With Friends Like These, Who Needs Republicans

There is this assumption in environmental and climate circles that the Republican party represents (in the United States) the biggest obstacle to political progress on climate change. Recent developments certainly support this view. Since 2009, the GOP has become increasingly hostile to climate science. Republican presidential hopefuls are marching to this same Tea Party beat (even those who not that long ago sang a different tune). Last month, this prompted Fred Hiatt, the Washington Post’s editorial page editor, to write that,

On climate change, the GOP is lost in never-never land.

But the narrative of Republicans thwarting action on climate change is oversimplified. There are powerful democrats who–historically and currently–have acted in ways that strike me as counter to the climate change cause.

Let’s recall, for example, why climate advocates rejoiced when Michigan Representative  John Dingell (D-MI), a close ally of the automotive industry, was ousted in 2008 as head of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee.

More recently, we have the case of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who has single-handedly kept the renewable energy industry from sprouting in some of the best locations of the California desert.

Here’s the backstory. In March of 2009, as the AP reported, nineteen companies had “submitted applications to build solar or wind facilities on a parcel of 500,000 desert acres” in the Mojave desert. That same month, Feinstein wrote a letter to the Secretary of Interior (who heads the agency in charge of the federal land where the renewable energy sites would be located), saying:

While I strongly support renewable energy, it is critical that these projects move forward on public and private lands well suited for that purpose.  Unfortunately, many of the sites now being considered for leases are completely inappropriate and will lead to the wholesale destruction of some of the most pristine areas in the desert…This is unacceptable. I urge you to direct the BLM to suspend any further consideration of leases to develop former railroad lands for renewable energy or for any other purpose.

Feinstein also mentioned that she was “preparing legislation to ensure the permanent protection of these lands, which were donated to the federal government for conservation.” This proved to be no idle threat. Later that year, as Todd Woody wrote in the NYT,

…Before the bill to create two new Mojave national monuments has even had its first hearing, the California Democrat has largely achieved her aim. Regardless of the legislation’s fate, her opposition means that few if any power plants are likely to be built in the monument area, a complication in California’s effort to achieve its aggressive goals for renewable energy.

Developers of the projects have already postponed several proposals or abandoned them entirely.

In his piece, Woody also noted that Senator Feinstein is chair of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the budget of the Interior Department, “giving her substantial clout over that agency, which manages the government’s landholdings.” Consequently, as he put it:

Her intervention in the Mojave means it will be more difficult for California utilities to achieve a goal, set by the state, of obtaining a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020; projects in the monument area could have supplied a substantial portion of that power.

Some of the big guns in the environmental and climate communities took note of Feinstein’s actions and were not pleased. This is my favorite quote in Woody’s NYT piece:

“This is arguably the best solar land in the world, and Senator Feinstein shouldn’t be allowed to take this land off the table without a proper and scientific environmental review,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmentalist and a partner with a venture capital firm that invested in a solar developer called BrightSource Energy. In September, BrightSource canceled a large project in the monument area.

Let us pause for a moment to behold the rich irony of Kennedy’s statement. As I said here at the time, you have to admire the guy’s chutzpa.

The controversy led California Governor Schwarzenegger to observe,

If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it.

In January of 2010, climate blogger Joe Romm penned a post that was headlined,

Green Talk vs green action: Sen. Feinstein’s scuttling of solar, wind projects a baffling mistake

Now let’s fast forward to May of 2011, and this article in the San Francisco Chronicle, which discusses the disparate alliance Feinstein has forged to back the bill she has introduced to Congress, which, if passed, will preserve over one million acres surrounding national parks at Death Valley and Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve. Here’s the post mortem reaction from the vanquished, who have mostly withdrawn their solar and wind development applications:

“It was devastating and difficult and obviously treacherous for the industry, and not the way you would hope to start a [renewable energy] renaissance, but we’re past it now,” said [Shannon] Eddy of the Large-Scale Solar Association. “Any projects within the boundaries of her monument are considered too much of a risk right now to develop.”

Wind developer Oak Creek Energy of Oakland last month pulled the plug on a five-year effort to build a wind farm in the Castle Mountain area that Feinstein wants to add to the Mojave Preserve.

Eddy also remarked of Feinstein that, when it comes to the desert, “She’s just intense. She’s persistent. She’s very formidable.”

All of which, in the laudable aim of environmental preservation, might strike some as counterproductive to the goal of kicking the fossil fuel habit.

To sum up: Yes, on climate change, today’s Republicans are ” lost in never-never land,” as Fred Hiatt put it. And yes, from 2000-2008, we had a “drill, baby, drill” Administration that ignored climate science altogether.

But on fuel economy standards and on the budding solar and wind industry in the U.S., progress has been stifled by two Democrats.

Ironically, both Dingell and Feinstein are longtime champions of the environment.

18 Responses to “With Friends Like These, Who Needs Republicans”

  1. Stu says:

    “…Senator Feinstein shouldn’t be allowed to take this land off the table without a proper and scientific environmental review,”

    Maybe that’s her point?

  2. Marlowe Johnson says:

    In the case of Dingell, the rationale for his opposition to CAFE is fairly straightforward (being from Michigan 🙄 might have something to do with it)
    Feinstein’s opposition I think is a little more difficult to understand, but may in the end turn out to be more counterproductive.  AFter all, the new cafe standards did get passed in the end.

  3. kdk33 says:

    “political progress on climate change”

    Five words that say so much.

  4. Keith Kloor says:

    Marlowe (2),

    I didn’t want to spend much time going into the Dingell case, since as you pointed out, this is past history. I also figured that by saying he was a close ally of the automotive industry, people would make the connection to his longtime opposition to raising CAFE standards.

  5. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Fair enough.  I think the broader lesson is that in many cases local/regional considerations trump national party politics.  This is true for both parties and is most evident on the environment file for Dems.  For Republicans one of the more interesting splits is on the law/order/drugs nexus where the libertarian wing is at odds with national party line…

  6. Keith Kloor says:

    Yes, I should have made that point stronger (local/regional politics), since that very much factored into the Congressional fight over Cap and trade.

  7. From NIMBY to BANANA

    (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything)

  8. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Bart I’ve got that poster on my wall at the office 🙂

  9. DeNihilist says:

    So are we to destroy other species habitat, to preserve the “whole” earth? and if so, then who gets to decide which species are the losers?

  10. DeNihilist says:

    Also, has anyone done a study as to the effects of taking this huge amount of solar radiation, and turning it into electrical energy, as to how that could affect the climate temp wise?

    I know some studies have been done in regards to wind power’s effect on regonal climate.

  11. Keith Kloor says:

    I’ve thought a lot about this conundrum and written many articles exploring the interrelated issues. I’m actually sympathetic to the environmental/habitat preservation angle that Feinstein has used.
    But I also don’t there’s been a fair accounting of how all this would shake out (on a “multiple use” level)–if the interests of solar and wind development could have been balanced with the ecological and wilderness interests. Instead, the process has been driven by raw politics.

  12. harrywr2 says:

    I always wonder on votes that fail because of one parties position how many votes from the ‘other party’ would disappear if one party wasn’t prepared to insure failure on it’s own.
    It’s always politically expedient to vote for something that one’s base feels important knowing that it will never become law and that the ‘unintended consequences’ that the independents might find upsetting won’t happen.
    On another note…1/2 the windmills built in the US were built when a Republican was in the White house.

  13. Sashka says:

    The CA voters get exactly what they deserve. At some point they will have to elect someone sane.

  14. Jeff Norris says:

    I think you will agree that there is a lot more powerful interests and factors in play wrt renewable power in California than you mentioned.
    1.      Energy distributors by law need renewable but they are constrained by rate payer advocates by not being able to pay too much for it.
    2.      Despite federal loans renewable producers need outside investors and without the higher rates the investors are less willing.
    3.      Local and State enviro/cultural groups opposing development.
    4.       Everybody is willing to go to court to get what they want.
    Feinstein’s strategy is to get the Feds to pay more of the cost and also help distributors and generators build in already developed areas to keep the development costs down along with help in fighting the NIMBY’s.
    One other thing to note is all the cross investing that the various renewable companies are doing with each other.  I don’t know if they are all looking for the needle in the haystack but it kind of feels like a dot.com bubble or maybe AIG type accounting                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

  15. raypierre says:

    Keith, I think with regard to Feinstein you are missing the biggest lesson here:  AGW is nearly as much of an “inconvenient truth” for most of those who consider themselves environmentalists as it is for those who would like to continue relying of fossil fuels.  AGW poses a classic conflict between disparate goals in environmental protection.  Dams are in many cases good for providing fairly carbon-free energy, but they impose terrible costs on the regional environment.  Solar thermal electric is a big winner, but it can tear up large tracts of pristine desert environment (whether this is really the case in the tract Feinstein is involved with needs to be resolved by careful science-based review).  I myself think that nuclear power is less problematic than either dams or some kinds of large scale solar-thermal, but for others the risks (and expense) of nuclear power conflict with deep-seated value judgements.
    One hopes to find a way forward that leads to greater quality of life, more habitat preservation, and reductions in carbon emissions, but this is not going to be easy, even once you get rid of out-and-out unjustified NIMBYism (like the opposition to the Cape Wind project).  This is why I think it ludicrous that some opponents of action to mitigate AGW view the whole thing as an excuse for the environmental movement (whatever that is) to carry out a hidden agenda:  the need to deal with AGW forces environmentalists into really hard and unpleasant choices, that one would really rather not have to deal with if ones overarching goal were, say, habitat and biodiversity preservation.

  16. NewYorkJ says:

    It would be nice if all energy/environment choices were between low carbon sources of energy and preserving a pristine wilderness environment, battles observed regularly in California.  Both have environmental benefits and costs.  Feinstein has walked the line between the two.

    If it were left up to anti-environmentalists, they’d gut the land for mining or drilling, all with heavy environmental costs.

  17. Keith Kloor says:


    All good points. And indeed there is a very big “lesson” in this, which I didn’t call attention to in this particular post. But you’re inspiring me to do a follow-up post (or piece), because these contradictions are a recurrent theme in many of my stories–especially, those that have explored the battlegrounds of western public lands, where the competing interests of environmentalists, the gas industry, archaeologists, ranchers, ORV enthusiasts, etc, have rarely been reconciled.

    Now to this combustible mix we must add the needs of the solar and wind industry, if they are to play a realistic role in the scale-up of renewable energy.

    But you also hit on something very, very important to this complex equation: value judgements. They fuel so much of the rancor and conflict, because ultimately these are battles over whose value judgements should prevail. I believe in BLM’s “multiple use” mandate, but all too often we see the policies in various locales reflecting the value judgements of those who hold the most power.

    So for example, in the Southwest, where I spent a lot of time in the 2000s writing stories about the impacts to the environment and cultural resources (e.g., archaeology), it was the gas industry that called the shots.

    With respect to the dust-up in the Mojave, I’ve only passively followed the story the past two years, but my sense is that it is Feinstein who calls the shots. Her values dictate the policy.

    Now there’s a larger debate we should be having about how to reconcile all these competing values, which of course includes the energy choices related to AGW (and which you alluded to in your mention of nuclear power). Thanks for your thoughtful comment.


  18. Pascvaks says:

    Some take the position that “If it’s GREEN it’s GOOD.”  Hummmmm… To use only one sense to determine the goodness of something is very dangerous.  Touch it!  Feel it!  Taste it!  Listen to it!  But first, SMELL it!  Then, look around a little more and see who’s behind it, supporting it, and what they stand to gain.  I know this all sounds much too invloved and complicated for some who want to “Save The World”, but trust me, you’ll frequently find –in this day and age– that all that glitters is NOT green; indeed, some of it is quite smelly, soft, off key, and tastes like it just came out of a toilet.

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