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The Climate Post: 'Crony Capitalism' Alleged Behind Tar Sands Pipeline Review

Posted: 10/07/11 05:08 PM ET

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which could carry a diluted form of tar sands from Canada to Texas, has attracted the ire of many environmentalists, including Bill McKibben, who spearheaded protests in front of the White House last month.

This week, McKibben argued the Obama administration is practicing "crony capitalism" and that emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request imply the State Department -- charged with evaluating the pipeline -- may have worked closely with TransCanada, the company building the pipeline, to help the plan win approval.

The State Department rejected the accusations of bias. In response, the heads of more than a dozen major environmental groups and other nonprofits called for President Obama to strip the State Department of its authority over the pipeline. Environmental groups also sued to stop the pipeline, saying TransCanada had unlawfully begun preparations in Nebraska for the pipeline, although it is still awaiting approval.

The opposition went more mainstream when a New York Times editorial called for the United States to "Say No to the Keystone XL," arguing it would not do much to help energy security because much of the oil appears slated for export, and the best bet for long-term job creation is through renewable and alternative energy, rather than building more pipelines.

The European Union appears likely to stymie imports of fuels made from tar sands, through a new fuel quality directive.

Haunting Visit

The Obama administration also came under fire because the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) had hired top campaign supporters to help direct loan guarantees and other support for cleantech companies, including $535 million for now-bankrupt solar panel manufacturer Solyndra.

Obama was warned before his May 2010 visit to Solyndra, the trip may come back to haunt him because the company was already looking shaky, according to newly released e-mails.

Before a major loan guarantee program ended, the DOE completed $4.75 billion in loan guarantees for four large solar projects, on top of $11.4 billion in loans backed by the program before.

Solar Decline

It's not just solar companies such as Solyndra that have struggled. Sales of solar panels may drop in 2012, according to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst and two large solar companies. This runs counter to 15 years of double-digit growth rates, and would be the first time, at least since 1975, that annual installations have fallen.

The U.S. solar industry is headed for a "solar coaster" as key federal subsidies are set to expire.

In Germany, consumers are rushing to install more panels in anticipation of a scheduled drop in the country's solar subsidies. Chancellor Angela Merkel also said the government may cut the subsidies further.

With a surplus of panels on the market and prices falling, Germany's plan to shut its nuclear plants may cost the country less than expected, taking away some of the bite of this transition.

Subsidy Backfire

In 2010, the world spent $409 billion subsidizing fossil fuels, up 36 percent from the year before, since policies remained largely unchanged while fossil fuels prices rose, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

In industrialized countries, subsidies tend to go to fuel producers, while in developing countries the price to consumers is subsidized as a way to help the poor. However, the vast majority of fossil fuel subsidies go to middle and upper classes, the report found. It also argued the subsidies encourage waste and make prices more volatile, thus backfiring by creating hardship for the poor.

The countries with the biggest subsidies are major oil and gas producers that rely heavily on oil revenue -- mostly members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), plus Russia. In 2010, about half the subsidies went toward oil, a quarter toward natural gas, and the remaining quarter toward coal. "The time of cheap energy is over," said the Executive Director of the IEA, Maria van der Hoeven.

Fighting Denial

Many of the leading Republican candidates for the presidency have, while on the campaign trail, questioned whether climate change is real, or whether people are causing it.

Some Republicans who supported policies to cut emissions in the past have been quiet about this issue recently. But National Journal reports that, behind the scenes, former Republican officials and other insiders are trying to shift the GOP's focus back to acknowledging climate change is real.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.