Obama Drops Nuclear from Energy Segment of Convention Speech

Delegates react to President Barack Obama’s speech during the closing night of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (Photo by Jared Soares for PBS NewsHour)

Compare and contrast.

When then-Senator Barack Obama took the stage in Denver four years ago to accept the nomination of the Democratic Party, he delivered what many saw as a powerful and pitch-perfect speech that contained an ambitious plan to correct course after eight years of President George W. Bush. But to this reporter, sitting amongst the cheering throngs at Mile High, one point hit a decidedly sour note.

In the section on energy, which began with the understanding that the country’s economy, security and energy futures are intertwined, Obama pledged to “end our dependence on oil from the Middle East” in ten years, and also spoke of investing $150 billion in renewable energy over that same decade. But then the Democratic nominee added this:

As President, I will tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power.

And with that, at least from where I sat (politically more than physically), a soaring speech came crashing to the ground. Even four years ago, “tapping natural gas reserves” was an ominous gloss-over for dangerous drilling techniques and increased carbon emissions. “Clean coal” had already proven to be nothing better than a marketing laugh line, something the Senator from coal-producing Illinois had to say. And “find[ing] ways to safely harness nuclear power,” well, funny that, both because it, too, felt like campaign-trail noblesse oblige for some of Obama’s biggest contributors, and because it implied that a safe way to harness nuclear power was something that had not yet been found.

But there it was–what would eventually come to be known as “fracking,” plus the myth of “clean coal,” and a big nod to the moribund nuclear power industry. One, two, three strikes in Obama’s energy pitch.

Fast, uh, “forward” four years, move indoors and 2,000 miles east, and listen to what President Obama had to say about America’s energy future in his 2012 convention speech:

We’ve doubled our use of renewable energy, and thousands of Americans have jobs today building wind turbines, and long-lasting batteries. In the last year alone, we cut oil imports by one million barrels a day, more than any administration in recent history. And today, the United States of America is less dependent on foreign oil than at any time in the last two decades.

So, now you have a choice – between a strategy that reverses this progress, or one that builds on it. We’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration in the last three years, and we’ll open more. But unlike my opponent, I will not let oil companies write this country’s energy plan, or endanger our coastlines, or collect another $4 billion in corporate welfare from our taxpayers. We’re offering a better path.

We’re offering a better path, a future where we keep investing in wind and solar and clean coal; where farmers and scientists harness new biofuels to power our cars and trucks; where construction workers build homes and factories that waste less energy; where — where we develop a hundred year supply of natural gas that’s right beneath our feet.

Yes, despite a concrete acknowledgement two minutes later that “climate change is not a hoax” and “droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke,” the president still brags of opening “millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration in the last three years”–and then he promises to open more. And, yes, there is still a reference to the fool’s anthracite, “clean coal,” this time incongruously grouped with “wind and solar.” But notice what is not there–not in this section, not in the paragraph about the climate, not anywhere in the entire 38-minute speech.

President Obama no longer promises to “safely harness nuclear power”–that likely would have sounded like a cruel joke in a world now contaminated by the ongoing Fukushima disaster–but beyond that, he does not promise anything about nuclear power at all. There was no platitude, no carefully crafted signal to the industry that has subsidized much of Obama’s political career, no mention of nuclear power whatsoever.

That is not to say that the entire 2012 Democratic National Convention was a nuclear-free zone. A few hours before the president took the stage at the Time Warner Cable Arena, James Rogers, co-chair of the Charlotte host committee, and oh, by the way, CEO of Duke Energy, stepped to the lectern and endorsed Obama’s “all of the above” energy “strategy” (they keep using that word; I do not think it means what they think it means):

We need to work even harder toward a future of affordable, reliable and cleaner energy. That means we need to invest heavily in new zero-emission power sources, like new nuclear, wind and solar projects, as well as new technologies, like electric vehicles.

Well, if you are looking for a future of affordable, reliable and cleaner energy, you need look no further than nu–wait, what? If you are looking for those three features in an energy future, it is hard to imagine a worse option than the unsustainably expensive, chronically unreliable and dangerously dirty nuclear power plant. And, as has been discussed here many times, nuclear is not a zero-emission source, either. The massive carbon footprint of the nuclear fuel lifecycle rivals coal, and that doesn’t even consider the radioactive isotopes that facilities emit, even when they are not encountering one of their many “unusual events.”

But the CEO of the Charlotte-based energy giant probably has his eyes on a different prize. Rogers, who has been dogged by questions about a power grab after Duke’s merger with Progress Energy and his lackluster performance as fundraiser-in-chief for the DNC, sits atop a company that operates seven US nuclear power plants, and is partners in a plan to build two new AP1000 reactors in Cherokee County, South Carolina.

That last project, which is under active review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, awaiting a combined construction and operating license, is one of a small handful of proposed new nuclear facilities currently scrambling for financing. The South Carolina plant, along with a pair of reactors in Georgia, two slated for a different site in South Carolina, and possibly one more in Tennessee, represent what industry lobbyists like to call the “nuclear renaissance.”

But completion of any of the above is nowhere close to guaranteed, and even if some of these reactors are eventually built, none will be able to generate even one kilowatt of commercial power until years after President Obama completes his sought-after second term.

Which, if you really care about America’s energy future, is, of course, all for the better. As even James Rogers noted in his speech (and he gets props for this):

[W]e cannot lose sight of energy efficiency. Because the cleanest, most efficient power plant is the one we never have to build.

That Duke’s CEO thought to highlight efficiency is interesting. That President Obama, with his well-documented ties to the nuclear industry, chose not to even mention nuclear power is important.

In the wake of Fukushima, where hundreds of thousands of Japanese have been displaced, where tens of thousands are showing elevated radiation exposure, and where thousands of children have thyroid abnormalities, no one can be cavalier about promising a safe harnessing of the atom. And in a world where radioisotopes from the breached reactors continue to turn up in fish and farm products, not only across Japan, but across the northern hemisphere, no one can pretend this is someone else’s problem.

Obama and his campaign advisors know all this and more. They know that most industrialized democracies have chosen to shift away from nuclear since the start of the Japanese crisis. They know that populations that have been polled on the matter want to see nuclear power phased out. And they know that in a time of deficit hysteria, nuclear power plants are an economic sinkhole.

And so, on a night when the president was promised one of the largest audiences of his entire campaign, he and his team decided that 2012 was not a year to throw a bone to Obama’s nuclear backers. Obama, a consummate politician, made the decision that for his second shot at casting for the future, nuclear power is political deadweight.

This is not to say that the Obama administration has thoroughly abandoned nuclear as part of its energy plan, or even its kitchen-sink rhetoric. There is no shortage of well-researched analysis detailing where the president’s deeds have failed to match his words, and it will take more than a significant omission in one speech to turn around the federal government’s policy of protecting and propping up the nuclear industry.

But the fact remains that at a convention underwritten by the head of a large nuclear energy conglomerate, nuclear energy didn’t even rate head-of-state lip service. That in a country where the nuclear industry tries desperately to brand itself as an energy of the future, the president decided to, at least rhetorically, leave it in the past. And that in a time where apostles of the atom claim that there is a nuclear rebirth, Barack Obama decided, on one of his biggest nights, that nuclear power would be better left for dead.

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New York Times, GE Throw Energy Industry a Party; You Were Not Invited

Entrance to the New York Times building, NYC. (photo: niallkennedy)

Those with a nose for dead trees might recall a scandal from the summer of 2009 that sullied the reputation of the Washington Post. Back then, the Post Company sent out fliers touting exclusive dinners at the home of Post publisher Katharine Weymouth that “offered corporate underwriters access to Post journalists, Obama administration officials and members of Congress in exchange for payments as high as $250,000.” When word got out, the Post cancelled the dinners, initially blaming the company’s marketing department (though later reporting showed Weymouth and WaPo’s executive editor Marcus Brauchli knew more about the confabs than they initially let on). The White House also claimed that it had not authorized any officials to participate in these “salons.”

Remember? If you were a critic of the “leftwing media,” this was proof positive of the cozy relationship between the new Democratic administration and the Beltway’s company newsletter; if you were suspicious of the establishment media for its close corporate ties and naked attempts to curry favor with political elites, these planned dinner parties had it all, from aperitifs to the final bill. It really was a fetid swamp, even for swampland.

Flash forward a few years, grab a Metroliner north, and behold this:

U.S. Secretary of Energy, energy economist Daniel Yergin and former Petrobras CEO Jose Sergio Gabrielli de Azevedo are among the speakers at tomorrow’s (Wednesday’s) The New York Times Energy for Tomorrow conference. The conference has been created in collaboration with Richard Attias and Associates.

More than 400 corporate and political leaders, as well as NGOs, academics and energy experts will debate the most pressing issues and opportunities facing the energy sector today. GE is the founding sponsor of The New York Times Energy for Tomorrow, with BMW and Louisiana Economic Development as supporting sponsors.

Gerald Marzorati, editor for The New York Times who is responsible for creating The Times’s conferences, said: “With rising prices, energy is at the top of the agenda – both economically and politically – around the world. The supply picture is changing in the United States, with new sources of oil and natural gas.

“There is also the debate over the environmental impact of energy extraction and production, and the role of efficiency in making sure there will be enough energy to meet growing global needs.”

(That was last Wednesday, April 11, by the way.)

This was an invitation-only event. What, you weren’t invited? Well, then, who was?

Yes, there was Obama’s Energy Secretary, Dr. Steven Chu–he got to have a special chat with Times columnist and human carnage unit Thomas Friedman. And Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daniel Yergin was there, fresh off his role as a member of the Presidential Shale-Gas Advisory Commission (spoiler alert: Yergin concluded that fracking’s environmental problems can be managed and that shale gas drilling is here for the long run). And Jose Sergio Gabrielli de Azevedo, who was the head of Petrobras (the name sort of says it all, but if you are still wondering, it is a Brazilian energy giant–the largest company in the Southern Hemisphere), but is now chief planning officer for the state government of Bahia, Brazil. . . but who else?

To be fair, here’s the entire public list:

Lester R. Brown, founder and president of Earth Policy Institute;
Carol Browner, Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and former ‘energy czar’ to the Obama administration;
Lee Edwards, president and chief executive of Virent, Inc.;
Marvin Fertel, president and chief executive of the Nuclear Energy Institute;
Jochen Flasbarth, president of the German Federal Environment Agency;
Robert A. Hefner III, founder and owner of the GHK Company;
Amy Myers Jaffe, director of the Energy Forum at the Baker Institute;
John Krenicki Jr., vice chairman of GE, and president and chief executive of GE Energy;
Michael Levi, Senior Fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and director of the CFR program on energy security and climate change;
Dave McCurdy, president and chief executive of the American Gas Association;
Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy;
T. Boone Pickens, chairman of BP Capital Management;
Jim Prendergast, executive director of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE);
Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace;
Jim Rogers, chairman, president and chief executive of Duke Energy;
and Manuel Camacho Solis, Mexico’s former secretary of Urban Development and the Environment, and former mayor of Mexico City.

Impressive, no? Impressive, yes. . . if you are into energy industry bigwigs. Why, there’s the head lobbyist for the nuclear energy industry, Marvin Fertel, and there’s his good pal, John Krenicki, CEO of GE Energy. Then there’s Jim Rogers, the head everything at Duke Energy, the North Carolina-based utility that is responsible for something like 36,000 megawatts of electrical generation, mostly from its fleet of aging coal and nuclear plants. (I wonder how he, the leader of America’s 13th largest air polluter got on with Carol Browner, who was head of the Environmental Protection Agency when it brought suit against Duke for its coal plants. Probably not so bad, seeing as Browner was until recently the director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, and they were fine with Duke building two new nuclear reactors in South Carolina–the license for which was just granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.)

And look over there–why it’s Amy Myers Jaffe, big proponent of oil and gas for the James Baker Institute at Rice University. And there’s the president of the American Gas Association, and there’s the head of GHK, the oil and gas company that proudly touts itself as a pioneer in deep gas well drilling in Oklahoma. And ooh, oil man T. Boon Pickens, who now likes to talk wind, but not without talking about the real estate needed for the transmission lines. . . which also would do quite nicely for moving water, by the way. . . oh, and he still likes oil, too.

By the way, that Lee Edwards, the one at Virent, a big player in biogasoline, that’s not the Heritage Foundation Lee Edwards, that’s the Lee Edwards who used to be at BP.

But it was not an all pro-gas, pro-oil, pro-nuke, hydrofracking hydrocarbon love fest. No! Look closely, there are two–not one, but two–conference attendees that can squarely be called environmentalists: the esteemed Lester Brown of EPI, and Phil Radford, who has headed Greenpeace for the last three years. Both those men are solidly anti-nuclear and openly concerned about climate change. . . and there are two of them!

But these people probably get to see each other all the time. The New York Times wanted to mix it up with some of their staff–you know, reporters and columnists. To that end:

New York Times moderators will include:

Richard L. Berke, assistant managing editor;
Helene Cooper, White House correspondent;
Thomas Friedman, Op-Ed columnist;
Clifford Krauss, energy correspondent;
Joe Nocera, Op-Ed columnist;
Ashley Parker, Metro reporter;
and Jeff Zeleny, national political correspondent.

Now if all of this sounds to you a little like, oh, say, the World Economic Forum–you know, Davos–that is probably not a coincidence. Richard Attias–the guy that put this Times conference together–he used to run the events company that organized Davos. . . and the Clinton Global Initiative. . . and the Dalian Economic Summit in China. . . the list goes on.

But more importantly–maybe–it sounds an awful lot like the Washington Post’s mixers of industry powerbrokers, government officials, and newspaper reporters. No, it is not “off the record,” as the Post’s parties were advertized, and instead of soliciting payment for a seat at the table, the Times just pulled together major corporate “sponsors”–so perhaps it feels less hush-hush, less pay-to-play–but this was not a public party by any means. It was by invitation only. . . and you were not invited.

That special feeling

But don’t feel left out. You may not have gotten to have lunch with the giants of energy on Wednesday–but for $2.50 (or $3.75/week if you prefer the digital subscription), you could read the special Energy section in that day’s New York Times. And really, isn’t that just like being there?

Well, sadly, kind of.

The inclusion of the special section on the same day as the Times Forum was not some lucky coincidence. Instead, it read like a 10-page welcome mat for the energy executives and policymakers who made it up to Times Center. It was as if to say, “Your time here will not be wasted. We hear you. Behold, the power of synergy!”

Though reporting on the content of the forum has been surprisingly scant–what there is focuses on Secretary Chu’s story about manure and the conference’s general support for the Obama “all of the above,” uh, well, it is called a “strategy”–the Wednesday special section is chockablock with tasty stories, with headlines such as: “Fuel to Burn: Now What?” and “Natural Gas Signals ‘Manufacturing Renaissance,'” and who can resist “Renewable Sources of Power Survive, But in a Patchwork”?

But of special interest here is Matthew Wald’s piece, “Nuclear Power’s Death Somewhat Exaggerated.”

Now, Matthew Wald is not mentioned in the press release about the Times‘ Energy for Tomorrow Conference, so it is not clear if Wald got to have coffee with the powers behind our power, but his presence was hardly necessary–Wald already writes like he lives in Marvin Fertel’s hip pocket:

The [nuclear power] industry’s three great recent stumbling blocks, the Fukushima accident of March 2011, the exceptionally low price of natural gas and a recession that has stunted demand for power, mock the idea that dozens of new reactors are waiting in the wings. But in an era of worry over global warming, support is plentiful for at least keeping a toe in the water.

“Even if global warming science was not explicitly invented by the nuclear lobby, the science could hardly suit the lobby better,” complained a book published last month, “The Doomsday Machine,” a polemic on the evils of splitting the atom. In fact, the industry continues to argue that in the United States it is by far the largest source of zero-carbon energy, and recently began a campaign of upbeat ads to improve its image.

According to the authors of “The Doomsday Machine,” Martin Cohen and Andrew McKillop, “In almost every country — usually for reasons completely unrelated to its ability to deliver electricity — there is almost universal political support for nuclear power.”

That is probably an exaggeration, with Japan leaving almost all of its 54 reactors idle at the moment because of the Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdown, and Germany promising to close its fleet. But China and India, two countries with enormous demand for electricity and not much hand-wringing over global warming, are planning huge reactor construction projects.

Admittedly, there is much to debate in Cohen and McKillop’s book (and debate it we will when I chat live, online with the authors of The Doomsday Machine during a Firedoglake Book Salon I am hosting on Sunday, April 22, at 5 PM EDT/2 PM PDT), but to quickly dismiss it as a “polemic” is to ignore hundreds of footnoted, glossaried and indexed pages on the history of the nuclear industry’s many near-death and rebirth experiences. It is, in many ways, the kind of story that fits quite nicely with Wald’s narrative, for while Cohen and McKillop are clearly not fans of civilian nuclear power, it is hard not to take from The Doomsday Machine a grudging admiration for the industry’s powers of mythmaking and influence peddling.

Take, for example, Wald’s unexamined–and oft-repeated–regurgitation of the nuclear sector’s claim that atomic power is “zero-carbon energy.” As is spelled out in The Doomsday Machine, and as has been detailed on this site, as well, nuclear power is quite the opposite–from uranium mining to fuel refining, from transport to waste storage, nuclear power models a carbon footprint that brings to mind Bambi Meets Godzilla. While many will likely be uncomfortable with the Cohen-McKillop approach to climate change (again, more on this during the April 22 book salon), Wald’s work itself stands as testament to the nuclear narrative’s ability to morph from “too cheap to meter” to “zero-carbon energy.”

As if to underline this point, Wald writes, without any apparent irony, that the reason America is now burdened with a fleet of 104 aged nuclear reactors that have not been upgraded since the 1980s is because “competition from other sources of electricity is strong.”

One wonders, too, about Wald’s take on climate change when he characterizes China and India as doing “not much hand-wringing over global warming.” Does Wald believe that the reaction in most of the rest of the northern industrialized world is just so much hand-wringing?

The blips about Japan and Germany are not smart or informative explanations, either. The tradition in Japan is that local governments have a say on whether reactors can restart, and while, yes, 53 of Japan’s 54 reactors are now offline as a result of either the Tohoku quake, the ongoing Fukushima crisis, or other maintenance concerns, the government of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is pushing hard to ignore precedent and bring nuclear plants back online over the objections of local residents.

In Germany, as has been observed here many times, the particulars of their parliamentary system left the previously pro-nuclear government of Angela Merkel looking for a new coalition partner in advance of the coming national elections, and the bargaining chip to potentially bring the Green Party into the next government was a change in nuclear policy. This is not a bad thing, mind you–the commitment to phasing out nuclear power in the next decade has allowed Germany to seize the moment and rocket to the forefront of nations gearing up for the next technical revolution (the post-hydrocarbon, renewable-energy revolution)–but it is not the same as the simple refutation in Wald’s story.

And the problems in Wald’s reporting extend beyond a mischaracterization of one book’s argument. Running throughout articles like this one, and throughout the New York Times’ energy coverage, in general, is the “gone native” taint of access journalism.

Boldfaced names impart authority, not just to the point in the story, but also to the journalist who got the quote. The higher up the food chain, be it in government or the corporate world, the more impressive the “get.” Having a senior administration official or a top industry spokesperson or CEO lends a shorthand gravitas to the story, and lends even more to a journalist’s “rolodex.”

To take the piece in question as one example, why waste precious column inches on explanations from any number of available engineers, experts and activists on why the AP1000 reactors just Okayed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would actually not have prevented a Fukushima-like disaster, and, quite possibly, could have made things worse? Instead, just get Jim Ferland, the recent president and chief executive of Westinghouse Electric, to say, “If an AP1000 had been there [in Japan], we wouldn’t be having this discussion today; that plant would be back on line.”

In fact, as readers of this space learned last year, the most exciting thing about the AP1000 reactor to the nuclear industry is that is uses less concrete and rebar, and lots of theoretically “off the shelf” parts, so that construction promises to be cheaper than it was for previous generations of light water reactors. The “passive” safety of the design is a nice story, but it has no real-world case study to add to the narrative. (Indeed, fears about what might happen to the skimpy containment of the AP1000 during a quake or explosion long ago earned it the nickname “the eggshell reactor.”)

That the real excitement here comes from cost savings and not safety is actually backed up by the penultimate paragraph of this same Times article. Wald again goes to Ferland, who says that because similar reactors have already been built in China, it will now be easier and faster (and, thus, cheaper) to build them here.

Funny enough, that very argument is debunked, and at great length, in The Doomsday Machine. Maybe Wald didn’t get that far, but the book details how France attempted to standardize and routinize its nuclear plant construction, and not only were no savings seen, the price of the facilities–and the price of the electricity they delivered–actually went up.

But again, that is another wordy explanation for why nuclear continues to fail to fulfill its promise, and not a pithy quote. Much more impressive, it would seem, are the assurances of a current member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

“It seems like every time something happens, you always get these prognostications this is the end, the nuclear industry has come to a halt,” said William D. Magwood IV, one of the five members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a former assistant secretary of energy in charge of promoting nuclear power.

. . . .

Mr. Magwood argues that the situation is not so dire, though, because the “renaissance” was never as big as some people assumed. He said he calculated in 2008 that of the 23 or so projects that were under discussion, only 12 were actually under development, and of those, only 10 faced no real licensing or technical hurdles. But only five of those had clear sources of financing. He assumed three would be in the first wave; now it is two. The industry insists that even its small-scale rebirth is a step forward. Those two pairs of reactors could lay the groundwork for more.

Wald does point out Magwood’s position on the NRC, and his former role as a promoter of nuclear power in the Department of Energy. It would probably break up the flow of the article to mention that Magwood has been embroiled in a power struggle with the Chairman of the NRC, Gregory Jaczko, in part because Jaczko has expressed slightly more concern that US nuclear facilities make safety upgrades to reflect lessons learned from the Fukushima crisis. (Magwood and three other members of the NRC have consistently opposed Jaczko on mandating any post-Fukushima reforms.)

But, as “bold” a “get” as Magwood might be, his argument, as relayed by Wald, folds in on itself. Forget that Wald starts this article with Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander’s call for 100 new reactors, and forget that the much pooh-poohed “polemic” by Cohen and McKillop recounts the history of promises many times this size (not to mention current assertions that hundreds, if not thousands, of new reactors are “essential” to either meet growing demand or mitigate climate change), Magwood’s own quote pretty much spells it out: the industry talks big, but they have little to really deliver. They call it a “renaissance,” but they hope that getting a pair of reactors up and running (in five to seven years, and at a cost of $14 billion or more, mind you) will “lay the groundwork for more.”

Hating the game–and its players

There is a funny parallel between the stories of two second-millennium industries trying hard to stay relevant in the third–how can they change to meet evolving needs, overcome economic challenges and adapt to technological revolutions? The difference, of course, is that while news reporting has served us well in the past and can continue to be necessary and important if done right, nuclear has only been a burden–ecological and economic–and has yet to demonstrate what “done right” actually means.

Working as a reporter in the post-millennial media environment is in many ways an unenviable task–demands for content rapidly increase while bureaus and support staffs are cut way back. You want to hate the game, and not the player, but it is hard when the players blur the distinctions between the sports.

Rubbing elbows at exclusive, industry-sponsored “forums” might make sense for corporate bottom lines, and it might make life a little easier–or at least a little more fun–for stressed-out scribes, but it does nothing, really, for the consumer. And that would be for the consumer of the energy product or the news product.

Perhaps access journalism seems like a natural consequence of the corporatization of media, but there is still enough good reporting out there to say that it doesn’t need to be. Inserts like the New York Times‘ special “Energy” section, however, are a logical outgrowth of corporate/government/fourth estate salons like Times Forum. Corporate underwriters want something for their investment of money, just as corporate and government big shots want something for their time. To the writers at a place like the Times, it might not feel like arm twisting or pay-to-play, but it is human nature to warm to those in the noblesse who convey a bit of oblige.

The dire problem here, of course, is that when it comes to matters as urgent as energy and climate–or as hazardous and costly as nuclear power–one reporter’s warm fuzzy becomes thousands or millions of people’s overheated and pointedly dangerous world.

If inviting everyone at every level to the highbrow hobnob might make it, shall we say, too “hot, flat, and crowded” at Times Center, then it is up to those lucky enough to be on the inside, those like Matt Wald, to stray beyond their comfort zone and question the powers-that-be a little harder about what they plan to use for power. Bite the hand that feeds you–as hard as that might seem when you are all sharing a box lunch.

As for a corporate media megalith like the Times, maybe this is what they do now–maybe, like the scorpion that can’t help but sting the frog, it is in their nature. But the consumer–of both news and energy–would be the frog in that analogy, and so it is all of our responsibility to make some pointed demands before blithely trusting that articulate arthropod. We want to be invited to the party, or at least get to see what goes into the cake before we are told to eat it.

Subsidize This: US Eyes Tariffs on Chinese Solar Panels, But What Gets Protected?

Inside SolarWorld's Oregon manufacturing plant. (photo: OregonDOT)

While trade is often a bone of contention between the United States and China, this week’s visit by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping threw the spotlight on one subset of that battle that could have far-reaching effects well in excess of the raw dollar amounts at stake.

At issue is a complaint filed by a solar industry trade group, the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing, or CASM, asking that the US government impose tariffs on Chinese solar panels. CASM wants the duties for what it claims are unfair subsidies by China that make Chinese solar products substantially cheaper than those offered by many US competitors.

Language in President Obama’s State of the Union, along with comments made during Xi’s visit, would seem to indicate that the federal government is set to weigh in on the side of US solar energy companies in this brewing trade war, and so make a stand for domestic green energy manufacturing and good-paying American jobs.

It seems like a political slam-dunk. The president, after all, campaigned in 2008 on the promise of a growing alternative energy sector, and protecting jobs from being off-shored appears to be the perfect play at a time when unemployment is still unacceptably high. But the reality is, to put it in diplomatic speak, more nuanced.

First, that solar trade group, the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing, claims to represent seven solar manufacturers, but the only company publicly identified as a CASM member is SolarWorld. SolarWorld is actually not a US company, but a German one, though it does employ about 1,000 at its Hillsboro, Oregon factory.

And even that number is nuanced. SolarWorld is considered the largest producer of solar panels in the US, and so it is used as a sort of case study in this trade dispute. Several stories on the topic note that SolarWorld shuttered its Camarillo, California plant, and with it went 100 jobs. The implication is that Chinese pricing caused the California closure, but a quick step through the Google looking glass will reveal that SolarWorld moved all its manufacturing to Oregon after that state offered it millions of dollars in tax breaks.

There is nothing inherently wrong with what Oregon did (unless you are one of the newly unemployed in California), but it should be part of the discussion. Not all jobs lost are part of the international trade war; in a low-growth economy, state governments are increasingly generous with the private sector as they try to secure precious jobs.

And not all “American” solar manufacturers actually do their manufacturing in America. SunPower, a San Jose-based solar company that has said it is “neutral” in this trade row, manufactures most of its solar panels in the Philippines.

Measuring the US solar sector by manufacturing alone is also a faulty yardstick. A majority of domestic solar-sector jobs–52%–are actually in installation. . . and there’s the rub. . . well, a rub. . . potentially, a really big rub.

Oregon’s two Democratic Senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, are obviously quick to jump in on the side of a company that provides their state with 1,000 jobs (and solar manufacturing across all companies might provide Oregonians with something like twice that number). US Representatives, like Democrats Jackie Speier, Barbara Lee and Pete Stark, who have solar startups in their California districts, have also called for the federal government to investigate Chinese trade practices.

The Department of Commerce is scheduled to rule on CASM’s complaint by March 5, but if it takes what looks like the politically smoother path and sides with SolarWorld and their invisible friends, the next step would be for the US to impose tariffs on Chinese-made solar components, thus halting the rapid downward trend in prices for solar panels, and quite possibly driving prices up again here in the United States.

And that could actually spell big problems for America’s solar sector. Though it is hard to find an “expert” without some vested interest in some side of this dispute, there seems to be consensus that the recent substantial drops in the price of solar equipment have spurred a vast expansion in the numbers of homes, schools, businesses and government buildings that have installed solar cells to meet some or all of their electric power needs. Those installations, as noted above, mean jobs, and they also mean energy savings–both immediate and sustainable–for both individuals and municipalities. And while there are tax breaks for retrofitting buildings with solar panels, those breaks are mostly available for private buildings (not public schools and municipal buildings, where alternative energy could make a quick and substantial impact), and the savings do not make up for the price difference between Chinese- and American-manufactured products. The tax breaks are also scheduled to expire in 2016.

And there’s a multiplier effect that makes the basic savings seem small in comparison. Every home, hospital or school using solar power is that much demand that is not being placed on the conventional electrical grid. Depending on the region, that means less demand for coal-, gas, or nuclear-powered generation. And that means less demand for disappearing resources and less need to build costly, new power plants. It could also mean lower costs to society in the form of fewer pollution- and radiation-related health problems.

Then there is the obvious metric: Carbon-based power generation is guaranteed to grow more expensive as time marches on; the same has proven true for nuclear power. Solar prices are on a steady downward path, and solar power, if allowed to grow in market share, will continue to grow cheaper and more competitive.

And competition is what this is all supposed to be about, right? CASM has accused China of unfair trade practices that make it impossible for American manufacturers to compete. Proponents of 19th and 20th Century power-generating technologies love to remind advocates of alternative energy that fossil and fissile fuels are just “more competitive.” All things being equal. . . the market will decide. . . if there is a level playing field. . . or so the argument goes.

Fair enough, let’s look at that playing field.

Right now, without trying to estimate any possible solar tariffs, the alternative energy sector does get some help. According to a study from the Environmental Law Institute, renewables received $29 billion in federal subsidies from 2002 to 2008. Remove ethanol form that number, and you are down to $12.2 billion.

But during that same period, fossil fuel production received $72.5 billion in subsidies. That number excludes general energy sector subsidies–and it also excludes nuclear. The amount that nuclear receives is harder to calculate in the aggregate–loan guarantees are just guarantees until there is a default, and the Price-Anderson indemnity act has a value, but quantifiable payouts only come with disasters–but it is believed that for the second half of the 20th Century, nuclear consumed 10 percent of all US subsidies to the energy sector, something well in excess of $100 billion since the industry’s start.

But the numbers for fossil fuel and nuclear power are ridiculously low-ball. Not included there, what the federal government has to spend to clean up a polluted river or an oil spill in the gulf; nor does it include what the US has and will have to spend on behalf of the nuclear industry to transport and store its dangerous radioactive waste for as far forward as anyone can imagine.

Still, a “level playing field” sounds inherently fair, so why should domestic solar manufacturing have to suffer for the sins of legacy energy production?

Indeed. Wouldn’t it be amazingly convenient for gas producers or nuclear power concerns if the downward move in solar panel prices were arrested by a US tariff?

Instead, what if the federal government leveled that playing field by increasing its subsidies to domestic solar production?

Do more subsidies somehow sound too extravagant in these times of supposedly tight budgets? OK, then maybe the gas industry should be made to pick up the tab for trucking in fresh water to communities that have had their natural water supplies poisoned by hydro-fracking. Maybe the oil industry would like to pay to register its offshore rigs in the United States when they are drilling in US waters. Or maybe the nuclear industry should be required to find their financing without federal loan guarantees.

That last point is of special interest here. Take, for example, the two Chinese companies said to be providing the most competition for US solar manufacturers. According to SolarWorld representatives, “Trina Solar received a $4.4 billion loan from the China Development Bank, and Jinko Solar got a $7.6 billion loan from the Bank of China.” As regular readers of this space probably recognize, both of those figures are eclipsed by the $8.3 billion loan guarantee given by the Obama administration to the Southern Company for two recently approved nuclear reactors in Georgia.

So, fair is fair, level that playing field, but level it all over. If the US wants to move to make its solar companies more competitive with Chinese manufacturers, then make other energy sectors have to compete on similar terms. Rather than protect entrenched, disappearing, dangerous and dirty sources with duties that will render the entire solar sector less competitive, grant solar and other promising renewable alternatives the same level of help the US has habitually handed to fossil and fissile fuels. Rather than constrain domestic job growth by making solar power more expensive, pave the way for more good jobs with greater subsidies for both solar manufacturers and consumers. Rather than blow current and future resources on fuels that will only grow more expensive, spend now to expand the contribution of energy that continues to improve its cost-to-kilowatt ratio. Rather than use taxpayer dollars to pay for more pollution, more global warming, more cleanups and more adverse health outcomes, invest in clean, green technologies that not only pay immediate dividends but also have the potential to place America at the forefront of the next economic revolution.

If the Commerce Department does move toward imposing tariffs on Chinese solar manufacturers, the Obama administration and others in the government–as well as parts of the solar industry here–will now doubt call it a move on behalf of American manufacturing and the American worker. But will it be a move on behalf of America? The government might very well need to get involved to further the growth of this renewable energy sector, but if they do, manufacturers, workers and consumers should all insist that the intervention is done in a way that is truly in the public interest.

Energy Innovation: Obama’s State of the Union a Frothy Mix of Promise and Prattle

It’s an election year, another presidential campaign is upon us, and since it is going to be so very much upon us every day from now until November, it would be nice to find something about which to get excited.

There is nothing to get excited about on the Republican side of the aisle. The knock-down, drag-out contest between the stupid, the rude, and the just plain offensive may provide the Democrats with the best gift since, oh, you know, the last Republican president, but for the American people, none of the GOP contenders is a prize. It will be truly hellish to have to listen to any one of them for the duration of the campaign.

So, when I turned on the TV last night, I wanted to stand up and cheer. While watching President Obama’s State of the Union address, I felt much like I did when I watched his 2008 acceptance speech at Mile High Stadium in Denver. OK, that’s not true–not hardly. Reality has not been kind to Obama’s rhetoric, after all. But when Obama got to the energy section of the speech, I found much to applaud, not unlike in 2008. . . with some obvious caveats for his praise of dirty, dangerous, failed or flat-out fictional forms of energy production.

During the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama always made a point of touting “clean coal” in his energy policy stump speech. As president, he included this nonsense phrase in both his 2010 and 2011 State of the Union speeches. This year, however, though Obama extolled an “All of the above” energy mix, and then went into some detail about what that “all” should include, there was no reference to coal, “clean” or otherwise (AKA “dirty,” AKA “the way coal actually is”).

The ’08 campaign contained frequent references to nuclear power, too. Obama also would clean those up, often by calling for “safe nuclear.” It was, to my ear, just as imaginary–and just as dishonest–as “clean coal,” and it made me wary of a candidate that I already knew was heavily dependent on nuclear industry contributions to fund his campaign. But last night, “nuclear” only came up three times–twice while talking about Iran, and once more when discussing nuclear proliferation, in general. There was no reference to nuclear power.

Funny that. I guess with 44 domestic coal mine fatalities since Obama took office, and with approximately 20 percent of US coal-fired power plants failing to meet clean air standards, maybe coal doesn’t sound so much like “winning the future.” And after nuclear power’s 2011–with Japan’s Fukushima disaster still metastasizing and dozens of smaller events at aging plants here raising important questions about safety–touting atomic energy is not how you fuel “an America built to last.”

And therein lies the big, flashing yellow caution. For while Obama’s speech did much, again, to sing the praises of investment in clean, green, renewable energy sources, I know that whatever the president allots to alternatives in his next budget (we still do budgets, right? not just hostage-taking, continuing resolution kabuki stand-offs), it will be but a tiny fraction of what he has already given to and will continue to shower upon the fossil and fissile fuel lobbies.

There are several examples of this rhetorical shell game in the State of the Union speech. While Obama did make this admirable call:

We have subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough. It’s time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that’s rarely been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that’s never been more promising.

It was only moments after the president said:

Over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight, I’m directing my Administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.

I worry, too, that when Obama says, “I will sign an Executive Order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects,” that what he means by “red tape” is what many call “environmental protections.” Or “workplace safety rules.” Or “worker rights.” Just as I worry that when I hear, “I’m directing my Administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes,” it is opening a door to more private development on public lands.

Is this cynical? Perhaps, but it is hard not to be when you hear the president claim, as he did last night, “I will not back down from making sure an oil company can contain the kind of oil spill we saw in the Gulf two years ago,” when just a day earlier it was revealed that the Obama administration actively worked to downplay the size of the BP spill.

And so what is the public to make of Obama’s section on natural gas?

We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years, and my Administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy. Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade. And I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use. America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.

So many questions. First off, it is important to note that Obama is talking about fracking without ever using the word. That’s what it means when the president says he will require drillers to disclose the chemicals they use–these are the chemicals that make the “hydro” in hydrofracking heavy enough to do its job. And these are the chemicals that have likely poisoned some aquifers and promise to befoul even more.

But the poisonous and all-too-secret chemical composition of the injection liquid is only one of many problems with fracked natural gas. There is mounting evidence that fracking is responsible for increased seismic activity in the US and abroad. And, of course, there is the $64 question of whether we should be investing in and smoothing the way for a finite resource that will contribute to CO2 emissions at a time when the world is fast approaching irreversible climate change.

But push that aside, and the president’s fulsome gas promises are still mostly hot air. That name-your-chemicals rule? It only applies to drilling on public lands. And the president doesn’t say if it will apply to projects already approved, or just future leases. And those 600,000 jobs? I need the administration to show its work, for that number sound suspiciously like the trumped up job figures floated in the push for the Keystone XL pipeline–where it turned out that every year of a job counted as a separate job, and that many positions were low wage or instantly redundant.

With so much so easily picked apart, it is hard not to hear “America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk,” as the 2012 edition of “I promise this won’t hurt a bit,” or “the check is in the mail”. . . or “clean coal.”

But, as I said, I want to stand up and cheer, and so let me close by cheering this:

Innovation also demands basic research. Today, the discoveries taking place in our federally-financed labs and universities could lead to new treatments that kill cancer cells but leave healthy ones untouched. New lightweight vests for cops and soldiers that can stop any bullet. Don’t gut these investments in our budget. Don’t let other countries win the race for the future. Support the same kind of research and innovation that led to the computer chip and the Internet; to new American jobs and new American industries.

Nowhere is the promise of innovation greater than in American-made energy.

. . . .

Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.

Yes, I will admit, that internal ellipsis mark covers many, many paragraphs, but though the execution laid out within is mixed, the overarching sentiment should be one of the clarion calls of this election year. As I recently explained at some length, real innovation is essential to America’s future, and basic research is essential to real innovation. And government money spent on basic research provides much more bang for the buck than money spent on propping up out-dated energy sources and the military industrial complex.

Obama doesn’t say “peace dividend,” but that is what he is talking about. It is a dividend that could grow if the president follows through with his drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, and it is time to start building into the discussion the idea that this money will be repurposed to spur innovation, rebuild our infrastructure and invest in education. This is a wealthy nation, and the US should spend its wealth on programs and projects that benefit the vast majority of its people–say, 99 percent of them–and not just use the current lull in foreign incursions to fund more tax cuts for the richest one percent.

For reinforcing that frame, and for at least sowing the seeds of a re-prioritized economy, I applaud the president. Now it is up to him to play on the pitch he has planted. Given the scores of disappointments that have trailed after so many of Obama’s lofty speeches in the past, I am wary that this is little more than another field of dreams–but guess what, with alternative energy, education investment, and a modernized infrastructure, if you build it, “an America built to last” will quite possibly come.

Too hopey-changey? Well, at least he’s stopped shilling for “clean coal.”