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Environment

With Friends Like These, Who Needs Republicans

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There is this assumption in environmental and climate circles that the Republican party represents (in the United States) the biggest obstacle to political progress on climate change. Recent developments certainly support this view. Since 2009, the GOP has become increasingly hostile to climate science. Republican presidential hopefuls are marching to this same Tea Party beat (even those who not that long ago sang a different tune). Last month, this prompted Fred Hiatt, the Washington Post's editorial page editor, to write that,

On climate change, the GOP is lost in never-never land.

But the narrative of Republicans thwarting action on climate change is oversimplified. There are powerful democrats who--historically and currently--have acted in ways that strike me as counter to the climate change cause. Let's recall, for example, why climate advocates rejoiced when Michigan Representative John Dingell (D-MI), a close ally of the automotive industry, was ousted in 2008 as head of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee. More recently, we have the case of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who has single-handedly kept the renewable energy industry from sprouting in some of the best locations of the California desert. Here's the backstory. In March of 2009, as the APreported, nineteen companies had "submitted applications to build solar or wind facilities on a parcel of 500,000 desert acres" in the Mojave desert. That same month, Feinstein wrote a letter to the Secretary of Interior (who heads the agency in charge of the federal land where the renewable energy sites would be located), saying:

While I strongly support renewable energy, it is critical that these projects move forward on public and private lands well suited for that purpose. Unfortunately, many of the sites now being considered for leases are completely inappropriate and will lead to the wholesale destruction of some of the most pristine areas in the desert...This is unacceptable. I urge you to direct the BLM to suspend any further consideration of leases to develop former railroad lands for renewable energy or for any other purpose.

Feinstein also mentioned that she was "preparing legislation to ensure the permanent protection of these lands, which were donated to the federal government for conservation." This proved to be no idle threat. Later that year, as Todd Woody wrote in the NYT,

...Before the bill to create two new Mojave national monuments has even had its first hearing, the California Democrat has largely achieved her aim. Regardless of the legislation's fate, her opposition means that few if any power plants are likely to be built in the monument area, a complication in California's effort to achieve its aggressive goals for renewable energy. Developers of the projects have already postponed several proposals or abandoned them entirely.

In his piece, Woody also noted that Senator Feinstein is chair of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the budget of the Interior Department, "giving her substantial clout over that agency, which manages the government's landholdings." Consequently, as he put it:

Her intervention in the Mojave means it will be more difficult for California utilities to achieve a goal, set by the state, of obtaining a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020; projects in the monument area could have supplied a substantial portion of that power.

Some of the big guns in the environmental and climate communities took note of Feinstein's actions and were not pleased. This is my favorite quote in Woody's NYT piece:

"This is arguably the best solar land in the world, and Senator Feinstein shouldn't be allowed to take this land off the table without a proper and scientific environmental review," said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmentalist and a partner with a venture capital firm that invested in a solar developer called BrightSource Energy. In September, BrightSource canceled a large project in the monument area.

Let us pause for a moment to behold the rich irony of Kennedy's statement. As I said here at the time, you have to admire the guy's chutzpa. The controversy led California Governor Schwarzenegger to observe,

If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don't know where the hell we can put it.

In January of 2010, climate blogger Joe Romm penned a post that was headlined,

Green Talk vs green action: Sen. Feinstein's scuttling of solar, wind projects a baffling mistake

Now let's fast forward to May of 2011, and this article in the San Francisco Chronicle, which discusses the disparate alliance Feinstein has forged to back the bill she has introduced to Congress, which, if passed, will preserve over one million acres surrounding national parks at Death Valley and Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve. Here's the post mortem reaction from the vanquished, who have mostly withdrawn their solar and wind development applications:

"It was devastating and difficult and obviously treacherous for the industry, and not the way you would hope to start a [renewable energy] renaissance, but we're past it now," said [Shannon] Eddy of the Large-Scale Solar Association. "Any projects within the boundaries of her monument are considered too much of a risk right now to develop." Wind developer Oak Creek Energy of Oakland last month pulled the plug on a five-year effort to build a wind farm in the Castle Mountain area that Feinstein wants to add to the Mojave Preserve.

Eddy also remarked of Feinstein that, when it comes to the desert, "She's just intense. She's persistent. She's very formidable." All of which, in the laudable aim of environmental preservation, might strike some as counterproductive to the goal of kicking the fossil fuel habit. To sum up: Yes, on climate change, today's Republicans are " lost in never-never land," as Fred Hiatt put it. And yes, from 2000-2008, we had a "drill, baby, drill" Administration that ignored climate science altogether. But on fuel economy standards and on the budding solar and wind industry in the U.S., progress has been stifled by two Democrats. Ironically, both Dingell and Feinstein are longtime champions of the environment.

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