Bush Readies Climate Change Announcement

| Wed Jan. 17, 2007 1:06 PM EST

There will likely be more solid news on this as we get closer to the State of the Union, but there are rumblings afoot that President Bush is prepared to soften his line on global warming in his Jan. 23 SOTU. A Reuters article today says the main emphasis will be on ethanol.

One source briefed by White House officials said Bush's speech on January 23 could call for over 60 billion gallons a year of ethanol to be mixed into U.S. gasoline supplies by 2030.
That would be a massive increase from the 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol use by 2012 required by current U.S. law.

Environmentalists have been skeptical of ethanol for quite some time -- in 1995, Mother Jones wrote an article titled "The Real Cost of Ethanol" that pointed out that support for ethanol has less to do with saving the environment and a lot more to do with political donations from and subsidies to the powerful corn lobby. More recently, Slate did a great job of explaining why ethanol is not environmentally-friendly or energy efficient.

David Pimentel, a professor of ecology at Cornell University who has been studying grain alcohol for 20 years, and Tad Patzek, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, co-wrote a recent report that estimates that making ethanol from corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel itself actually contains.
The two scientists calculated all the fuel inputs for ethanol production—from the diesel fuel for the tractor planting the corn, to the fertilizer put in the field, to the energy needed at the processing plant—and found that ethanol is a net energy-loser.
In addition to their findings on corn, they determined that making ethanol from switch grass requires 50 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol yields, wood biomass 57 percent more, and sunflowers 118 percent more. The best yield comes from soybeans, but they, too, are a net loser, requiring 27 percent more fossil energy than the biodiesel fuel produced. In other words, more ethanol production will increase America's total energy consumption, not decrease it.

That may all be besides the point. The appeal of ethanol in many people's minds, I suspect, is not that America gets more green, but that when presented in simplest terms, it looks like an ethanol surge morphs our dependence on foreign oil into a dependence on domestic corn. And Americans like the sound of that, especially in the midwest.

Earlier this week, the UK's Observer reported that Blair and other senior British officials left pre-Christmas talks with Bush with the impression that Bush was ready to make a major move on climate change.

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Bush and Blair held private talks on climate change before Christmas, and there is a feeling that the US President will now agree a cap on emissions in the US, meaning that, for the first time, American industry and consumers would be expected to start conserving energy and curbing pollution.

'We could now be seeing the beginning of a consensus on a post-Kyoto framework,' said a source close to the prime minister. 'President Bush is beginning to talk about more radical measures.' ... A change of heart on the environment was signalled earlier this month when the US administration unexpectedly announced that polar bears were now an endangered species because their habitat in the US state of Alaska had suffered from melting ice sheets caused by global warming. The government is now required to act on threats to the bears' survival.

Polar bears, for the record, are probably goners, the first highly-visible casualties of global warming. Read more here.

More speculation on Bush's big environmental move came Monday from Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby:

On Saturday I put the case for a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system to James Connaughton, the head of the Council on Environmental Quality at the White House. Far from denouncing these policies as eco-socialist nonsense, Connaughton sounded open to them. "In concept I can agree with you," he said. Something must be done to stem demand for climate-warming energy, and although there are several ways of getting there, a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system would be the most "elegant."

Whoa! This may be spin, but it's certainly new spin. Only a few months ago, Al Hubbard, director of Bush's National Economic Council, brushed aside the idea of a carbon tax: "The American people are not interested in paying more for gasoline," he told me.

Next week we'll see whether Connaughton's reasonable-sounding views are reflected in Bush's State of the Union speech. The key thing to watch is whether Bush talks only about energy security or whether he emphasizes climate. Energy security is mostly a dumb objective, but climate policy is crucial.

It's true that the United States imports 60 percent of its petroleum, about double the share of two decades ago. But cutting U.S. oil imports won't insulate the nation from instability in petro-states. There is a global price for oil, and Americans will feel the hit from a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia or a rebellion in Nigeria whether they fill their trucks with gas that's foreign or domestic.

And for good measure, Mallaby throws in a little tidbit on ethanol:

A mistaken focus on energy security can undermine good policy on climate. If you just want to cut imports, switching cars to corn-based ethanol sounds great: The United States will get its fuel from the Midwest rather than the Middle East, a politically irresistible promise. But corn-based ethanol is only marginally better than gasoline in terms of greenhouse emissions. Federal subsidies for this technology would be better spent elsewhere -- for example on next-generation cellulosic ethanol.

For now, the White House is denying that climate change is on the table, but something is in the air in Washington, and it's more than your standard fossil fuel pollution. Stay tuned.