Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Road to Be Taken?

Illinois, the Land of Ethanol?

It’s January 11, Barack Obama’s inauguration is a little more than a week away, and we are beginning to see how things are shaping up for his administration.

I live in San Francisco, a dense, expensive community, and think that almost all issues come down, eventually, to land use and transportation – how we develop as a city, who gets to live here based on the cost of living, and how we get from Point A to Point B. I think that’s it in a nutshell for the nation (and the world) as well – where we live and work and how we get from one place to another. And all those issues relate to energy – the energy that it takes to till the land and grow crops, the energy it takes to transport crops and other goods, the energy it takes to live in a suburb versus the energy it takes to live in a dense community, and so on.

I’m thrilled that we are getting rid of George W. Bush and his administration, but agree with my 10-year-old niece that Obama is a “mixed bag.” He is a product of the people – and their money – who got him to the White House. As such he’s being lobbied from all sides.

So how is Barack Obama approaching the issue of energy and its nexus with land use and transportation?

The only way we can tell, so far, is through his few pronouncements on the issue of energy and through his appointments.

During the last debate between Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain, Obama differentiated himself from environmentalists by coming out in support of “clean coal,” a term widely considered an oxymoron, especially since the December 22 Tennessee Valley coal ash spill. (A friend of mine who went to Denver for the DNC reported back that “clean coal” signs had been posted all over the city.)

And his appointments?

From the West

He has nominated Steven Chu to be Secretary of Energy. Steven Chu has been the head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for some time now. A scientist/Green Party friend of mine who works at Lawrence Berkeley reacted positively to Chu’s selection, saying that at the time of Chu’s selection that he, Chu, was the only Obama nomination that he, my friend, liked so far.

So what’s good about Chu? Well for one thing, said my scientist friend, Chu rides a bicycle to work.

Wow. Anyone who rides a bicycle to work, especially someone that HIGH UP, gets beaucoup brownie points in my book. And the Wall Street Journal has sent up red warning flags about him because he is apparently on the record calling coal a nightmare, and advocating that American gas taxes be raised to the level of what European drivers pay. But he needs to proceed cautiously. He is already being courted by the coal industry.

From the Midwest

Obama has also nominated Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, to be the Secretary of Agriculture, and Ray LaHood, a moderate Republican congressman from Illinois, to be Secretary of Transportation. Well, what does the Secretary of Agriculture have to do with transportation, you ask? Ethanol, that’s what …

To many people, ethanol is just more snake oil, something that a few people can get rich of off and that will briefly extend delusions about western lifestyle – but at the expense of the soil, future generations, and current generations that depend on inexpensive corn for survival. The Organic Consumers Association, in response, has started an online petition to stop the appointment of Vilsack to the post of Secretary of Agriculture because of his support for the ethanol industry and CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).

Ray LaHood, on the other hand, is getting praise from some Illinois bicyclists who say that he’s been a great advocate for recreational bicyclists on trails and CMAQ (the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program). But San Francisco bicyclists naturally want to know what he thinks about bicycling on streets. LaHood also supports Amtrak, the federally run and subsidized passenger rail system, and has broken with other Republicans over funding Amtrak.

All over the country …

People want a slice of the next stimulus package pie, and in the case of transportation, there is competition between the highway and construction lobby on the one side and the advocates of public transportation and smart growth on the other side. Which way will Obama lean? If he takes seriously the warnings about global climate change, he should lean towards the advocates of public transportation and smart growth.

The climate connection

James Hansen, the climate scientist who heads the NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and who has been openly critical of the Bush administration’s dismissal of concerns about global climate change, recently sent a letter to Barack and Michelle Obama urging them to take action on the climate. Hansen proposes, briefly:

1) A moratorium and phase out of coal plants that do not capture and sequester carbon dioxide;

2) A flat carbon tax that is collected at the wellhead or at the point of entry to the US, with distribution of 100 percent of the dividends to the public on a per-capita basis. This tax system rewards people who use less energy and penalizes those who use more; and,

3) A research and development program for "4th Generation nuclear power.”

I’m nervous about nuclear power, but one of the participants on the Car-Free Living listserv writes the following:

Fourth GNP can “burn” waste, leaving a small volume of waste with a half-life of decades rather than thousands of years. Thus 4th GNP could help solve the nuclear waste problem, which must be dealt with in any case. Because of this, a portion of the $25B that has been collected from utilities to deal with nuclear waste justifiably could be used to develop 4th generation reactors. [Hansen] stresses that this R&D program doesn't commit us to building such reactors, but rather to develop a working prototype, so we have a workable option in case renewables cannot be scaled up quickly enough to phase out coal-powered plants. He also says that coal plants with carbon capture and sequestration is a worthwhile R&D effort; it doesn't exist yet, but a workable prototype gives us additional options, including capturing carbon emissions from biofuel plants.

I’m certain Hansen is right about the need to confront global climate change and do so immediately, but I think I lean towards environmental justice superstar Van Jones, who recently said of carbon sequestration, “It sounds painful. You take the carbon and put it in big holes in the ground, and someone will just sit on it and hope it never comes out. It turns out, there aren’t that many big holes in the ground …” He then added, “And don’t let me get started on safe nuclear …”

Apparently public transportation and smart growth went unmentioned in Hansen's letter (, but I hope others can get the ears of the Obamas about these solutions to the climate crisis.

I took this photograph of an Illinois cornfield with silos in the background last summer from an Amtrak train, the California Zephyr, as we were traveling between Chicago and Denver. Again, the photograph only partially captures the beauty of the landscape.

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