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Change in the Weather, Ain’t No Change in Me
Despite 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 ( 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 attacks.

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 damage—are marginalized.

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 ( reform/min/politicsandscience) states:

“The 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 says.

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.

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