Global Warming Left Out in the Cold

How the fossil-fuel boom killed the political will for congressional action on climate change.

WILLISTON, ND - JULY 28: Ray Gerish, a floor hand for Raven Drilling, works on an oil rig drilling into the Bakken shale formation on July 28, 2013 outside Watford City, North Dakota. North Dakota has been experiencing an oil boom in recent years, due in part to new drilling techniques including hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. In April 2013, The United States Geological Survey released a new study estimating the Bakken formation and surrounding oil fields could yield up to 7.4 billion barrels of oil, doubling their estimate of 2008, which was stated at 3.65 billion barrels of oil. Workers for Raven Drilling work twelve hour days fourteen days straight, staying at a camp nearby, followed by fourteen days. 
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Amy Harder
March 6, 2014, 4 p.m.

When then-pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates Barack Obama and John Mc­Cain were duk­ing it out for the White House in 2008, they dis­agreed on many things, but the com­ing of the green re­volu­tion wasn’t one of them.

If elec­ted, Obama said in Ce­dar Rap­ids, Iowa, that sum­mer, “I’ll in­vest in re­new­able en­er­gies like wind power, sol­ar power, and the next gen­er­a­tion of homegrown bio­fuels. That’s how Amer­ica is go­ing to free it­self from our de­pend­ence on for­eign oil — not through short-term gim­micks, but through a real, long-term com­mit­ment to trans­form our en­ergy sec­tor.”

Mc­Cain soun­ded a sim­il­ar note in Hou­s­ton.

“To make the great turn away from car­bon-emit­ting fuels, we will need all the in­vent­ive geni­us of which Amer­ica is cap­able,” he said that June. “We will need an eco­nomy strong enough to sup­port our na­tion’s great shift to­ward clean en­ergy.”

A con­ver­gence of con­cerns — about the eco­nomy, na­tion­al se­cur­ity, the en­vir­on­ment — had cre­ated a broad, polit­ic­ally di­verse con­stitu­ency for re­new­able en­ergy — and, by ex­ten­sion, the first really for­mid­able al­li­ance in Wash­ing­ton po­si­tioned to ad­dress glob­al warm­ing. The mo­ment looked ripe for Con­gress to pass com­pre­hens­ive le­gis­la­tion aimed at cut­ting car­bon emis­sions.

But the ex­traordin­ary polit­ic­al co­ali­tion that seemed poised to con­front the chal­lenge of cli­mate change has since been frac­tured, in large part by an old nemes­is: fossil fuels. Frack­ing has pro­duced a glut of oil and nat­ur­al gas that has made some of the top con­cerns of the 2008 cam­paign less press­ing — or at least ap­pear that way — and has sapped the will on the Hill to even dis­cuss an is­sue that not long ago was at the top of the agenda.


Dur­ing the ‘08 cam­paign, the United States was im­port­ing nearly 60 per­cent of its oil from for­eign coun­tries — not all of them es­pe­cially stable or friendly. Gas­ol­ine cost more than $4 a gal­lon at the pump. The na­tion’s de­pend­ence on fossil fuels was in­creas­ingly viewed as an eco­nom­ic li­ab­il­ity and a na­tion­al se­cur­ity con­cern in ad­di­tion to an en­vir­on­ment­al prob­lem. And the en­vir­on­ment­al im­plic­a­tions were them­selves of grow­ing con­cern to Amer­ic­ans, with 66 per­cent of re­spond­ents telling Gal­lup back then that they wor­ried “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about glob­al warm­ing — a num­ber that had been rising stead­ily over the past few years.

The “green eco­nomy,” mean­while, offered the pro­spect of mil­lions of new jobs, en­ergy in­de­pend­ence, and, even­tu­ally, cheap power. Talk of “clean coal” was rais­ing hopes in the in­creas­ingly des­per­ate com­pany towns of West Vir­gin­ia and Ken­tucky.

Sud­denly, work­ing to com­bat cli­mate change wasn’t just for tree-hug­gers any­more.

“You found this co­ali­tion of en­ergy-se­cur­ity folks and en­vir­on­ment­al folks who were band­ing to­geth­er. I think it was a force­ful co­ali­tion,” says Frank Ver­rastro, a seni­or vice pres­id­ent at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies.

So force­ful that even Sarah Pal­in — not yet Mc­Cain’s “drill, baby, drill”-chant­ing run­ning mate — treated the move to­ward re­new­able en­ergy as in­ev­it­able. In a press re­lease is­sued in Au­gust 2008, the Alaska gov­ernor re­spon­ded to Obama’s en­ergy plan by prais­ing his call to lease more of the Na­tion­al Pet­ro­leum Re­serve and to fin­ish build­ing the Alaska nat­ur­al-gas pipeline, say­ing, “This is a tool that must be on the table to buy us time un­til our long-term en­ergy plans can be put in­to place.”

Re­calls Ver­rastro: “The think­ing then was, if you use this mo­ment in time to be trans­form­at­ive, we could re­duce our oil im­ports, get a new eco­nomy, use green tech­no­logy to be the next wave of the dot-coms, and at the same time im­prove the en­vir­on­ment; that’s a win-win-win all around.”

The solu­tion to Al Gore’s “in­con­veni­ent truth” was start­ing to look pretty polit­ic­ally con­veni­ent.


Then, amid a re­ces­sion that fol­lowed an epic fin­an­cial melt­down that left wide­spread un­em­ploy­ment and fore­clos­ures in its wake, the United States im­prob­ably found it­self in the middle of a do­mest­ic en­ergy boom. And two of the three legs of the polit­ic­al co­ali­tion for cli­mate-change ac­tion — na­tion­al se­cur­ity and eco­nom­ic ne­ces­sity — snapped off. 

This boom was born largely of tech­no­logy, the one-two punch of ho­ri­zont­al drilling and frack­ing that en­abled pro­du­cers to tap in­to hard-rock shale form­a­tions that had, un­til then, trapped vast oil and nat­ur­al-gas re­serves.

Today the United States is pro­du­cing more oil than it has since 1995 and more nat­ur­al gas than at any oth­er time in the na­tion’s his­tory. It is on track this year to be­come the biggest nat­ur­al-gas pro­du­cer in the world, and to im­port just 28 per­cent of its oil. By 2015, the U.S. is ex­pec­ted to take over the top oil-pro­du­cing spot from Saudi Ar­a­bia.

The im­pact has been felt both at home and abroad. U.S. drivers paid on av­er­age $3.49 per gal­lon of reg­u­lar un­leaded gas­ol­ine last year, the low­est prices since 2010, ac­cord­ing to AAA. Al­though prices at the pump in the United States are not dir­ectly tied to the na­tion’s en­ergy pro­duc­tion, ex­perts say Amer­ica’s oil boom has helped sta­bil­ize do­mest­ic costs by help­ing to keep glob­al oil prices in check — and has per­haps even helped avert dis­aster.

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“Had it not been for the ex­traordin­ary in­crease in U.S. oil pro­duc­tion since 2008, everything else be­ing equal, we’d be talk­ing about an oil crisis right now,” says Daniel Yer­gin, vice chair­man of con­sult­ing firm IHS and au­thor of The Quest: En­ergy, Se­cur­ity and the Re­mak­ing of the Mod­ern World. He says the Amer­ic­an oil boom has helped make up for the lack of pro­duc­tion in oth­er places such as Libya, which have been rocked by polit­ic­al un­rest. Yer­gin adds that the surge in fuel pro­duc­tion also en­abled Obama to co­ordin­ate oil sanc­tions on Ir­an. “We have ad­ded 2.7 bil­lion bar­rels a day of oil since 2008. The Ir­a­ni­an sanc­tions wouldn’t have worked without that oil,” he says.

Elec­tri­city prices are also at their low­est levels since 2009, al­most en­tirely due to cheap nat­ur­al-gas. And Yer­gin’s firm re­cently re­leased a re­port find­ing that the sup­ply chain for the shale-oil and nat­ur­al-gas boom is sup­port­ing 2.1 mil­lion U.S. jobs. There’s even something for en­vir­on­ment­al­ists to like: Nat­ur­al gas emits 50 per­cent less car­bon than coal, and tap­ping the na­tion’s vast re­serves has helped lower U.S. emis­sions to levels not seen in dec­ades.

Yet all this good news has been ter­rible news for polit­ic­al unity — and po­ten­tial ac­tion — on cli­mate change.

“In ar­gu­ments many people have made — ‘You may care about car­bon, but I care about dol­lars for ter­ror­ists or U.S. ex­pos­ure to oil price shocks’ — the lat­ter two mem­bers of the co­ali­tion are gone,” says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who ad­vised Mc­Cain on policy is­sues dur­ing his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. “Giv­en the do­mest­ic en­ergy pro­duc­tion, the money is com­ing here and not go­ing to ter­ror­ists, and ex­pos­ure to oil price shocks are less.”

Ver­rastro, who re­cently cowrote a book look­ing at these is­sues with Kev­in Book, man­aging dir­ect­or at Clear­View En­ergy Part­ners, con­curs. “All of a sud­den we have all this low-priced nat­ur­al gas that was cre­at­ing jobs — more so than the green stim­u­lus,” Ver­rastro says. “Then we found all this oil. The pres­sure came off. There was no reas­on to stick to­geth­er on eco­nom­ic se­cur­ity and en­vir­on­ment­al grounds, as they were now head­ing in op­pos­ite dir­ec­tions.”


All of this has led to a point where Pres­id­ent Obama, per­haps the green eco­nomy’s top cham­pi­on, now touts the na­tion’s fossil-fuel boom. “When I travel, what’s strik­ing to me is people around the world think we’ve got a really good hand,” he said in Novem­ber to The Wall Street Journ­al CEO Coun­cil. “They say Amer­ica is poised to change our geo­pol­it­ics en­tirely be­cause of the ad­vances we’ve made in oil pro­duc­tion and nat­ur­al-gas pro­duc­tion. It means man­u­fac­tur­ing here is much more at­tract­ive than it used to be. That’s a huge com­pet­it­ive ad­vant­age.”

And John Mc­Cain, who sponsored cli­mate bills in 2003 and 2005, doesn’t talk about cli­mate change any­more. In fact, hardly any con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans talk about cli­mate change, and many who do ex­press doubt that hu­man activ­ity is re­spons­ible for it, or even that it is hap­pen­ing at all. The few Demo­crats who dis­cuss it reg­u­larly — led by Sen. Shel­don White­house of Rhode Is­land and House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Henry Wax­man of Cali­for­nia, who is re­tir­ing at the end of this ses­sion — are mostly preach­ing to the choir.

“I see the Con­gress so caught up in budget re­con­cili­ation, se­quest­ra­tion, debt lim­its, con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tions, it’s just simply not on the radar,” Mc­Cain said in an in­ter­view. He noted that both the na­tion’s move to­ward en­ergy in­de­pend­ence and the poor eco­nomy have helped cut Cap­it­ol Hill’s ap­pet­ite for ad­dress­ing glob­al warm­ing.

A re­duced de­pend­ence on for­eign oil “prob­ably has something to do with it,” Mc­Cain ad­ded. “I also think we hit an eco­nom­ic down­turn, and that shif­ted a lot of pri­or­it­ies, and it gave a much high­er im­port­ance to the cost of en­ergy and the cost of de­vel­op­ing al­tern­at­ive en­ergy.”

En­vir­on­ment­al groups have also played a role in turn­ing the con­ver­sa­tion on the Hill. Or­gan­iz­a­tions that once fo­cused al­most en­tirely on press­ing for a shift from fossil fuels to re­new­able en­ergy now main­tain that re­new­ables are grow­ing at re­cord speed and that ef­forts to undo state re­new­able-en­ergy stand­ards have failed, and they have turned their at­ten­tion to fight­ing to en­sure that frack­ing is done safely. “En­vir­on­ment­al­ists may be more con­cerned now about frack­ing and shut­ting down coal,” said Eileen Claussen, pres­id­ent of the Cen­ter for Cli­mate and En­ergy.

All of these factors have helped moved re­new­ables from the main stage to the side stage — and cli­mate change off­stage en­tirely.

“What has happened more re­cently is there is not such the ur­gency on the cli­mate-change side. And there is this eu­phor­ia — jus­ti­fi­able eu­phor­ia — in our abil­ity to pro­duce more oil and gas,” says former Sen. Byron Dor­gan, D-N.D., whose home state is at the fore­front of Amer­ica’s boom­ing oil in­dustry. “It per­suades some people to be­lieve, ‘OK, we’re pro­du­cing more and us­ing less, our im­ports are down, so game, set, match, it’s over.’ “

“I worry a little bit that there is this no­tion, ‘Boy, we’re just awash in oil and gas, so that’s it. We don’t need to do any­thing more.’ That’s ex­actly the wrong thing,” adds Dor­gan, who now co­chairs the Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter’s En­ergy Pro­ject.


Dor­gan isn’t the only one who’s wor­ried.

“Un­for­tu­nately, our coun­try — the Amer­ic­an pop­u­la­tion and poli­cy­makers — have been raised on a steady diet of ‘we need to end our de­pend­ence on for­eign oil’ since the Nix­on ad­min­is­tra­tion,” says Rob­bie Dia­mond, founder and pres­id­ent of Se­cur­ing Amer­ica’s Fu­ture En­ergy, an en­ergy-se­cur­ity think tank de­voted to wean­ing the U.S. off oil, no mat­ter where it comes from. “The pro­duc­tion we’ve seen is fab­ulous. It’s im­port­ant for the coun­try. It’s great from a jobs per­spect­ive and bal­ance of pay­ments. But does it solve our na­tion­al se­cur­ity and eco­nom­ic se­cur­ity risks? The an­swer there is, ab­so­lutely not.”

Dia­mond and oth­er ex­perts note that the oil mar­ket is still glob­al and that U.S. do­mest­ic pro­duc­tion can only af­fect it so much. It’s just a mat­ter of time un­til Mideast con­flict or something else causes a ma­jor dis­rup­tion that sends oil prices skyrock­et­ing, he says. He notes that glob­al spare ca­pa­city was near a re­cord low of 1.5 mil­lion bar­rels this sum­mer. “You’re one Libya away from $115 [a bar­rel] oil,” Dia­mond says. “Be­lieve me, that’s when they will start talk­ing: ‘Hmm, I thought we were pro­du­cing all that oil, and doesn’t it make a dif­fer­ence?’ That’s the lost story, and that’s the coun­ter­in­tu­it­ive story.”

Those who work daily in the na­tion­al se­cur­ity world say oil prices are the least of their fears.

“The se­cur­ity threats stem­ming from cli­mate change are massive,” says Mike Breen, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Tru­man Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Pro­ject and a former Army cap­tain who served in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan. Breen re­calls the U.S. mil­it­ary’s top of­ficer in the Pa­cific re­gion, which in­cludes North Korea, say­ing last March that the biggest threat to the re­gion was cli­mate change, be­cause rising sea levels and ex­treme weath­er such as heat waves are likely to ex­acer­bate ten­sions in already un­stable areas. He says not enough law­makers are talk­ing about the prob­lem.

“The se­cur­ity com­munity knows it’s hap­pen­ing, and the polit­ic­al dia­logue hasn’t caught up,” Breen says.

In­deed, if any­thing, the polit­ic­al dia­logue on cli­mate change has re­gressed. Today’s voters — and the law­makers who rep­res­ent them in Wash­ing­ton — are fo­cused on the be­ne­fits of the oil and gas boom, and on loc­al en­vir­on­ment­al con­cerns, not on the ef­fects of glob­al warm­ing, which of­ten seem in­tan­gible, bur­ied in sci­entif­ic re­ports most people don’t read, or far away, like is­lands of the South Pa­cific. To be sure, Su­per­storm Sandy and oth­er ex­treme-weath­er events in the United States have at times re­fo­cused the pub­lic’s at­ten­tion, but those mo­ments have been fleet­ing, and so far they haven’t moved the needle to­ward ac­tion on Cap­it­ol Hill.

“Now, what [the pub­lic] sees are cheap­er en­ergy prices, and it just swings it against any­thing on the cli­mate front,” Holtz-Eakin says. “They don’t have a sense that there is a cli­mate is­sue. It’s just something people babble about in The New York Times.


In the wake of the co­ali­tion’s un­rav­el­ing, Obama has been step­ping up — but in a polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment that is now openly hos­tile to his ef­forts.

He is mov­ing for­ward uni­lat­er­ally to reg­u­late car­bon emis­sions from the na­tion’s power plants — a de­cision that isn’t mak­ing any side es­pe­cially happy. Re­pub­lic­ans and coal-state Demo­crats are blast­ing him for sup­posedly killing the coal in­dustry and the jobs that go along with it, while the loudest re­main­ing voices on glob­al warm­ing warn that the pres­id­ent’s pro­posed rules won’t do nearly enough.

“Pres­id­ent Obama’s Cli­mate Ac­tion Plan is an im­port­ant step to­ward curb­ing car­bon emis­sions,” White­house said in a state­ment to Na­tion­al Journ­al. But “Con­gress must act and pass a car­bon fee that places the cost of cli­mate change where it be­longs — on large car­bon pol­luters. Pri­cing car­bon pol­lu­tion will make the mar­ket more ef­fi­cient and gen­er­ate rev­en­ue to re­turn to the Amer­ic­an people.”

But what ex­actly would it take to get Con­gress to act?

Former Rep. Bob Ing­lis, R-S.C., said the real­iz­a­tion that we’re not shiel­ded from oil-price spikes com­bined with a stronger eco­nomy will help re­vive the top­ic polit­ic­ally.

“We’re go­ing to be very dis­ap­poin­ted with what [the en­ergy boom] means for us at the pump. It’s go­ing to mean noth­ing,” says Ing­lis, who is now ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the En­ergy and En­ter­prise Ini­ti­at­ive. “The second long-term trend is, as the Great Re­ces­sion gives way to a great re­cov­ery, then the abil­ity to think in time ho­ri­zons longer than this month’s mort­gage pay­ment and this month’s paycheck will give us the abil­ity to fo­cus on things like cli­mate change.”

The second part of that equa­tion may already be fall­ing in­to place: A Gal­lup Poll last April sug­ges­ted that Amer­ic­ans’ con­cerns about glob­al warm­ing were in­creas­ing again, after hit­ting 10-year lows in 2010 and 2011.

Would Mc­Cain ever lead again on the is­sue?

“Sure, any time — I would,” Mc­Cain says. “We’ve got to show people that it makes sense fisc­ally. In oth­er words, don’t in­crease taxes, and you’d find the most ef­fi­cient way to ad­dress the is­sue without rais­ing people’s cost of en­ergy.”

If Mc­Cain does, says Holtz-Eakin, he’s go­ing to need “¦ a co­ali­tion.

“There will be no suc­cess­ful up-or-down vote on cli­mate policy in the U.S. Con­gress,” he says. “We’ve seen people try this, and it just doesn’t hap­pen. That means car­bon policy must be tied in with something else.”


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