Thursday, March 26, 2009

More Bills Introduced

More bills relevant to science policy have been introduced; their significance and potential to ultimately get out of comittee, put to vote, and ultimately made into law is highly questionable, but nonetheless important in shaping the rhetoric of the science policy debate in congress.

H.R. 1622, introduced by Oklahoma's Republican John Sullivan.  

The bill generally calls for the Secretary of Energy to direct a 5 year investigation into the natural gas vehicles.  Sullivan is one of the most conservative members of congress, and voted with the Bush administration 100% of the time.  While it is unlikely that this bill will go anywhere in congress, it is a testament further bipartisan initiative to explore energy alternatives - whether or not environmental concerns are part of the language used in defining relevant problems.  On the one hand, natural gas vehicles could permit Americans to reduce their overall emissions, and cut dependence on foreign oil (the United States is relatively well endowed in natural gas, compared to oil).  

On the other hand, this may represent a problem for environmentalists as a whole.  As Shellenberger and Nordhaus famously argued in their piece the Death of Environmentalism, environmental concerns will only be addressed through federal legislation if the issues are framed as everyone's problem, rather than the special interest of a fringe group.  The economics of oil have made this a reality to some extent: oil is becoming increasingly scarce, so people want alternatives - regardless of whether they care about climate change or not.  Sullivan's bill is indicative of this phemonemon (though by no means is it the first or even a particularly early indication of it).  However, the precedent it sets could be problematic for environmentalists because bipartisan support for economical alternatives to foreign oil could open the door to less environmentally friendly alternatives, such as oil shale.

Oil shale, a form of oil mixed with rock, is extremely abundant in the Rocky Mountains, but it is currently very expensive to extract.  Environmental groups should perhaps be weary of how broad the scope of scientific inquiry into viable energy sources becomes.

H.R. 1689, introduced by Virginia Democrat Rick Boucher.  

This bill calls for increased development and deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS)  technologies for existing fossil fuel electrical generation plants (in other words an exploration of "clean coal").  It is interesting to note that, although existing CCS technologies are widely decried as imperfect, incomplete and indeed imaginary, the bill does not call for additional scientific research.  Rather, it calls for deployment of technologies which already "exist."  

Looking at Boucher's voting history, he has been among the Democrats opposed to any restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.  This bill is clearly an attempt to promote coal, and to resist its replacement by natural gas.  Interestingly, rather than outright opposing restrictions on GHG emissions, Boucher is attempting to make coal more competitive with natural gas in an environment (no pun intended) of taxed emissions.  Does he see such a state of affairs as inevitable, then?  Maybe so - he has been rather explicit in his intentions.  

Boucher's house website contains (select) statements from various legislators on the issue.  This statement summarizes the position of Boucher's office: 

Today 58% of U.S. homes are heated with natural gas, and numerous industries are heavily reliant on it. If large scale switching by utilities from coal to natural gas occurs, tens of millions of Americans would experience deep economic pain, and many domestic industries would be dislocated. The early arrival of CCS is essential to prevent this economic disruption in a carbon constrained economy

The argument against fuel switching is on economic grounds - but does CCS really solve this?  If we fiat that a cap and trade bill with some regulatory teeth is enacted in the near future, then coal would have to actually demonstrate significantly reduced emissions in order to be competitive with natural gas.  Given that technology is currently inadequate to make this happen, why didn't Boucher call for research, rather than deployment?  It's hard to believe that his staffers simply failed to do their homework and crunch the numbers properly.  Much more likely, Boucher (along with many others) is attempting to distort the debate by presenting this technology as more viable than it is, keeping coal firmly entrenched in the landscape of America's energy future.

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