A Stupid Move on Solar

That title is pretty uncharitable on my part. Jillian Kay Melchior is even more uncharitable, but she sums up my feelings pretty well upon news that the Obama Administration is slapping tariffs on imported Chinese solar panels:

The federal government last week approved a hypocritical trade measure that not only undermines the president’s environmental goals but also increases costs for U.S. consumers.

Most Chinese solar panels will now be subject to tariffs of about 24 to 36 percent, the U.S. International Trade Commission unanimously decided this week. They were responding to an anti-dumping suit filed by German-owned solar-panel manufacturer SolarWorld, alongside six American manufacturers, many of whom opted to remain anonymous.

These panel manufacturers have every reason to be secretive. In protecting their own products from cheaper Chinese panels “dumped” into the U.S. market, they’re screwing over other segments of the U.S. solar industry, including solar-panel installers and companies that use panels as an input for electronic products and will now have to cope with higher prices caused by the tariffs.

Moreover, the tariffs undermine the president’s green agenda. If the U.S. really wants to increase its reliance on alternative energy, as Obama has so often claimed, the uncompetitive domestic solar market could use all the cost-cutting help Beijing can provide.

An unfortunate but not unexpected outcome of last week’s election. There has been a lot of grumbling in the circles President Obama travels about the Chinese dumping cheap solar panels. I had guessed it was only a matter of time before we hit back. I view these trade/protectionist policies as both intellectually silly and economically harmful. Given all the subsidies we’re dumping onto our own solar industries – often with little to show for it – I can’t wrap my mind around punishing the Chinese for doing the same. Especially when the Chinese are providing a product we need at a price we can actually afford.

To be all fair and balanced, here’s Senator Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) complaint in favor of hitting the Chinese. After all, I’m not an expert in global trade. My concern lies in moving the U.S. toward a solar future, and so far, I’m not real impressed with what’s coming out of Washington, D.C. If the Chinese are subsidizing their solar manufacturers to our benefit, well, let’s accept that and see what we need to do domestically to make our manufacturers competitive with the Chinese. Let’s not, of all things, start a trade war that results in escalating prices for solar panels. That’s definitely a move in the wrong direction.

The United States is the New Saudia Arabia

From Bloomberg News:

A new report by the International Energy Association says the U.S. will become the world’s largest oil producer by 2017, overtaking current leaders Saudi Arabia and Russia. U.S. energy policies initiated by the George W. Bush administration and implemented by President Barack Obama have moved the U.S. toward energy independence and away from Middle East energy sources. U.S. oil production has risen rapidly since 2008 and oil imports are at their lowest level in two decades.

The IEA also says the U.S. could become self-sufficient in energy by 2035 and a net exporter of natural gas by 2020. The Obama administration’s push to develop and grow domestic natural gas capabilities has led to a natural gas drilling boom. Production has jumped 15% in four years but the glut in natural gas supplies have also caused the price of natural gas to plummet. According to the White House, the U.S. holds a 100-year supply of natural gas and domestic production is at an all-time high. The Daily Ticker’s Aaron Task and Henry Blodget both agree that the explosion in domestic energy production could alter the geopolitical landscape and U.S. labor market.

This is gigantic news for two reasons. First, if the U.S. can reduce or eliminate its dependent on imports of foreign oil, and become an exporter of natural gas, our trade deficit would shrink dramatically. Petroleum imports drive our imbalance of trade, accounting for 50 to 60 percent of the ~$500 billion annual trade deficit.

Second, the resulting geopolitical shift will profoundly affect international politics. Much of our engagement in the Middle East is driven by oil. The same is true about our our problems with Venezuela. If we are no longer (as) reliant on these often hostile regimes for petroleum, we will be able to deescalate our relationships with these nations.

Of course, every silver cloud has a black lining. As noted in the Bloomberg story, cheap natural gas will reduce market-driven incentives for development of renewables, including solar and wind. Natural gas is an incredibly important bridge fuel to move the U.S. away from coal and toward cleaner energy sources. But that bridge will collapse pretty quickly if natural gas remains so cheap. The market will demand even greater levels of subsidy for solar and wind if they are to compete with cheap domestic natural gas.

Becoming an energy independent nation will have profound beneficial outcomes, many of which we likely don’t yet understand (what will happen politically within Middle Eastern nations when their only source of wealth loses its value?). The problem now becomes one of managing this new-found national wealth in a way that doesn’t impede our transition toward a clean energy future.

In Tuesday’s Election, Environmentalists Paid to Play

The Missoulian’s Mike Dennison provides analysis of the U.S. Senate race in Montana between republican Dennis Rehberg and incumbent democrat Senator Jon Tester. This race was expected to go the republican’s way only to see Tester reelected with a comfortable 16,600 vote margin. Dennison gives us some idea of who helped to push Tester over the top:

As for the ground game, which identifies and registers sympathetic voters and then gets them to the polls, Montana Democrats and their allies had a good one.

The League of Conservation Voters, one of the nation’s most prominent environmental groups, spent $1.45 million on Tester’s behalf, including door-to-door canvassers, mailers and phone calls to get out the vote.

It’s hard to beat the democrats’ ground game. The LCV was all over Montana, knocking on doors and working the phone banks in behalf of Tester and other democratic candidates. And it looks like Montana wasn’t the only place where national environmental groups played a big role. Here’s today’s Washington Post:

The environmental community scored a string of successes Tuesday in New Mexico, Montana, Texas and other states, winning seven of eight targeted Senate races and at least three targeted House races. Although plenty of outside groups poured money into these contests, even some representatives of the fossil-fuel industry said that environmentalists had invested their resources wisely in 2012.

“There is evidence that the environmentalists have become a more mature political force,” said Scott H. Segal, who lobbies for utility companies at the firm Bracewell & Giuliani.

“Environmentalist spending was up considerably this cycle, and they seemed to resist the frequent trap of supporting third-party or crank candidates in ways that would have siphoned off votes from mainstream Democrats,” Segal said.

The League of Conservation Voters spent more than $14 million this year, more than it had in the past three election cycles combined, and groups including the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation Action Fund, Defenders of Wildlife Action Committee, Environment America and Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund also devoted money and volunteers to key contests.

The environmental community went all in for this election. How will all this support be repayed?

Some environmentalists say the election provides a mandate for aggressive action on climate change, although oil and gas industry officials warned against over-interpreting the results because the economy ranked as the dominant issue this year.

The environmental community, having done its job to get democrats elected across the country, will expect action from the Obama Administration on a range of environmental issues, including rules to control mercury and greenhouse gas emissions, reign in oil and gas drilling on public lands, and tackle the fracking issue. Of course, I’ve recommended a number of items the President could add to his environmental agenda. It could be an interesting four years for the environment.

The Election in Perspective

The Pale Blue Dot

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience.There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Carl Sagan, October 13, 1994, Cornell University
Photo courtesy Voyager 1, 1990, 3.7 billion miles from Earth.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir Survives Recall Vote

San Francisco voters on Tuesday soundly defeated a proposal to study draining Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park. The Reservoir provides drinking water to San Francisco and surrounding areas.

This was one of the few referendums in Tuesday’s election that I found really interesting. Here’s what I wrote some time ago about the issue:

Wow. Just wow. The voters of San Francisco this November will have the opportunity to vote on a measure to drain the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park. Now, if you’re not familiar with the battle over Hetch Hetchy, let me just say that the damming of the Tuolumne River stands as one of the earliest and most pivotal debates about national parks and, really, wilderness in America. This was the fight that made the Sierra Club a national powerhouse and John Muir a legend. This is what you call turning back the clock on what many see as a national tragedy.

And now, nearly a century following passage of the law that allowed the damning of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, San Franciscans will decide if restoring the place Muir described as “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples” is worth more than the cheap drinking water and hydro power they receive from the dam. And if you think that the outcome is a foregone conclusion in ultra-liberal San Fran, guess again. The liberal political establishment is lined up against the measure, while some prominent republicans and the environmentalists are in favor of removing the dam. I’ll be watching this one closely.

I can’t say that I’m surprised by the outcome, but the overwhelming vote against the proposal (77%) comes as a shock. Then again, as I wrote in my post about hypocrisy a few days back, the ultra-liberal eco-conscious voters of San Francisco can hardly be faulted for opposing the measure. After all, they were acting in their roles as consumers, not environmentalists. If it were 1906 all over again and the voters were deciding for the first time whether or not to dam the Hetch Hetchy valley, I tend to believe the vote would have gone in the opposite direction.

Humans Caused Historic Great Barrier Reef Collapse

I hate headlines like this: “Humans Caused Historic Great Barrier Reef Collapse.” ‘Hate’ is a pretty strong word, so let me explain.

The content of this Yahoo News! story is dead on. It explains how a team of marine biologists from the University of Queensland (down under) became curious about how long human activity had been altering the ecology of the Great Barrier Reef. They determined that in addition to coral kills associated with snorkeling and climate change, agriculture activities that occurred over 50 years ago had fundamentally altered the coral reef community. They concluded that humans had been damaging coral reefs for far longer than previously believed.

But here’s the last two paragraphs of the Yahoo News! story:

While the findings suggest humans have been damaging reefs far longer than previously thought, the problem has a straightforward, local solution: Reduce polluted runoff into the ocean, Pandolfi said.

“Any kind of measures that are going to improve the water quality should help those reefs to recover.”

That’s the message we want. That’s the headline. “Any kind of measures…improve water quality…help those reefs to recover.” Compare that to “Humans Caused Historic Great Barrier Reef Collapse.” “Historic” and “collapse” used together in the headline = instant despair, doesn’t it?

You know, I started writing this post to explain how I hate the way they always write “humans caused” some environment mess, like the mess is due to the mere fact of human existence. I hate that tone – that environmental problems are hopeless as long as we humans are around. But that’s not the case, and never is. Most environmental problems are due to specific, identifiable, and thankfully correctable human activities. And just like the concluding paragraphs of this story – “any kind of measure … should help” – knowing that we are performing some environmentally destructive activity that is entirely correctable places back upon our broad and deep collective shoulders the emphasis and the responsibility and thank God the ability to fix these problems! That’s the right perspective, and is a far more positive message for those of us who care about the state of our environment. Let’s make that the headline.

Today’s Election Matters So Much: That’s Not a Good Thing

I’ve avoided writing about the presidential election because, frankly, your vote is your business. But I just read this editorial by Jonah Goldberg that fits my philosophy on government perfectly. Here’s the key message:

The mere fact that presidential elections matter this much is not a sign of national health but of national dysfunction. The more the federal government gets involved in every aspect of our lives — for good or ill — the more people will feel that their livelihoods, lifestyles, even their actual lives are at stake in a presidential election. If the federal government didn’t have so much leverage over your life, politicians wouldn’t be able to scare you into the voting booths.

We all agree  that government has important functions, environmental protection being one. But in my honest opinion the day that our government started to matter, personally, to each of us is the day the government went too far. I don’t know how long ago that day occurred, but I certainly am one who feels that government has involved itself in every personal decision and entangled itself in human endeavour. I liked it better when government went about its business and I went about mine. What happened to east being east, and west being west, and “never the twain shall meet?”

Now go vote, however you feel. We’ll clean up this mess later.