The Energy Policies of America’s Biggest Environmental Groups
They hate fossil fuels. They don’t like current fuel economy standards or oil consumption rates. They are stridently opposed to drilling on the California coast, the Florida coast, and virtually all of the East Coast. They refuse to consider drilling in Alaska. They don’t like Middle Eastern oil. Oh, and they despise nuclear power.
Given this laundry list of complaints, what exactly do America’s biggest environmental groups want when it comes to energy policy? After talking to Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Environmental Defense, National Audubon Society, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, that’s mostly what we came away with: talk. They said lots about what won’t work, but very little about what will.
A hard look at the energy polices of these groups reveals that they have plenty of plans for how to (theoretically) reduce emissions. And of course, all the groups want higher auto efficiency standards. But – and here’s the nut of our investigation – none of them could give us specific data showing how their programs would actually increase energy supplies sufficiently to meet growing consumption. The United States burns about 20.6 million barrels of oil per day; by 2025, we’ll be guzzling more than 26 million. Today, the U.S. consumes more than 23 trillion cubic feet of natural gas every year; in 2025, it will use about 27 Tcf. Today, Americans use almost 4,000 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. By 2025 that number will jump to over 5,000 billion.
Energy companies have to plan – and spend heavily – to make sure U.S. consumers will have the oil, gas, and electricity they will need in 2025. The environmental groups don’t. As Robert McGehee, chairman and CEO of Progress Energy, said recently, “Some people think we can reduce consumption and meet demand with no new generation. The way I look at it is…they can afford to be wrong. But as a regulated utility, we do not have that option.” This disconnect allows the greens to spout policy ideas without taking a hard look at which ones actually work. So ET sat down with these groups to see how – and where – their rhetoric meets, or misses, reality.
Greenpeace International, which has about 2.7 million members worldwide (including about 1.5 million in the U.S.), is the world’s largest environmental group. It’s also the most militantly green. It says it supports cellulosic ethanol and renewable energy. Other than that, it appears to be against just about everything.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is the second-largest group, with about 1.2 million members. NRDC gets the grand prize for the most practical energy policies; it was the only group ET talked with that was trying to bring common-sense solutions to the energy debate. When ET caught up with Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of NRDC’s energy program, he was holding his own at the annual meeting of the Nuclear Energy Institute. His message to the attendees was that the nuclear industry needs to work with the environmental groups to get national regulations in place that would limit carbon emissions, and increase research on fuel reprocessing. He also advocated a plan that would allow renewable power generation to compete head-to-head with fossil fuels. NRDC still hates nuclear, but at least Cavanagh and his staff are offering new ideas and proposing areas where industry and environmentalists can work together.
The Sierra Club, with its approximately 750,000 members, is for higher fuel economy and fewer drilling rights. While Sierra is banking on decreases in consumption (which isn’t smart if you look at the numbers), at least it’s willing to admit there are problems with some of the green groups’ favorite energy issues.
Probably least active on energy issues is the 500,000-strong National Audubon Society, whose spokeswoman says, “There isn’t a consistent energy policy here” and thus declined to comment for this article. Overall, Audubon’s focus is on protecting wildlife, though it has published articles against ANWR drilling and ethanol. Audubon leans toward practicality in its assessments; in an article called “Beyond Oil,” the society’s magazine listed the pros and cons of each energy source, including, for example, the admission that solar has “limited storage options” and is “relatively expensive.”
Environmental Defense (formerly Environmental Defense Fund) is the smallest of the groups in this survey, with only 400,000 members. It’s also the most puzzling. It supports ethanol and has a fairly moderate stance on nuclear power. And although ED insists it has an energy program, the group refused to return phone calls or offer any comments. Thus, its online literature and news reports provided the group’s only information for this survey.
It’s no secret that the greens are worried about climate change. “We believe global warming is the biggest problem all of us are going to be facing in the next 100 years,” says Sierra Club spokesman John Dorner. Everything the greens do on the national energy front is aimed at reducing emissions. As far as they’re concerned, global warming is the only energy problem; the rest, like high fuel prices, are just side effects. Like most of our groups, Sierra thinks the solution is to reduce oil consumption by upping fuel economy standards for automobiles so cars can go farther on a tank of gas. While Dorner says the Sierra Club is “working on formulating its comprehensive energy strategy,” the group is pushing legislation it says would decrease U.S. oil consumption.
Others agree, and some are even willing to compromise. Speaking at an annual meeting of the Independent Petroleum Association of America in 2005 (the mere fact of which is a little strange), National Audubon Society President John Flicker called for reducing fossil fuels to ease global warming concerns and allow domestic producers to flourish. “If the federal government were to require more fuel-efficient cars, it would be possible for environmentalists to find a lot of compromise on domestic oil production,” he said.
All of the greens want to dramatically increase the use of renewable energy technologies. The Sierra Club’s goal is to get the country to pass a 20-percent renewable energy portfolio standard as soon as possible (there is currently no national standard). At Greenpeace International, John Coequyt, the group’s energy specialist, insists solar energy can meet the country’s needs, despite naysayers who claim renewables can’t add large-scale energy capacity. “Solar can add big numbers,” he says. “In some of the scenarios we’ve run, by 2025 solar’s producing a very large share of U.S. electricity. It’s something like half of new electricity resources by 2025. Solar can meet half of the new demand growth.” Greenpeace believes the country could have 3.5 gigawatts of solar energy installed by 2010, and throwing wind power into the mix makes projections look even better. “I think in the right places, in many places, wind is the cheapest energy source there is,” he replies, when asked if renewables can compete with fossil fuels on a cost basis.
Coequyt refuses to concede there are major problems with solar and wind power – namely, that there are no economically viable ways to store the energy created, and thus no guarantee it will be there when it’s needed. “The fact that it’s intermittent is not as big a deal as people are saying it is, because it’s forecastable,” he says of solar power.
Not every group is as militantly opposed to exposing problems with renewable energy as Greenpeace. The Sierra Club concedes renewables aren’t perfect. The organization likes wind power and supports the controversial Cape Wind project, an offshore venture to install 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound. However, it admits there are concerns over how wind turbines will affect local bird populations. Local Audubon chapters have fought against wind farms to preserve area wildlife.
Whether or not renewables can meet demand, the NRDC’s Ralph Cavanagh claims they must be allowed to compete with other fuel sources in the free market. At the nuclear conference, Cavanagh told industry leaders the government needs to stop subsidizing specific sources so utilities can decide which is the most economic. “We need open competition over who’s got the best solutions,” he said. “I’m convinced renewables can compete in an open market. But robust competition is the best thing for the world as a whole.” As another solution to the country’s energy predicament, the NRDC has proposed mandatory national limits on carbon emissions.
Another hot issue, biofuels, divides the pack. Most greens like them, at least in theory, but ethanol (which groups like Greenpeace and EDF support) enrages others. Sierra dislikes ethanol, and says anything that actually burns more gasoline is not the answer. “Maybe down the line, if ethanol can help us get rid of some oil, it might help, but it’s not the solution people are making it out to be,” says John Dorner. “You’ve heard all this talk about E85 and how great it is, but really only some 600 out of all the gas stations in the U.S. sell it. Even if we could make the transition to ethanol, there’s not enough land to support it. People could use it, but it’d still be a drop in the bucket – it’s impossible to grow enough corn to fuel the country.” Greenpeace is with Dorner on his dismissal of E85, but says it could definitely get behind cellulosic ethanol.
That’s all well and good, but there’s a problem: no one is producing cellulosic ethanol. The concept of cellulosic ethanol is just that: a concept. All the ethanol currently used in the U.S. is made from corn, the single most subsidized crop in America. And the fuel made from that corn is also subsidized. Finally, growing corn creates a host of environmental problems, as it requires massive amounts of pesticides and fertilizers.
Among the mainstream greens, nuclear power is as unpopular as ever (see this month’s Q&A with Greenpeace co-founder and former member Patrick Moore). And there are precious few exceptions, the most notable of which is the the Australian World Wildlife Fund’s CEO, Greg Bourne, who recently said that his group backs the Australian government’s uranium mining plans.
The views ranged from Greenpeace’s staunchly anti-nuclear stance – Coequyt says they have always been against it (“Nuclear power plants are really, really expensive, and there are cheaper and better ways to produce emissions-free energy”) – to ED’s comments that nuclear could be viable. “Environmental Defense continues to be concerned that several questions about nuclear power generation – safety, security, nonproliferation, and waste – have not been answered sufficiently to support deployment,” ED President Fred Krupp said last year, speaking in support of climate change legislation that included nuclear power provisions. “Environmental Defense believes those tough questions can be answered.”
The closest greens come to supporting nuclear is among local chapters in areas where new plants are being proposed. In 2005, Charles Lee, executive vice president of the Audubon Society of Florida, told one reporter that nuclear plants offer environmental benefits to the state: coastal plants have 12-mile development bans around them that help preserve Florida’s coastal land.
The greens also dislike the federal government’s push for nuclear – they say the industry wouldn’t be where it is today without the Energy Policy Act, which provides billions of dollars in incentives for new plants. And given the Bush Administration’s fight against terrorism, the Sierra Club’s Dorner says it’s dumb to build nuclear plants that would become targets for terrorists. “[Nuclear energy] never was the panacea it was purported to be in the 50s and 60s, and not much has changed,” he says. “We would concede that the technology has advanced since then, but we would argue that you could take the same money the government is using to subsidize nuclear plants and put it into renewables. Also, considering the time it takes to build a new [nuclear] plant, it’s just not a near-term solution.”
The environmental groups have defined themselves by their total opposition to drilling for oil along the coasts and in Alaska. And they have never varied in their aversion to those prospects. When ET talked to Dorner, he was celebrating the House’s May 18 vote to keep the coasts closed to natural gas drilling, prolonging a 1981 moratorium on drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. The Sierra Club lobbied hard against lifting the ban. Never mind that the EIA says the eastern Gulf of Mexico contains an estimated 20 Tcf of gas and 3.6 billion barrels of oil. As for ANWR, total reserves are about 4.2 billion barrels of oil. The Energy Information Administration estimates that peak production in ANWR would be about 1.6 million barrels per day, a significant addition to America’s domestic production.
Dorner says ANWR is “one of the last completely pristine places on earth.” And therefore, it needs to be protected. The other groups are right in line with the Sierra Club with regard to ANWR.
Okay. But if the coasts are off limits, and ANWR is off limits, where, exactly, should America get the oil it needs? Greenpeace’s Coequyt adamantly refused to answer, saying only that demand should be reduced in order to get to an 80 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. “Eventually [we] would hope we wouldn’t need to drill at all,” he says finally. But he does admit that “we’re still going to need some oil.” Yet Greenpeace’s don’t-drill-anywhere attitude was made clear during an April appearance on Fox News’ Hannity and Colmes show, when Greenpeace USA executive director John Passacantando declared, “We don’t want new drilling.”
The Sierra Club is only somewhat more realistic. “Swaths of this country, both onshore and in the Gulf, are already open to drilling,” Dorner says. “Companies got 6,700 drilling permits last year and didn’t come close to drilling on all of them. There are plenty of places where they are already allowed to drill. Ninety-five percent of the Western Gulf is open, and soon other places in Alaska will be too.” Basically, he concludes, Sierra wants the country to try to fully exploit the places that are already open, while lowering its consumption rates. Which is all fine and good, but in yet another example of the complete disconnect between their rhetoric and reality, Sierra, in a press statement after the House’s May 18 vote extending the coastal drilling moratorium, averred that not drilling on U.S. coasts will “save families money.” The full statement: “In the midst of planning summer trips to the beach, Americans deserve energy policies that save families money and protect their favorite vacation spots. Drilling off our coasts won’t do either.”
Of course, Sierra Club didn’t bother to explain how not drilling for oil will increase oil supplies. But then, that’s the point: they don’t have to.
After weeks of interviews with these groups, ET had heard a lot of talk about what won’t work, but very little about what will. Renewable energy might someday prove to be viable (read: cost-effective), but no matter how you slice it, renewables simply cannot replace fossil fuels. Solar and wind power show plenty of promise but the sun doesn’t shine all the time, nor does the wind constantly blow. And despite Greenpeace’s assertion that these things are “forecastable,” there are no feasible technologies for storing solar or wind-generated electricity so it can be consumed when it’s dark or when the wind isn’t blowing. To ignore that fact is willful ignorance.
Furthermore, it’s just flat odd that more greens aren’t behind nuclear energy – the only known emissions-free energy source capable of adding large-scale capacity. And while ET appreciates the importance of protecting wildlife and land, the idea that America’s energy consumption will go anywhere but up – and the idea that reducing energy use in America will somehow eliminate the need for oil and gas exploration altogether – is, frankly, absurd.
If the greens want to be seen as anything but complainers with plenty of objections to the energy policy debate but no real fixes, they need to start accepting the realities of the country’s predicament, and operate within that framework to propose solutions that don’t defy the numbers or bank on impracticalities. And if they really want to stop global warming, they’re going to have to accept short-term solutions, like nuclear, while working toward long-term goals. As Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, said recently, “It is completely contradictory to say global warming is your biggest concern and oppose [emissions-free technologies]. At this point, the mainstream environmental movement, until it changes its policies, is the greatest impediment we have to eliminating greenhouse gases.”