Environmentalists this year have been both buoyed by President Barack Obama’s apparent willingness to take serious action on climate change and discouraged by recent statements that it’s a “daunting task” requiring “some big technological breakthrough.”
Colorado senior U.S. Sen. Mark Udall meanwhile, in a recent interview with the Vail Business Journal, echoed Obama’s message that tackling climate change will take an “all-of-the-above” energy approach, including renewables that still require significant technological advances.
“It’s the old image of trying to change a tire on a car when you’re going 80 mph down the road,” Udall said. “We’re dependant on these energy systems for our economy and for our very way of life, but by investing in all these different approaches I’m confident that we’ll see significant development and advances over the next 10 years.”
For conservationists, one of the great disappointments of Obama’s first term remains the failure of the Senate to pass a version of the Waxman-Markey climate bill that Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi narrowly shepherded through.
“The House passes a bill; the Senate passes a bill. That's the way it works,” Pelosi told RealVail.com in 2011. “They can do something different. It wasn't theology for us. We always thought there'd be something less coming in from the Senate; we didn't think there'd be nothing.”
Udall, a Democrat from Eldorado Springs near Boulder, said he now feels new “urgency as a United States senator” to act on climate change in the wake of Obama’s attention to the issue in his inaugural address last month.
But Udall added that he expects Obama to “fully utilize” administrative tools to tackle greenhouse gas emissions – “particularly the requirement that the Supreme Court put forth to regulate carbon as a pollutant.” In other words, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will move forward with new regulations to curb emissions from fossil-fuel-fired power plants.
“What we do in the Congress could be focused on clean energy and green energy and more energy efficient technologies, and we can include greater use of natural gas, which has half the carbon footprint of coal, and let’s look at ways in which you can capture CO2 from coal plants and sequester it so that it isn’t in the atmosphere on which all life depends,” Udall said.
Udall on Tuesday introduced Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper during a hearing in Washington (video) of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Udall serves on.
“I think there's real potential when it comes to exporting natural gas, as long as it doesn't come at the cost of our land, our water and our air — or consumer energy prices,” Udall said. “I want to keep exploring the national security implications of these exports. There's real geopolitical ramifications of this shale gas that we now have available to us.”
Hickenlooper told the committee that Colorado is adequately regulating natural gas drilling and that fracking fluid is generally safe enough to drink, although “not tasty.”
“Looks like Gov. Hickenlooper really drank the frack-aid on this one,” Conservation Colorado Deputy Director Carrie Curtiss responded in a press release. “We're astounded that Gov. Hickenlooper would use a national platform to give the impression that frack fluid is safe for public health.”
Also on Tuesday, a group of more than 40 environmental organizations, climate change advocates, scientists, actors and filmmakers – including “Gasland” director Josh Fox – ran an ad in the New York Times calling for Obama to take a “time out” on exporting American natural gas overseas. The group set up a website to garner public support. Other groups were pushing hard for Obama to expand on his inaugural address comments regarding climate change and take the discussion to the next level in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address.
On Saturday, Amory Lovins, chairman and chief scientist at the Snowmass- and Boulder-based Rocky Mountain Institute, took Obama to task for a recent New Republic interview saying “some big technological breakthrough” is necessary to deal with climate change.
“Mr. President, our nation already has the technologies to protect the climate while advancing prosperity,” Lovins wrote for the Huffington Post. “The U.S. is already started towards a clean energy system based on technologies cost-competitive today in many markets and, unlike traditional generation, with steadily declining costs.
“These new winners include energy efficiency, solar, wind, and flexible demand through a smart grid, integrated with geothermal, biomass, hydro, and others.”
Udall on Sunday offered his support for biomass and other alternative energy projects that some environmentalists may not necessarily consider renewable, such as capturing and converting coal-mine methane. But he also made it clear that fossil fuels remain a big part of the picture.
“I’ve always been an ‘all-of-the-above’ guy,” Udall said when asked about American Petroleum Institute ads targeting his record last fall (he’s up for reelection next year). “No good deed goes unpunished, and people in Colorado know where I come from, and they’re the most important. I work for the people of Colorado, not the API.”
An “all-of-the-above” energy policy that includes “clean coal” and nuclear, however, draws some serious fire from the left, even for a moderate Democrat who’s done a great deal to support renewables.
“The ‘all-of-the-above’ energy strategy, which has been called code for ‘drill, baby, drill,’ fails to recognize the urgency of the climate science,” said Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Company. “An ‘all-of-the-above’ strategy gets you four degrees Celsius of warming. So we need serious policy leadership to prevent that.”
Schendler agrees with Lovins that politicians need to quit hoping for “breakthroughs” and more aggressively promote existing technologies.
“The ‘we-need-a-breakthrough’ mentality amounts to climate denial, because we don't have time for that, and energy innovation takes many years, not a few years, and that's all we’ve got to solve climate,” Schendler said.
“Also, Amory understands, but a lot of others don't, that we have to bend this carbon emissions curve radically if we want to stay on a planet somewhat resembling the one we grew up on. Amory's perspective gets us there in a practical way, even if it does seem pie in the sky. But given what we know about the science, a little pie in the sky is just what the doctor ordered.”