One of the only national journalists to write regularly about the story of the century is three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Friedman.
The centrist columnist pulls no punches in his Sunday NY Times column, "No to Keystone. Yes to Crazy," which opens:
I HOPE the president turns down the Keystone XL oil pipeline. (Who wants the U.S. to facilitate the dirtiest extraction of the dirtiest crude from tar sands in Canada's far north?) But I don't think he will. So I hope that Bill McKibben and his 350.org coalition go crazy. I'm talking chain-themselves-to-the-White-House-fence-stop-traffic-at-the-Capitol kind of crazy, because I think if we all make enough noise about this, we might be able to trade a lousy Keystone pipeline for some really good systemic responses to climate change.
He notes we're at a unique time in our history:
We don't get such an opportunity often — namely, a second-term Democratic president who is under heavy pressure to approve a pipeline to create some jobs but who also has a green base that he can't ignore. So cue up the protests, and pay no attention to people counseling rational and mature behavior. We need the president to be able to say to the G.O.P. oil lobby, "I'm going to approve this, but it will kill me with my base. Sasha and Malia won't even be talking to me, so I've got to get something really big in return."
But while he praises Obama for some key individual climate policies, overall he sees back-sliding:
Face it: The last four years have been a net setback for the green movement. While President Obama deserves real praise for passing a historic increase in vehicle mileage efficiency and limits on the emissions of new coal-fired power plants, the president also chose to remove the term "climate change" from his public discourse and kept his talented team of environmentalists in a witness-protection program, banning them from the climate debate. This silence coincided with record numbers of extreme weather events — droughts and floods — and with a huge structural change in the energy marketplace.
I discussed the origins of this 'strategy' here (see "Team Obama Launched The Inane Strategy Of Downplaying Climate Change Back In March 2009").
What is the structural change in the marketplace that Friedman refers to? Why none other than our new frenemy, hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) — along with "horizontal drilling at much greater distances."
Together, they have produced "new, vastly cheaper ways to tap natural gas trapped in shale as well as crude oil previously thought unreachable, making cleaner energy alternatives much less competitive."
But Friedman is no fracking flack. He sees the both sides of this two-faced fuel:
It's great that shale gas is replacing coal as a source of electricity, since it generates less than half the carbon dioxide. As the oil economist Philip Verleger Jr. notes in the latest edition of the journal International Economy, these breakthroughs will also lead to much more oil and gas at lower prices, which will help American consumers, manufacturers and jobs. But, he adds, "it will be harder and harder to push for renewable energy programs as hydrocarbon prices fall," and "the new technologies that allow us to tap shale oil and shale gas could release vast quantities of methane" if not done properly. Methane released in the atmosphere contributes much more to climate change than CO2.
And right now there is reason to worry about those high leakage rates (see "Bridge To Nowhere? NOAA Confirms High Methane Leakage Rate Up To 9% From Gas Fields, Gutting Climate Benefit.)"
What policies would Friedman like to see?
Nothing would do more to clean our air, drive clean-tech innovation, weaken petro-dictators and reduce the deficit than a carbon tax. One prays this will become part of the budget debate. Also, the president can use his authority under the Clean Air Act to order reductions in CO2 emissions from existing coal power plants and refiners by, say, 25 percent. He could then do with the power companies what he did with autos: negotiate with them over the fairest way to achieve that reduction in different parts of the country. We also need to keep the president's feet to the fire on the vow in his State of the Union address to foster policies that could "cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years." About 30 percent of energy in buildings is wasted.
Hear, hear! Speak, speak! Act, act!
Kudos to Friedman for his leadership on the climate issue.