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Weekly Mulch: Politics, power and the environment beyond BP

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Washington has a blind spot when it comes to the environment. BP and the oil spill brought the government’s failures into the spotlight, but the same problems crop up across industries: Corporations pollute water, blast through mountains, and pour carbon into the atmosphere with insufficient oversight. But no one—Congress, the environmental community, or the president—seems to have the power to address these issues.

The Senate says it will take up energy legislation soon, but staffers are saying the body won’t pass a strong climate bill without more public pressure. Energy companies are ripping resources from the land and leaving destruction in their wake, while clean energy technology, though popular, has yet to form a new platform to fill the country’s needs.

And where’s presidential leadership on this issue? “The president had a good meeting a couple days ago with senators from both parties that have led on this issue,” Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told the press this week, according to Mother Jones. “We have not made any final determinations about the size and scope of the legislation except to say that the president believes, and continues to believe, that putting a price on carbon has to be part of our comprehensive energy reform.”

President Barack Obama has taken his time to reveal definitive policy stances on issues like health care and the war in Afghanistan; in those cases, it was clear a decision was coming. On climate, it’s less clear that the president is moving towards a decision that will push Congress to act.

The Senate

The problem is not a lack of policy ideas. The Senate has already produced two decent bills that put a price on carbon, an effort that would over time decrease the country’s contributions to the world’s emissions. The second of those bills—the American Power Act, also known as the Kerry-Lieberman bill—would reduce the deficit by $19 billion, as the Congressional Budget Office announced this week.

Plenty of Senators have trumpeted about the need to reduce to the deficit. But in Washington, even a $19 billion reduction won’t help push forward legislation that Senators have decided to shirk. As Aaron Wiener writes for the Washington Independent:

“Will that be enough to get the bill passed? Of course not. The very same centrist senators who frequently raise deficit concerns are wary of legislation that could raise energy prices, and so the APA appears all but dead.”

Clean energy technology

At Grist, Jesse Jenkins suggests that enviros needs to reframe the issue altogether. “If you look at what Americans support in poll after poll, it is clean energy technology,” he says. “Put investment in clean technology front and center—and oh, by the way, we’re going to pay for this with a modest fee on carbon.”

Part of the problem could be that the country’s waiting for big corporations to lead the energy revolution. At Chelsea Green, however, Greg Pahl argues that smaller projects should play a bigger role, too. “Given the choice between a large, corporate-owned coal-fired power plant or a large, corporate-owned wind farm, the obvious choice is the wind farm, regardless of who owns it,” he writes. “But that’s no reason to exclude smaller…community projects that are far more effective in promoting distributed-generation strategies.”

Yes, your Majesty

It should be embarrassing for the Senate that, as a body, it’s more conservative than the Queen of England. This week, Queen Elizabeth told the United Nations that climate change was a front-line issue. Care2 reports that the Queen’s “brief statement was largely unremarkable but for the fact that she called out climate change, placing it on a par with terrorism in terms of today’s challenges.”

On environmental issues in general, though, the American government isn’t living up to its potential. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), for example, could be working to minimize the impacts of oil and gas drilling on public lands, but “the agency is reluctant to wiled that power after a drilling lease is granted,” Public News Service reports.

National Marine Fisheries Service

BLM is just one of a tangle of agencies that could, in theory, push back against the interests of big energy companies. They haven’t done so. In the case of the BP oil spill, for instance, TPMMuckraker reports that the National Marine Fisheries Service missed an opportunity to push back against BP’s lease, but, using bad information from the Minerals Management Service, rubber-stamped the operation. Rachel Slajda writes:

“In 2007, the National Marine Fisheries Service, which enforces the Endangered Species Act, was asked to give its ‘biological opinion’ on the impact of new oil drilling leases—including the lease of the now-leaking Macondo prospect—on endangered species, including turtles, sperm whales and sturgeon. … In the report (PDF), NMFS estimated the impact of a major spill on endangered species and concluded that the new drilling ‘is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of these species.’”

New Dawn

Energy companies are not the only ones tipping the balance against the environment, either. At the American Prospect, Monica Potts delves into Dawn detergent’s less than pristine environmental record. The detergent has benefited lately from a spate of good press because wildlife groups are using Dawn to clean oiled birds in the Gulf. But Potts writes that Dawn’s parent company, Procter & Gamble spent more than $4 million last year on lobbying and opposed measures that would, for instance, regulate household chemicals.

“Procter & Gamble lobbied against a 2009 effort to disclose ingredients in household cleaning products, instead supporting  an industry-led voluntary-disclosure effort. It also lobbied against  bans in various states on dishwashing detergent containing high levels of phosphorus and fought  to delay the bans’ implementation,” Potts explains. “The company opposed stricter household chemical regulations in the European Union in 2003 and is rated poorly by Greenpeace for the chemical content of its household products. Those chemicals, including ones banned in the EU because they can be harmful to fish and humans, end up in the environment.”

The list of such offenses goes on, and touches legions of companies. However limited, a climate bill would be a good start to addressing the country’s environmental woes. The Senate says it needs to hear this from more people before taking real steps to combat climate change; anyone who’s concerned about the planet’s future might want to start speaking up.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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