A New Clean Economy — With Old Sources of Energy

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Justin Sullivan / Getty

A customer prepares to pump biodiesel into her car at the Biofuel Oasis in Berkeley, California.

Since his election, President Barack Obama has emphasized the importance of developing new sources of energy and cultivating the jobs that will come with them. "I am convinced that whoever builds a clean energy economy, whoever is at the forefront of that, is going to own the 21st-century global economy," Obama told a bipartisan meeting of governors at the White House on Wednesday.

But, increasingly, the President's new clean economy seems to rely on old sources of energy. At his State of the Union speech on Jan. 27, Obama coupled calls for comprehensive energy and climate legislation with a mention of the need for offshore oil drilling, and his 2011 budget includes $36 billion in new loan guarantees for nuclear power.

On Tuesday, the White House further announced new steps to boost production of biofuels, which are considered environmentally questionable by many greens, and to expand research into technology that would help capture and store carbon emitted by burning coal. It is an energy program designed to increase U.S. energy independence and to create new jobs but, to the dismay of greens, not necessarily to reduce carbon emissions. "Every American is anxious to have an energy and fuel agenda that puts us back in control of our own energy and fuel future," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters. "[This is a] clear pathway to energy security."

The new White House plan will support the development of five to 10 carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) demonstration projects by 2016. The idea is to show on a commercial scale that coal can be burned cleanly for electricity — without accelerating climate change — by injecting millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the ground. The new plan isn't exactly new, though. In 2003, former President George W. Bush authorized a similar CCS pilot project called FutureGen, though the program was eventually shut down, ostensibly for exceeding budget projections. But under the current White House plan, the Department of Energy will be spending far more, investing more than $4 billion in CCS, with the expectation that industry will add another $7 billion.

Environmentalists are generally against so-called "clean coal" projects on the grounds that the technology remains unproven, and because they justify the continued use of coal, which is currently one of the major sources of greenhouse gases. But Secretary of Energy Steven Chu — who once said, before his time in government, that "coal is my worst nightmare" — now believes that coal is too plentiful in the U.S. not to develop a way to burn it cleanly. "Fossil fuels will likely be a continuing source of electricity for the foreseeable future," said Chu. "We believe this is an important part of the response to climate change."

In fact, Chu is right: Coal accounts for nearly half of the U.S. electricity supply, and the percentage is even greater in China. The International Energy Agency projects that the demand for coal will increase 53% between 2007 and 2030, which is perhaps the most frightening figure for climate scientists. Although there is no guarantee that CCS will work, the world needs it to work and government should be the one funding its initial development. And if the U.S. can succeed in developing truly "clean coal," it will have created a technology the rest of the world can use.

The government's intentions regarding biofuels are somewhat less straightforward — apparently muddied by politics — and its plan could backfire. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday finalized the long-term renewable-fuels mandate created in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. That law required the production of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel annually by 2022. (Total biofuel production in 2009 was 11.1 billion gallons.) The key word is "renewable" — in recent years, many scientists have argued that ethanol made from corn isn't renewable at all, because the deforestation and other changes in land use associated with scaled-up ethanol production would more than cancel out the carbon emissions saved by switching from gasoline to ethanol.

In finalizing the Renewable Fuels Standard, which determines which biofuels are classified as green, the EPA says it took into account indirect land use (that is, how much new land would need to be cleared to plant food crops to replace the corn used to make fuel) for the first time, and still determined that corn ethanol qualifies as renewable, emitting at least 20% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. "We wanted to know that they were really renewable," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. "That's exactly what happened here through the review process."

In addition to corn ethanol, the new fuel standard will encourage the development of advanced biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol, fuel made from the waste parts of plants. And the EPA says that by producing 36 billion gallons of biofuels per year by 2022, the U.S. will reduce its dependence on oil by more than 328 million a barrels a year, the equivalent of taking 27 million cars off the road annually by 2022. But while green groups praised the EPA for taking land use into account in the new standard, classifying corn ethanol as green still flies in the face of recent science to the contrary, as well as the actions of California, which is currently being sued by biofuels advocacy groups that claim the state's low-carbon fuel standards are too restrictive of corn ethanol.

Jackson insists the EPA review process was thorough — "I would not sign a rule if I did not believe we filled the lines," she told reporters — but the U.S. Department of Agriculture advised the rulemaking, and the ethanol lobby has powerfully influenced that agency in the past. The EPA says that it expects improvements in crop yield and productivity to help limit land use changes from ethanol — less land needed for more corn — but that kind of industrial agriculture has its own environmental impacts.

More to the point, however, biofuels may never be a truly sustainable solution to climate change, not in a world with a growing population and growing food demands. But supporting biofuels does make for good politics, especially among Republicans in the farm states of the Midwest. Ditto clean coal and nuclear power, two energy sources always beloved of conservatives. It's bipartisan energy policy. "I am convinced that America can win the race to build a clean energy economy, but we're going to have to overcome the weight of our own politics," Obama said Tuesday. "We have to focus not so much on those narrow areas where we disagree, but on the broad areas where we agree."

If Obama can barter nuclear and biofuel subsidies for Republican support for, say, a carbon cap, his policies might be worth it. But if not, his energy policy — at least in its early stages — risks being pulled down by the weight of Washington politics.