Why U.S. and Canada Refuse to Kick Their Fossil Fuel Addiction
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Just three short years ago, it appeared that North America was on the verge of finally kicking that nasty dirty energy addiction that has been crippling our economy and energy independence. The U.S. had elected a President Barack Obama who set incredibly lofty goals for renewable energy targets, and green energy investments across the continent were higher than anywhere else in the world.
And then, all of a sudden, nothing happened. The promises of politicians went unfulfilled, investments began flowing to other countries and we returned to the fossil fuel spigot for another hit.
And though North America includes numerous countries and territories, the two biggest culprits holding the continent back are the U.S. and Canada.
In the early part of this century, both North America and Europe were investing solidly in renewable energy projects and technology. As Renewable Energy Focus pointed out:
Venture equity funding of clean energy reached $2.5bn in Europe, whereas North America saw $6.8bn venture equity funding in clean energy…The average size of investment rounds for an average company rose 103 percent to €65 million per company in North American, whereas clean energy companies in Europe saw investment rounds fall 4 percent to €27m per company.r
But in the span of just two years, from 2009 - 2011, the U.S. went from being the world leader in renewable energy investments to third behind both China and Germany. But it wasn’t from a lack of profitability. In 2011, solar firms in the U.S. were up $1.9 billion in trade differences, meaning that our technology was being bought up all over the globe. We were a leader, and we were at the forefront of renewable energy technology.
While North America was backing off of our renewable energy projects, the rest of the world seized the opportunity to take the lead. Even the oil-rich countries in the Middle East realized that an oil addiction is not sustainable:
In the Middle East, Morocco has invested $1.1 billion (Dh4 billion) in renewable energy in 2011. Saudi Arabia plans to generate 41 gigawatt energy within a few years, which will save half a million barrels of oil used for energy generation. Such initiatives after the UAE’s lead to host Irena in Abu Dhabi has changed the discussion on global climate change. The nations producing (polluting) hydrocarbons are leading the discussions to promote clean energy.
In South America, a continent that has already been working to reduce their emissions due to their location, which is considered to be especially susceptible to the effects of climate change, there is a massive push among governments to continue to develop sources of renewable energy such as hydroelectric, geothermal, and solar.
Businesses in Australia are rushing to switch their buildings over to solar power, now that the price of solar technology is falling. While they may be more motivated by money, there is an undeniable affect on electricity production and therefore carbon emissions from the switch.
In Asia, particularly China, green energy investments are skyrocketing, and China has become the world leader in renewable energy investments.
The European Union has been working towards producing more renewable energy since at least 1997, and today is the number two producer in the world of renewable energy. Germany in particular has managed to reduce their reliance on coal over the last 50 years, replacing substantial portions of their energy generation with solar power. In the UK, wind farms have become massive epicenters for both profit and energy production.
But it isn’t just renewable energy investments where North America is behind the curve, we’ve fallen behind the rest of the world in holding the dirty energy industry accountable for their actions.
The best example came recently from Brazil. After back to back oil spills off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, drilling company Transocean and oil giant Chevron were ordered to stop drilling in Brazilian waters. And while a federal court in Brazil has since ruled that both companies can continue operating the offshore rigs that are already active, they are still not allowed to start any new operations until a full investigation has concluded on what caused the two oil spills.
Contrast that to Transocean’s activities in North America, where the company owned the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded in 2010, killing 11 men and causing millions of gallons of oil to leak into the Gulf of Mexico. How did the U.S. punish the company? After a meaningless moratorium that was more symbolic than anything else, our government decided to speed up the offshore oil drilling permitting process. That’s a stark difference from Brazil’s actions to ban the company from doing business in their waters.
And Canada has fared no better on their punishments. In its first year of operation, the Keystone I pipeline had one major oil spill and 11 minor spills. Rather than taking action to hold the company accountable, they were allowed to move forward with an even bigger and more flawed pipeline plan (Keystone XL) that would put both Canada and the U.S. at risk of a massive oil leak or spill.
Fracking has provided another great example. In the U.K., fracking company Cuadrilla Resources voluntarily halted their fracking activities in areas where the practice had been linked to earthquakes. In the U.S., even after a U.S. Geological Service study said that there was a strong correlation between fracking and earthquakes, no fracking well sites have been been halted except for five wastewater injection well sites in Youngstown, Ohio, after it was confirmed that the disposal sites caused 12 earthquakes.
So with everyone else making huge gains in the area of renewable energy, why has North America fallen so far off its pedestal? There are two answers to that question, and they are joined at the hip: Money and spin.
That money and spin plays itself out in three important areas—the media, government and lobbying/astroturf groups.
In the U.S., we’re cursed with a media that devotes far more time to climate change skeptics and industry insiders. From Stephen Lacey at Think Progress:
According to a new analysis of data released last year, American newspapers are far more likely to publish uncontested claims from climate deniers, many of whom challenge whether the planet is warming at all and are “almost exclusively found” in the U.S. media. The study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
The researchers were trying to answer three important questions: Is climate denial and disinformation as prevalent in the newspapers outside America? Is it mostly right-wing papers publishing these pieces? And what types of skeptics are being published in different countries?
In all three categories, the U.S. emerged as a unique leader in promoting climate denial in the press.
And print journalism is only a small portion of the problem. The main area where spin has become so effective is in our televised media. According to Media Matters, during the massive heat waves that swept the continent this past summer, news outlets like ABC, Fox News and CNN barely mentioned the role of climate change in their coverage (the only time Fox even mentioned climate change was when they were deriding it.) They go on to point out that only 8 percent of total media coverage even mentioned the role of man made climate change in the massive heat waves.
Previous reports from Media Matters also told us that media outlets were far more likely to host anti-environmental guests, and worse, dirty energy industry insiders, when discussing energy policy and climate change.
Again, things in Canada were no better. Reports show that climate change coverage in Canada has been dropping every year since 2007, even as the evidence of climate change becomes more and more clear.
Contrast that with Australia, which recently ordered their version of Rush Limbaugh, Alan Jones, to undergo “factual accuracy training” for his constant denial of climate change and for misleading the Australian public.
But it isn’t just the media that is misleading the public, elected officials in North America have been doing a fine job of spreading misinformation themselves.
In the U.S., politicians (primarily from the Republican Party) have been on a crusade to convince the American public that President Obama and the Democratic Party are responsible for the spike in gasoline prices, they are responsible for the lack of jobs because of their pesky oversight agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and that they are holding us back from energy independence and job growth by not approving dangerous projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Further north, Canadian environment minister Peter Kent has been telling the entire world that Canada’s vast tar sands reserves are not only the wave of our energy future, but that they are safe and virtually renewable. Behind closed doors, however, Kent has been telling those closest to him that there is absolutely no evidence to back up his claims.
So what’s the point? Why would politicians and the media even concern themselves with this spin?
The answer to that lies in the second part of our equation—money. Billions upon billions of dollars have been spent by the dirty energy industry in North America to set up astroturf organizations, to fund political campaigns, and to buy advertisements aimed at keeping the populace in the dark about their destructive practices.
In Canada, the dirty energy industry lobby has been hard at work creating whitewash campaigns to help sell Canadian tar sands to the rest of the world, even claiming that they are producing "ethical oil," whatever that is. To make matters worse, the tar sands lobby even formed secret committees with the Canadian government, meaning that they were able to completely infiltrate the political system.
In the U.S., the dirty energy industry’s lobbying efforts have been blinding. Astroturf groups are a dime a dozen, and have been working to push everything from deregulation to the approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline to increased oil drilling on public lands. All of the money from these groups can be directly traced back to the dirty energy industry, and all of the money spent on these efforts serves only to increase the industry’s bottom line.
North American companies and politicians appear to be incredibly short-sighted in their energy decisions. While conventional fossil fuels may be profitable and easy today, they are not sustainable, and they are destroying the planet. Other countries understand the threats that the globe is facing, but the U.S. and Canada seem perfectly content to bury their heads in the sand.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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