up to the truth: as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, their use will continue and even increase on a global basis."
Questions remain as to whether or not Big Green environmental groups can hold governments accountable and lead the fight against global warming.
If more cap-and-trade policies and "clean-coal" compromises are on the horizon, we can expect more grassroots activists to turn away from big environmental groups and toward the streets, like the thousands who are protesting the COP15 negotiations in Denmark.
Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland (AK Press, 2008). Frank is also the co-author with St. Clair of the forthcoming Green Scare: The New War on Environmentalism (Haymarket Books, 2010)