‘Clean energy” is the political darling of the moment. President Obama has made the promotion of clean energy one of the centerpieces of his administration and his reelection effort. The Democratic National Committee claims that “clean energy” investments are “helping pave the way to a more sustainable future, creating new jobs and entire industries here in America.” Last month, the Center for American Progress, a leftist think tank, released a report that touted the need to build a clean-energy economy.
On Sunday, an editorial in the New York Times extolled the benefits of renewable energy and declared that the “clean energy industry” was “one of the few sectors to add jobs” during the recession.
It’s readily apparent that the left is rallying behind the notion of “clean energy.” But what, exactly, is it? Ah, now there’s the rub.
In March, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D, N.M.) introduced the Clean Energy Standard Act of 2012, which identifies natural gas and nuclear — along with renewable energy sources — as being “clean.” If that definition holds, then groups such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and lots of others will be in the rather uncomfortable position of having to oppose Bingaman’s measure even though those very same groups regularly tout the need for more clean energy.
Proving why this is so takes only a modicum of research. The Sierra Club claims that the “gas industry is dirty, dangerous, and running amok.” It continues, saying, “The closer we look at natural gas, the dirtier it appears. . . . If we can’t protect our health and treasured landscapes from the damages caused by the natural gas industry, then we should not drill for natural gas.”
That’s a remarkable set of statements from the Sierra Club, particularly given that the group received nearly $26 million in donations from the gas industry between 2007 and 2010, most of it from Chesapeake Energy’s now-embattled CEO, Aubrey McClendon. During many of those years, the Sierra Club supported natural gas because, as Michael Brune, the group’s executive director, put it, the group’s leaders believed at the time that this fuel could “play a necessary role in helping us reach the clean energy future our children deserve.” But in February of this year, the Sierra Club changed its direction on natural gas and Brune declared that the “only safe, smart, and responsible” way to address America’s energy needs is to look beyond coal, oil, and natural gas and to focus on “sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal.”
As for nuclear, forget it. Since 1974, the club has opposed “the licensing, construction and operation of new nuclear reactors utilizing the fission process.” The group says that it will continue its opposition, pending “development of adequate national and global policies to curb energy over-use and unnecessary economic growth.”
Bill McKibben, perhaps the best-known environmental activist in America, also dislikes natural gas. The founder of 350.org and a leader of the movement to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, McKibben recently said that natural gas is “just a rickety pier stretching further out into the fossil fuel lake.”
A similar stance is evident at Greenpeace, which says that natural gas is “a fossil fuel, with some of the same damning negatives as coal and oil . . . The extraction of natural gas — especially via fracking — is incredibly harmful to the environment and people’s health.” The group says it is opposed to hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. “fracking”) because the process is “wreaking havoc on communities all over the country, as well as on our climate.”
Nuclear energy is “an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity,” Greenpeace maintains. “The only solution is to halt the expansion of all nuclear power, and [to force] the shutdown of existing plants.” It also says, “There is no place for dangerous expensive nuclear power in meeting future energy demand or in helping to avert catastrophic climate change.”
Despite the fact that abundant supplies of low-cost natural gas are helping the U.S. decarbonize more rapidly than the European Union, Joe Romm, a leading blogger for the Center for American Progress, has repeatedly slammed natural gas. On March 1, the same day that Senator Bingaman introduced his bill, Romm wrote that natural gas was a “bridge fuel to nowhere.” In January, Romm was even clearer about his antipathy writing, “We don’t want new gas plants to displace new renewables, like solar and wind, which are going to be some of the biggest, sustainable job creating industries of the century.”
Romm, like many others on the Left, is also reflexively anti-nuclear. And given his belief in the dangers posed by carbon dioxide emissions, that opposition is remarkable. After all, if you are anti–carbon dioxide and anti-nuclear, you are pro-blackout. Nevertheless, the Center for American Progress, in its recent report on “clean energy,” ignores nuclear altogether.
What about coal? The mainstream environmental groups are uniformly opposed to coal-fired electricity. For instance, the Sierra Club is spearheading the “beyond coal” campaign, which seeks to shut down all coal-fired power plants in the U.S. The aim is to stop all coal-fired electricity production even though the newest plants coming on line are, by traditional environmental measures, extremely “clean.”
The Prairie State Energy Campus, a $5 billion state-of-the-art coal-fired plant located in southwestern Illinois, will soon begin generating electricity. The 1,600-megawatt facility, the biggest coal-fired power plant to be built in in the U.S. in many years, will produce 0.182 pounds of sulfur dioxide and 0.07 pounds of nitrogen oxide per megawatt-hour. That’s about half the allowable levels of those pollutants under the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which is scheduled to take effect in 2014.
But on March 27, the EPA proposed a rule that would outlaw the construction of new plants like Prairie State because coal-fired generation units produce lots of carbon dioxide. In its proposed rule, which runs to 257 pages, the agency mentions “clean energy” six times. And that takes us to the punch line: The promotion of “clean energy” is not really about eliminating traditional pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and ozone; it’s aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions.
“Clean energy” isn’t a specific thing — it’s a marketing slogan. And the slogan is designed to obscure the green movement’s desire to impose carbon taxes, set limits on carbon dioxide emissions, or both. Politico reporters Erica Martinson and Jonathan Allen made that clear in their article on March 21 of this year. Environmental groups admit that “they’ve lost ground by tackling global warming head-on,” the two wrote. “Their best bet now lies in a bit of a bait and switch.” The result is a campaign to demonize “dirty” hydrocarbons by conflating carbon dioxide emissions with asthma.
Last year, Suedeen Kelly, a former member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said that renewable-energy mandates are a “back-end way to put a price on carbon.” Kelly’s point applies directly to Bingaman’s bill and the ongoing push for “clean energy.” But rather than have an open and honest debate about the merits of a carbon tax or the potential benefits of limiting carbon dioxide emissions, the green movement is pushing a “clean energy” stalking horse that will result in higher prices for consumers.
The bottom line is obvious: Be wary of “clean energy.” The Sierra Club is.
— Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His latest book is Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.