America’s Energy Policy Reality #2: Green (sustainability) = Green (economic growth)

Published in 1962, Silent Spring was one of th...

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President Obama recently nominated John Bryson to be US Secretary of Commerce.  Bryson is the retired Chairman and CEO of Edison International, the parent company of southern California Edison, the giant utility and merchant energy company.  Bryson has another highlight on his credentials as one of the founders of the Natural Resources Defense Council.  He would replace Secretary Gary Locke, former Governor of Washington State, who has been named Ambassador to China.

This story is not about Bryson or the reasons President Obama selected him, but he is a useful metaphor for an unmistakable energy policy reality we are confronting in our search for a clean energy future.  In the United States, our environmental laws were written with influence and angry by people like John Bryson who were outraged by the excesses of business, the air and water pollution it was causing, and the impacts such ‘business as usual’ was having on our communities, the nation and the planet.

As a nation of ‘baby boomers’ we grew up in the spirit of the environmental movement.  We used it to shape our actions when we got ‘day jobs’ and over time we changed business as usual to something more environmentally responsible.  We cleaned up the air and water and, in truth, by shining a spotlight on environmental issues and empowering citizens acting on their own to bring actions to enforce the environmental laws we gave life to John Bryson’s dream.

Fast forward from the ‘Silent Spring’ of Rachel Carson’s era to 2007 when sustainability as a descriptor of our clean energy and environmental future was prominently on display in the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development report entitled “Our Common Future”.  Sometimes called the Brundtland Report after the chair Gro Harlem Brundtland, it sought to encourage better environmental practices by appealing to the natural desire of parents to leave a better climate, better earth, better opportunity for our children than we found ourselves through ‘sustainable development’ by “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The measure of success, then, is whether or not we give future generations the same opportunities that we have had.

In reality, what made this progress possible was not the emotional exuberance of our youth or our zeal for a clean energy future.  It was the reality of the Brundtland report sentiment about sustainability writ large as our common shared value.  We have succeeded in cleaning up our air and water because we embraced such business as usual conditions in our shared national values.  That transformation happened because of the persistence of people like John Bryson in bringing legal action to enforce environmental laws, write new environmental rules, and demand environmental action.  By these actions they speeded up the process of change and instilled in us a vision of a clean energy and sustainable future. But the dirty little secret of the environmental movement is that we achieved our goals for cleaner air and water and more environmental responsible policies for ‘business as usual’ BECAUSE WE ALL GOT GOOD JOBS that allowed us to shape and influence those policies and live into the sustainability definition of the 2007 Brundtland Report to create a better environment and a better world for our children than we found in Rachel Carson’s lament in Silent Spring.

So what?

So today is not the post WWII period of heady growth.  The cleanest places on the planet to live today were ironically some of the most polluted in the days of Silent Spring.  The dirtiest places on earth to live are the looming cities of the developing world in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere growing rapidly to sustain their pace of economic growth as the path to their own prosperity.

In An Inconvenient Truth Al Gore sought to galvanize the emotions and passions of the Silent Spring generation using the same in-your-face approach writ globally large to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thus save the world. Taking this message to Beijing and New Delhi and Brasilia fell on deaf ears as the developing world said that they were unwilling to trade economic growth for environmental improvements at this stage of their development. But they welcomed western investment, technology and help to live into their economic growth dreams and still work on environmental issues.

This is when the sustainability definition of the Brundland Report was hijacked by a drive to COP15 in Copenhagen to try to convince the developed world that the only way to ‘save the planet’ was to tax the progress of the developed world to reduce emissions and give it to the developing world because they refused to clean up their act.  This audacious wealth transfer plan failed because the developing world was unwilling to agree to international limitations on their economic growth realizing no doubt that bribery is not a sustainable policy.  And conversely the developed world blinked realizing that signing up for unsustainable self imposed emissions reductions policies would not change the developing world’s position or the climate but would crater their own economies and get all the politicians sacked by their voters.

This brings me back to John Bryson and the energy policy reality we face today.

In addition to running Southern California Edison, Bryson’s Edison International is also one of the nation’s largest operators of coal-fired generation in the Midwest.  Did Bryson sell out the environment movement he helped found by being a coal baron?  Or did his actions reflect the energy policy reality we face namely that economic growth is the sine quo non for environmental progress.  That was true in the 1960’s and 1970’s and it is true today.  Unless our economy grows, jobs are created, invested capital is put to work we cannot expect to upgrade technology, develop alternative fuels, clean up our business practices and thus have the sustainable environmental results that we have realized over the past 50 years.  And neither will China, India, Brazil or anywhere else.

Need for Balance in Environmental Laws

Our environmental laws in the United States were designed for a time when business was reluctant to change and accepted dirty air and water and sloppy practices as business as usual.  There is no requirement in our current environmental laws for either the government or the courts to balance the competing interests of the environment, our national policy goals and the economic interests of those affected by the laws or rules.

Those days are gone but our environmental enforcement approach remains the same.  Our energy policy reality today is that we cannot realize the promise of smart grid, renewable energy, or distributed energy strategies because our environmental procedures make it virtually impossible to build the electric transmission lines needed to bring wind and solar renewable energy to market.  Many of the wind and solar energy policies so cherished by environmental advocates are undermined by those same advocates now attacking projects because of habitat concerns that protect rats, lizards or birds without regard to the economic consequences of such opposition on people or the broader environmental policy goals of promoting cleaner energy alternatives.  Our environmental laws lack a duty to balance competing interests and are often enforced by lawsuits brought by third party environmental groups with no standing, no financial consequence for their actions and no duty to balance those competing interests.  The biggest loser is the public interest.

We tolerated this lack of balance in the past because the economy grew faster and we could use work-arounds to overcome the opposition or spend much larger sums in settlements to buy them off with mitigating actions. In today’s economic reality throwing money at the problem is not possible.

It is not business as usual any more.