Mirrors in the Funhouse -- or off the Cliff?

04/06/2011 11:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

New York -- The business executives and bankers at the Bloomberg New Energy Summit are living in a world in which Bank of America Chairman Chad Holliday says he discourages companies he loans to from investing in mountaintop-removal mining. The panels -- a blend of Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and Asians -- wrestle thoughtfully with the question of how to bring down the financing cost of wind and solar projects, which are far higher in the U.S. than in Europe and vastly higher than in China. They take seriously the graphs showing how rapidly the costs of renewable energy have been coming down. They discuss the enormous benefits Europe will reap by getting to its 20 percent renewables target, not only environmentally but also in the trillions of dollars that will remain in their own economies instead of flowing out for imported natural gas and oil as they currently do. The summit attendees clearly understand that the global competition for new energy is not a zero-sum game. Any country that enters will win, but some will win more than others.

But most of them can't fathom that a nation would simply not enter the race at all, unless it were a petro-state getting rich from exporting oil. (Actually, there are representatives here of clean-energy projects supported by the oil-rich government of Abu Dhabi.) It seems inconceivable that a nation would simply abandon the future.

But 250 miles to the south, the mood is very different. Giving up on the future is precisely what the Tea and Oil Party is determined to do, and they are going to extraordinary lengths to accomplish it. The latest maneuvers towards a U.S. federal government shutdown are motivated in large part by the demand from the extremist caucus in the House that the Clean Air Act effectively be repealed, not only for carbon pollution but also for mercury, soot, smog, and sulfur. A bill by Louisiana senator David Vitter and Utah representative Rob Bishop would go even further -- in addition to gutting clean-air protections, it would require the federal government to turn the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge over to the oil industry, along with huge swaths of Utah wilderness. The Endangered Species Act would be eviscerated, and the right of ordinary citizens to protect themselves from pollution in court would be terminated. (So much for the Tea Party standing up for the rights of the little guy.)

Washington Congressman Doc Hastings, the chair of the House Resources Committee, offers more proof of where the real loyalty of the extremists lies: He drafted three bills to turn huge areas off America's coasts over to the oil industry -- but he kept them secret from his constituents, from his fellow Republican lawmakers, and of course from the Democrats on his committee. He did, however, invite oil industry lobbyists to help out with the drafting.

And remember the Tea Party's affection for the Constitution? It turns out they have rethought that love affair with 1783. Now the Tea Party wants to turn the clock back all the way to the Articles of Confederation, when we had effectively no national government. In Arizona, the State Senate passed two bills purporting to nullify the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts within the state's boundaries. These bills strive to nullify two provisions of the Constitution -- the Supremacy Clause and the Interstate Commerce Clause. They are unconstitutional and, if adopted, would actually force the federal government to take over pollution regulation from the state, thus greatly increasing the federal role that the Republicans in the legislature find so repugnant. This danger made the bill too much even for the conservative Republican administration of Governor Jan Brewer. Her director of environmental quality said, "Our biggest fear is this legislation will do the exact opposite of what it is trying to accomplish."

If the Democrats in Congress and the Obama administration stand firmly against this nonsense, then it will be like a funhouse hall of mirrors -- eventually you get through, and your vision has not been permanently harmed. But if our lawmakers wilt or blink, it will be more like driving toward a cliff while texting -- you can't really see the precipice.