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Occupy's Weak Spot: Energy Policy

Victor Epstein
Painful Truths
by Victor Epstein
Feb 10, 2012
...Lifestyle issues cloud rational discussions

I learned something about Occupy Wall Street this week, which is that there are quite a few people in the movement who would rather undermine the energy industry in the longer term than advance the interests of the 99% in the here and now.

Look, I'm unemployed, faltering middle class, and going broke. I'd love to wage political war against the fat-cats of the energy industry, but right now I just need some relief at the gas pump. I need cheaper natural gas, oil and electricity. And I'm not prepared to live in a cave the next 50 years while the world makes the shift to solar and wind.

I've got no love for an energy industry that has tried to buy our democracy out from under us and gouged us via global price fixing, but I don't see a point in fighting them on everything they try to do. My energy policy filter is based on whether or not a new proposal is good for the 99%. Not whether or not its detrimental to oil companies.

So, I wrote an editorial earlier this week that exposed the many misrepresentations about the Keystone XL pipeline and called for approval of the $7 billion project, which would carry oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries in Texas and Louisiana for processing.

And I got hammered.

The harshest rhetoric leveled at the editorial, the pipeline and the energy industry was reminiscent of the unfounded allegations and racial code directed at President Barack Obama by the Tea Party. The personal attacks were employed with a fervor and a reckless disregard for the truth that I've come to associate with religious extremists seeking to impose their belief systems on the rest of us.

The Keystone critics speculated on everything from what kind of car I drive to whether or not I was infiltrating the Occupy Wall Street movement on behalf of the energy industry, simply because I didn't give the environmental lobby a free ride.

The misrepresentation of convenient fictions as factual information by my critics was reminiscent of the religious right's one-sided crusade against Sharia law in the United States. Instead of dealing with the Keystone proposal on its own merits from the perspective of the 99%, most couldn't seem to get past the erroneous notion that we can somehow stop the tar sands oil dig by blocking the pipeline extension.

Poster Brad Drac summed up the general sentiment among Keystone critics when he said the "tar sands shouldn't be used at all." Sadly, I wasn't writing about the merits of the tar sands. I was writing about the merits of the Keystone pipeline proposal. The tar sands already exist.

More than a few of the other Keystone critics indicated a willingness to commit the 99% to unspecified energy sacrifices in order to hurt the oil industry. One opined that "there's no way this oil pipeline can actually be a good idea." Another offered up the idea that "this article was a bunch of crap - the reason we aren't way farther ahead with solar energy is that the oil companies have stopped it."

What any of that has to do with the Keystone, I do not know.

However, I do know that the U.S. is providing $37 billion in government subsidies to makers of solar panels, wind turbines and the like from 2010 to 2020. China has earmarked $740 billion during the same period. I also know that we already have 100,000 miles of existing oil pipelines and 1.2 million miles of natural gas lines in the U.S.

Without them we wouldn't be having this online discussion at all. We'd be waiting for a manual printing press to crank out tomorrow's paper so we could gather outside the general store to read it.

The Keystone critics championed a variety of alternatives to fossil fuels that included solar, wind, hydroelectric power, biogas from methane, and water-fueled cars. However, they did so with no reference to the timeframe a complete switch-over might take or how the 99% would heat our homes and fuel our vehicles during the transition.

What the posts really succeeded in doing was illustrating the huge gap that exists between criticizing the status quo, which the present incarnation of Occupy Wall Street is very good at, and actually formulating meaningful solutions to difficult policy challenges, which future incarnations of Occupy Wall Street may someday be asked to undertake.

The pressing energy question of our time is not whether or  not we should make the shift to renewables to stop global warming, but how quickly we can do so as the planet's most populous nations  - India and China - develop their economies and vastly increase global consumption of fossil fuels. They account for roughly .

The Energy Information Administration forecasts that renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, . There is no forecast further out.

Tiny Denmark, which leads the world in wind and solar conversion, expects to meet all of its electric needs in this manner by 2050. That's nearly 40 years from now.

All of which means some of us will be living in a cave and reading by candlelight an awfully long time if we actually back up our environmental rhetoric with action by shutting off the fossil fuel spigot.

Blocking the 1,661-mile-long Keystone to punish the energy industry is akin to Gen. George Patton's screwy decision to ignore orders and have his soldiers cross the Elbe River to attack the remnants of the German Army in the final week of World War II. There is a point in both scenarios where zeal crosses the line into sheer stupidity.

The painful truth about the Keystone is that it's a good project in a dirty industry. Blocking this pipeline will place the environment at greater risk to prevent the energy industry from saving some money on transportation costs.

Without the Keystone, Canada will either build its own complex refineries, each of which will entail a significant environmental impact, or transport the same volume of oil to the Gulf via oil tanker to the tune of 180 voyages a year. It will also boost demand for the ethanol produced by the corn farmers trying to prevent the Keystone's passage through Nebraska.

Unlike the Keystone critics, I think the environment is safer with fewer refineries, fewer supertankers and less ethanol. So, I support the pipeline extension.

The Keystone critics also seemed to equate oil with man-made chromium, mercury and nuclear fuel rods when they wrote about the threat it poses to the plains of Nebraska. Never mind that crude occurs in the ground naturally and that more than 9 million barrels of proven oil reserves already exist in the Cornhusker State.

The prevailing notion seemed to be that if even one barrel of oil from the Keystone somehow finds its way into Nebraska soil it could jeopardize food production throughout the state. The underlying premise is the farcical idea that we can have energy without risk, right here and now, if we just want it bad enough.

Unfortunately, that's just not true.

You can't make yourself taller and better looking just by wanting it badly enough either. Trust me, I've tried.

I buy into the Occupy mantra that "a better world is possible," but I think the timeframe in which that happens is relevant, especially when the goal requires that the 99% make unspecified sacrifices. When it comes to the conversion to solar and wind energy, we're looking at a very long lead time. Pretending that timeframe is irrelevant is irresponsible and elitist.

The notion of energy without risk is reminiscent of the nonsense you hear on television commercials these days, when shysters brag about "investment without risk." There's a term for that – it's called "insider trading." The proper term for energy without risk at this point in the evolution of the human race is "science fiction."

Our policy-makers are tasked with managing energy's benefits and burdens, which include the environmental risks posed by the various fuel sources. They don't always do a very good job, but the idea that we live in a perfect world where it's possible to generate energy without environmental risk is juvenile.

Sure, the entire world may be basking in the risk-free and endless energy of the sun in 50 years. Until that halcyon day we have to live in the present world, which is powered primarily by coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear and hydro.

The rowdy debate my editorial sparked on one of the on Facebook reminded me a bit of the misguided uproar in Florida that led to a ban on oil and natural gas drilling in its coastal waters in 2010, after the BP oil spill in the Gulf.

Millions of Floridians railed against the environmental evils of the energy industry, but their outrage was not matched by any measurable decline in gasoline consumption in a state with no gasoline refineries. There was also no noticeable decline in air conditioning use in a state that leads the nation in the .

In sum, Floridians refused to shoulder any of the environmental burdens of living in an advanced society fueled by electricity after the spill, but they gave up none of the benefits. Instead, they just shifted the burdens to less affluent states.

That's low.

Keystone critics commit a smilar sin when they act as if we can live in a perfect world, where energy without risk is possible right here and now if we just want it badly enough.

What they're really doing is shifting more of the burdens of our oil needs to Canada, by forcing our neighbors to handle both refining and extraction in the oil sands region. Just like Florida.

I also think we're way too quick at Occupy Wall Street to embrace everything that comes out of the environmental lobby without question.

In journalism school, my professors told me time and again to "follow the money" and that's just as true now as it was when I left the City College of New York to attend the Columbia University School of Journlaism in 1990.

So, let's look at the agriculture interests that oppose the Keystone pipeline in Nebraska. They're getting rich on ethanol right now, even though it's an environmental nightmare.

Ethanol is not an efficient energy fuel to produce because it uses up too much tractor fuel, hydrogen-based fertilizer and the like. However, that didn't stop the big corporate farm lobby from securing $20 billion worth of tax credits for ethanol production before the 30-year-old subsidy ran out last year.

It's a safe bet they'd like to regain that subsidy. Holding the Keystone hostage is one way to advance that goal.

The ethanol gold rush accelerated the clear-cutting of Brazilian rainforests and exponentially expanded the size of the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where nothing that breathes oxygen can live due to nitrogen runoff from the fertilizer used in ethanol-related corn production. Ethanol production also pulled corn from use in food products, causing prices to soar for staples like tortillas, which prompted rioting by the 99% in Mexico in 2007 and elsewhere.

Ethanol enjoyed widespread support among environmental groups early on. Some of the same groups vastly overstated the number of jobs that could be created by the so-called "Green Economy."

They thought we could create hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs by making solar panels and wind turbines for the rest of the world, and we spent a lot of money trying to make it happen. Most of it was wasted.


Because China, which has $3 trillion in foreign currency reserves, is spending $740 billion through 2020 on subsidies for renewable energy manufacturing. Now, all we can hope for is that China's big wind turbine and solar panel makers will build the devices they sell us right here in the U.S., just as Toyota and Nissan do with cars.

We didn't see China's huge green manufacturing grab coming because we're way too slow to subject environmental claims to the same kind of healthy skepticism as claims by other special interest groups. We need to remember that people make huge salaries at some of the environmental groups, which employ political lobbyists and have large payrolls.

Some nonprofits manage those financial pressures more elegantly than others, but they all have them. When the enviros whine and scream that the sky is falling in connection with projects like the Keystone, they boost donations. That means it's appropriate for the rest of us to expect them to offer realistic alternatives, instead of just crying bloody murder.

Look, this is a scary world, but it's not so friggin scary that we have to torpedo a worthwhile project like the Keystone XL just because it's backed by Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. So, please – try to throttle back a bit on the enviro rhetoric so we can discuss energy policy in a more intelligent manner. And keep this in mind while you're at it:

-Lawrence Selzer, president of The Conservation Fund, had total compensation of $606,130 in calendar year 2010, when the Arlington, Va.–based nonprofit had revenue of $171 million. See for yourself right here:
-Mark Tercek, president of the Nature Conservancy, had total compensation of $493,993 during the fiscal year ended June 30, 2010, when the Arlington, Va.–based nonprofit had revenue of $2.2 billion. See for yourself right here:

-Frances Beinecke, president of the National Resources Defense Council, had total compensation of $432,742 during the fiscal year ended June 30, 2010, when the New York City–based nonprofit had revenue of $100 million. See for yourself right here:

Bottom line, there "ain't no freebies" at The Cynical Times. Everyone gets scrutinized.

If you're looking for a news publication that will utter knowing lies to make you feel good about yourself, you're in the wrong shop. There's nothing but painful truths and agony of thought in here.

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Comments Post a Comment

by guest on Feb-10-2012
Stating that you would have to live in a cave for the next 50 years while the world switches to solar shows how grossly ignorant you actually are.
by morphustin on Feb-10-2012
Great article I don't agree wholeheartedly but you should be able to express your opinion.  I honestly don't know how to feel about the pipeline I am against but not totally in theory.  Also, make sure to check out the UNA-USA conference call on FEB. 16th on sustainablity and EPA's budget hearing on FEB. 13th to get more of a feel fore these issues.
by guest on Feb-11-2012
Renewable energy sources will hardly be able to substitute fossil fuels in 50 years. We'd better prepare for a low energy life rather than a green-energy supported business-as-usual life. Anyone has tried to explain how is going to be produced 15TW global mean power from renewables, have you done the math? I mean does anyone really know anything about the huge rare earths, surface, and capital needs? Do you know anything of solar PV or eolic energy return on energy investment? Do you think there's enough uranium minable to feed current nuclear plants at present production rate for many years? Did you know materials needed for fusion energy simply doesn't exist?

I don't think it's a responsible attitude to continue encouraging people to burn anything at our disposal, while waiting for a technological miracle. It's not just a matter of environmental care, it's a basic approach of risk management. It's common sense.   
by guest on Feb-11-2012
you would rather screw us all in he long run, than use this rare opportunity to set us on he right path. there is tons of money out there, and all we need is the will to create a WPA, NASA, Manhatan project style alternative energy sector that would insure clean air and water, jobs, creation of manufacturing, etc. it is interconneced, and the current administration appears to be moving in that direction. if waste too much on oil, gas, nuclear, we will miss our ops to creae green energy.
by guest on Feb-11-2012
Complicated issue.  The environmental risk of the pipeline is blown way out of proportion.  Do an environmental impact statement.  Put regulations on petroleum speculation that forces traders to hold the stocks for longer periods of time and short term spikes in prices at the pump will be less frequent.
by guest on Feb-11-2012
Look, I'm self-employed, living at the poverty level, not quite broke yet, but I don't need relief at the gas pump. I drive a used Corolla, but it's got a good MPG. I only spend about $50 a month on gas, far less than I spend on other bills. So, I'm wondering what kind of car this guy drives and, given that he's unemployed, where he has to drive each week that he desperately needs relief at the pump. Forget the pipeline and give me relief from healthcare bills.
by jackie on Feb-11-2012
I don't think that you fully understand the scientific facts behind extracting oil from sand. Allow me to quote from an ecology textbook,
by jackie on Feb-11-2012
Let me try that again. Most of my message, above, didn't post.

I don't think that you fully understand the scientific facts behind extracting oil from sand. Allow me to quote from an ecology textbook, Sustaining the Earth: An Integrated Approach, 9e by Miller and Spoolman:

"But there are several serious problems in tapping into this resource [oil sand]. It requires extracting and processing 1.8 metric tons (2 tons) of oil sand to produce 1 barrel of oil. This has a severe impact on the land. Giant machines clear boreal forest and convert the land to what looks like a moonscape. The entire process also produces huge amounts of toxic sludge, as well as more water pollution, air pollution, and CO2 per unit of energy than extracting and processing conventional crude oil produces. In 2008, Environmental Defense called Canada's oil sands industry ' the most destructive project on earth.'

In 2006, energy economist Peter Tertzakian estimated that it takes the energy equivalent of 0.7 barrels of oil to produce 1 barrel of oil from oil sands. This low net energy yield occurs because of the large amounts of conventional oil and natural gas needed to extract, process, and refine oil from oil sands. To make matters worse, a natural gas shortage looms in Canada and the United States, and the higher cost of importing the natural gase to produce oil from oil sand will raise its cost and further decrease its already low net energy yield" (Miller and Spoolman 197).
by victor1212 on Feb-11-2012
I wrote this story and I comletely agree with the poster who suggested we need a Manhattan Project style commitment to sustainable energy. But I don't want to be without affordable gasoline and electricity while we're waiting for that project to yield a scientific miracle that gives us plentiful energy without risk.

I completely oppose the shcool of thought within the environmental movement that pushes envirnmental reforms through on the backs of the 99%, instead of the 1%. That's been going on for a long damn time and I'm tired of paying the price for everything in this country. If you want clean energy, do it on the backss of the 1%. Don't champion policies that price the rest of us out of gasoline and electricity while they continue to use it.

By the way, I own a gas guzzler but I hardly ever drive it. I bought an FJ Cruiser for storm coverage. It's a big, powerful 4X4 and it's a safety issue for me. I really don't think it's right to criticize me owning this vehcile unless you're a journalist or emegrency responder who works hurricanes in a Prius. Which would be pretty friggin reckless and stupid.
by jackie on Feb-11-2012
So, to summarize on my comment, above, it would be necessary to use almost as much oil and natural gas in extraction, processing, and refining as you'd get out of the oil sands, while polluting the air and water and destroying the local environment. It just doesn't make scientific or economic sense to do this. Further, since this project would contribute to the natural gas shortage, other harmful energy extraction processes like fracking would be more likely to occur, causing more pollution to the air and water, more destruction of local ecosystems, and more cancer to people and animals.

The only people who will benefit from the oil sands project are those who stand to make short-term financial profits without considering the consequences. It won't do much good for the rest of us and if you think that it will you've bought into the propaganda that those who stand to profit financially have put out. Don't be fooled.
by carminasings on Feb-11-2012
I would love to have my home be 100% dependent on solar rather than the grid...but I'm a struggling member of the 99% and my desires are tempered by the needs of my family and practicality.  So when a solar installation company was able to put a decent sized solar array on my home as a lease, and the cost of the energy was roughly equivalent to what I was paying the utility, I went for it.  My solar array doesn't produce all of my electricity by a long shot...but it is me taking a step in the right direction.  It is me making a stand for principles I believe in.  

Likewise, my husband wants a new car, and wants an SUV.  The type he wants can come as a hybrid.  When I did some calculation, the additional cost for getting the hybrid is roughly equivalent to the amount of money we'll save at the current miles he drives and the current price of gasoline.  So we will be getting a hybrid.  

If everyone in the 99% made decisions like these, and encouraged their friends, neighbors, families, business associates, coworkers, and government representatives to do the same, we would be well on the right track.

(My next car...I'm hoping it will be electric.  :)  We'll see, but my current vehicles has very low miles for its 5 years and runs well.  I can't make that kind of change right now.  I have plans for more solar arrays....just haven't found the funds yet.) 
by victor1212 on Feb-11-2012
Great post Jackie. Really, great stuff. But see what you're really doing is raging against the tar sands, which I am not defending. What I've been defending is the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from the tar sands to complex refineries in the Gulf.

I think a lot of the opposition to the Keystone is really opposition to the tar sands. It's based on the erroneous assumption that if we block one we block the other. My research suggests to me that if we block the Keystone we increase the environmental burdens of the tar sands and shift some of the benefits to China. We don't make the tar sands untenable.

Sadly, the tar sands are alreday there. The extraction sites are visible from space now and they're not going away. If you want to protest it I will write a story about its hazards and how we would replace the oil extracted from it. I will march with you, but I will not cut off my nose to spite my face by calling for a Keystone block.


Because blocking the Keystone would push Canada to build complex refineries in the tar sands region, which would hurt the environment. It would mean at least another 180 supertanker loads on the high seas, which could hurt the environment, and it would shift this oil to China, which has weaker enviro protections for the burning of fossil fuels than us - which would probably mean even more damage to the environment.

In short, I think a vote against the Keystone is a real-world vote against the environment, not a vote for the environment or aagainst the tar sands. The tar sands are there with or witou the Keystone XL pipeline.
by victor1212 on Feb-11-2012
I love what you're doing Carminasings and wish I could emulate you, but I'm a renter. I'm in an apartment and there's no way for me to get off the damn power company grid.

What I really want is some kind of small wind turbine to place in my windows and connect to a battery system that I could plug into. Such a setup would save me money and provide me with power in the event of an emegrency, which is a big deal to me as someone who has covered mre than a dozen hurricanes in the field as a journalist.

I'd also like to switch out my four-wheel-drive Toyota FJ for an equally powerfully hybrid vehcile, but the cost issues are daunting. I can't sell my FJ for even a fraction of what it costs to replace it with a hybrid or full electric.

Clearly, there's an untapped market for all this stuff.
by victor1212 on Feb-11-2012
In my opinion, the guest post about energy speculators is the best in a month, because it proposes a solution that doesn't burden the 99%. The poster suggested we "put regulations on petroleum speculation that force traders to hold the stocks for longer periods of time and short term spikes in prices at the pump will be less frequent." If we added a tax on the trading of fossil fuel energy stock we could take that revenue and put it into a Manhattan Project for renewables while making green energy investment more attractive by comparison
by guest on Feb-13-2012
I think regardless of if you agree with Occupy or not, there are many energy solutions out there that are unexplored & underresearched. I want a president who is willing to aknowledge those possibilities & all the back & forth on Keystone XL doesnt help. I dislike it not because of the agri-biz but because of the environmental impacts on land & native peoples in the areas which it could pass. I feel like all presidential candidates oppose researching newer forms of energy outside of the solar/wind arena. Thats why, since we waste our votes every four years anyway, I'm wasting mine on Jill Stein.
by victor1212 on Feb-14-2012
Good point Jill Stein and thank you for weighing in. I think we need to make sure we have adequate supplies of fossil fuels as we make the transition to sources of fuel that don't produce greenhouse gases, like solar, wind and hyrdo. I do not share the environmental lobby's willingness to make sacrifices on the backs of the 99% as this transition is made. And I do not share the idea that a vote against the Keystone is a vote against the tar sands and global warming. The tar sands is a done deal. The only way to put it out of business is to increase solar and wind and make them even cheaper. The leader in this area is actually China, which is making solar cells and wind turbines more affordable by subsidizing their production in order to secure all the jobs created making them. I think the environmental lobby's opposition to nuclear is also problematic because it wrongly assumes we can make a rapid shift to energy without nukes. Again, it's the fable of energy without risk. Yes, nuclear sucks, but global warming sucks even more. At some point the enviro lobby has to choose its posion. This railing against everything is childlike. And the message I extract from it is that the enviro lobby is very cavalier about the suffering that $8 gasoline and $800 a month utility bills would create for the 99% if we curtail fossil fuel supplies in the short term while energy from solar and wind is still scarce. My guiding tenet is what's best for the 99% and the notion that working families are not disposable. That's why I think we need to do what we can to keep energy plentiful while we transition to solar and wind as fast as we can.

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