Occupy’s Weak Spot: Energy Policy


By VJ Epstein

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 Percent 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 Percent, 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 Percent 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, bio-gas from methane, and water-fueled cars. However, they did so with no reference to the time-frame a complete switch-over might take or how the 99 Percent 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 time-frame in which that happens is relevant, especially when the goal requires that the 99 Percent 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 time-frame 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 when I left the City College of New York to attend the Columbia University School of Journalism 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 energy efficient 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.