in the Weather, Ain’t No Change in Me
scientific evidence that our nation’s energy infrastructure
is contributing to environmental degradation, the Bush administration
continues to protect the potentially lethal status quo
By William Kanapaux
One week after my column on energy technology ran, the blackout
hit, a cascading event that affected 50 million people. While
it may have looked somewhat clairvoyant on my part, it was
certainly auspicious timing for the Bush administration and
the industry-friendly energy proposals that officials there
have touted for two years running. It’s easy to get your way
in the midst of a crisis.
In Bush’s statements following the blackout, he never once
mentioned renewable forms of energy as a way to ease pressure
on the energy grid. He did, however, make plenty of noise
about running more power lines and pouring money into rebuilding
the existing infrastructure.
Last week, Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency took a major
step toward shoring up the status quo. It ruled that power
plants, refineries and other industrial factories can upgrade
their facilities by 20 percent without having to install pollution-control
equipment such as scrubbers for smokestacks. The rule affects
17,000 plants, including 540 coal-fired power plants that
are responsible for supplying half of the nation’s electricity.
John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s
Clean Air Project, estimates that the ruling will add 390,000
tons of pollutants a year into the air we breathe.
The EPA also ruled that carbon dioxide, which atmospheric
scientists consider the main cause of global warming, will
no longer be regulated as a pollutant, a move that substantially
eases regulations on automobiles and power plants. Environmentalists
call it a move to cut off avenues for future global-warming
initiatives that would seek to limit carbon dioxide emissions.
The new rules represent quite an about-face for the EPA, which
during the Clinton administration had been pursuing litigation
along with 14 states against the nation’s 51 largest-polluting
power plants. A study conducted last year for the EPA by Abt
Associates (www.abtassoc.com) calculated that the pollution
generated by power plants in eight of the nation’s electric
utility systems—mostly located in the Southeast and Midwest—were
responsible for 5,900 premature deaths and 140,000 asthma
The Northeastern states are up in arms and ready for legal
battle. Eliot Spitzer, New York’s attorney general, immediately
announced that he will challenge the rule change in court.
As the Midwest increases its output of carbon dioxide and
other pollutants, New York and New England will endure the
fallout. Environmentally sensitive areas such as the Adirondacks
will continue to suffer the effects of acid rain. Ever larger
clouds of pollution will drift over the Northeast’s most sparsely
populated regions and hurt air quality further in urban areas.
Last month’s blackouts served as a reminder that the infrastructure
we take for granted is vulnerable to breakdowns. But the event
itself has come and gone. Part of our resiliency as humans
is to put the past behind us in order to deal with more immediate
concerns. The grid broke down, the EPA changed some rules,
and the country’s old-fashioned system rattles and clanks
along like it always has, smudging our skies in the process.
Our ability to brush aside the past to focus on the present
was probably a good strategy for survival over the millennia,
but not so good when it comes to evaluating the long-term
effects of our actions.
Consequently, technological progress often carries a heftier
price tag than it should. Solutions tend to be reactive rather
than carefully planned with an eye toward the future. And
the two areas where the price is steepest are environmental
and public health.
Humans have been using technology to adapt to changing environments
since the Stone Age. But, now, a core group of corporate interests
have stifled that process, content to profit from the technologies
they control rather than risk investment in the technologies
that will eventually replace them. Innovative technologies
that would offer a distinct advantage for the future—namely
sources of renewable energy that would minimize environmental
The trajectory we Americans seem to be taking as a technological
superpower is not without irony. Our prehistoric ancestors
were the beneficiaries of climate change, adept at moving
into new, altered eco- systems. Now we dominate the planet
and will be responsible for any climate changes that turn
ecosystems on their heads. We are setting in motion the very
forces that allowed our species to gain an evolutionary foothold
in the first place. Only this time, we’re on the other side
of the equation. We stand to lose far more than we gain from
major climate shifts.
Instead of responding to this challenge, the current crop
of political and corporate leaders are stuck in time, and
top scientists are beginning to complain about it. They accuse
the Bush administration of manipulating scientific committees,
distorting scientific information and interfering with scientific
research in order to support administrative policies and agendas.
The problem extends far beyond energy policy.
In August, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and other minority
members of the Committee on Government Reform published an
assessment of the current administration’s treatment of scientists
and science. The report (www.house.gov/ reform/min/politicsandscience)
Administration’s political interference with science has led
to misleading statements by the President, inaccurate responses
to Congress, altered web sites, suppressed agency reports,
erroneous international communications, and the gagging of
scientists. The subjects involved span a broad range, but
they share a common attribute: the beneficiaries of the scientific
distortions are important supporters of the President, including
social conservatives and powerful industry groups.”
The report then goes on to examine 20 scientific areas affected
by distortion. On the issue of global warming, the committee
members found that the Bush Administration suppressed reports
from the Environmental Protection Agency about the risk of
climate change. Meanwhile, military officials were allowed
to present “misleading information on whether a functional
[missile defense] system could be quickly deployed,” the report
Such is the world we live in. The U.S. government spent at
least $50 billion this year on the war in Iraq, in large part
a military move to protect our current system of energy consumption.
If a fraction of that amount were instead devoted to the research
and development of alternative forms of energy and the infrastructure
needed to deliver them, chances are that a number of significant
technological advances would emerge—and national security
would be enhanced in the process.
In the absence of that kind of thinking at the leadership
level, the world as we know it will continue to struggle under
the burden of decrepit technologies that should have been
replaced or significantly upgraded a decade ago.