Energy and Environmental Policy

Energy Policy

The energy policy of the United States is determined by federal, state, and local entities in the United States.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the key provisions of a “cap-and-trade” approach to pollution reduction

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Energy policy may include legislation, international treaties, subsidies and incentives to investment, guidelines for energy conservation, taxation, and other public policy techniques.
  • The United States had resisted endorsing the Kyoto Protocol, preferring to let the market drive CO2 reductions to mitigate global warming, which will require CO2 emission taxation.
  • The administration of Barack Obama has proposed an aggressive energy policy reform, including the need for a reduction of CO2 emissions with a cap and trade program, which could help encourage more clean renewable, sustainable energy development.
  • The United States receives approximately 84% of its energy from fossil fuels. This energy is used for transport, industry, and domestic use. The remaining portion comes primarily from hydroelectric and nuclear stations.
  • Renewable energy accounted for about 8% of total energy consumption in the United States in 2009. In the same year, approximately 10% of the electricity produced nationally came from renewable sources.
  • Cap-and-trade is a market-based approach used to control pollution by providing economic incentives for achieving reductions in the emissions of pollutants.

Key Terms

  • Renewable: A resource that is able to reproduce itself through biological and natural methods over time.
  • Kyoto Protocol: The Kyoto Protocol is a protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC or FCCC) that set binding obligations on the industrialized countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.

Background

The energy policy of the United States is determined by federal, state, and local entities in the United States, which address issues of energy production, distribution, and consumption, such as building codes and gas mileage standards. Energy policy may include legislation, international treaties, subsidies and incentives to investment, guidelines for energy conservation, taxation, and other public policy techniques. Global warming is the rise in the average temperature of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans since the late 19th century and its projected continuation. Since the early 20th century, Earth’s mean surface temperature has increased by about 0.8 °C (1.4 °F), with about two-thirds of the increase occurring since 1980. Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and scientists are more than 90% certain that it is primarily caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases produced by human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. These findings are recognized by the national science academies of all major industrialized nations.

State-specific energy-efficiency incentive programs also play a significant role in the overall energy policy of the United States. The United States had resisted endorsing the Kyoto Protocol, preferring to let the market drive CO2 reductions to mitigate global warming, which will require CO2 emission taxation. The administration of Barack Obama has proposed an aggressive energy policy reform, including the need for a reduction of CO2 emissions with a cap and trade program, which could help encourage more clean renewable, sustainable energy development.

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Diagram of Greenhouse Effect: This diagram shows how the greenhouse effect works. Incoming solar radiation to the Earth equals 341 watts per square meter (Trenberth et al., 2009). Some of the solar radiation is reflected back from the Earth by clouds, the atmosphere, and the Earth’s surface (102 watts per square meter). Some of the solar radiation passes through the atmosphere. About half of the solar radiation is absorbed by the Earth’s surface (161 watts per square meter). Solar radiation is converted to heat energy, causing the emission of longwave (infrared) radiation back to the atmosphere (396 watts per square meter). Some of the infrared radiation is absorbed an re-emitted by heat-trapping “greenhouse” gases in the atmosphere. Outgoing infrared radiation from the Earth equals 239 watts per square meter.

Energy Independence

The 1973 oil crisis made energy a popular topic of discussion in the US. The Federal Department of Energy was started with steps planned toward energy conservation and more modern energy producers. A National Maximum Speed Limit of 55 mph (88 km/h) was imposed to help reduce consumption, and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (aka CAFE) standards were enacted to downsize automobile categories. Year-round Daylight Saving Time was imposed, the United States Strategic Petroleum Reserve was created, and the National Energy Act of 1978 was introduced. These initiatives resulted in alternate forms of energy and a diversified oil supply.

The United States receives approximately 84% of its energy from fossil fuels. This energy is used for transport, industry, and domestic use. The remaining portion comes primarily from hydroelectric and nuclear stations. Americans constitute less than 5% of the world’s population, but consume 26% of the world’s energy to produce 26% of the world’s industrial output. They account for about 25% of the world’s petroleum consumption, while producing only 6% of the world’s annual petroleum supply.

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Coal: It was estimated by the Energy Information Administration that in 2007 primary sources of energy consisted of petroleum (36.0%), coal (27.4%), and natural gas (23.0%), amounting to an 86.4% share for fossil fuels in primary energy consumption in the world.

Cap-and-Trade

Cap-and-trade is a market-based approach used to control pollution by providing economic incentives for achieving reductions in the emissions of pollutants. A central authority (usually a governmental body) sets a limit or cap on the amount of a pollutant that may be emitted. The limit or cap is allocated or sold to firms in the form of emissions permits which represent the right to emit or discharge a specific volume of the specified pollutant. Firms are required to hold a number of permits (or allowances or carbon credits) equivalent to their emissions. The total number of permits cannot exceed the cap, limiting total emissions to that level. Firms that need to increase their volume of emissions must buy permits from other firms.

The transfer of permits is referred to as a trade. In effect, the buyer is paying a charge for polluting, while the seller is being rewarded for having reduced emissions. Thus, in theory, those who can reduce emissions most cheaply will do so, achieving the pollution reduction at the lowest cost to society. The 2010 United States federal budget proposes to support clean energy development with a 10-year investment of US $15 billion per year, generated from the sale of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions credits. Under the proposed cap-and-trade program, all GHG emissions credits would be auctioned off, generating an estimated $78.7 billion in additional revenue in FY 2012, steadily increasing to $83 billion by FY 2019.

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy accounted for about 8% of total energy consumption in the United States in 2009. In the same year, approximately 10% of the electricity produced nationally came from renewable sources. The United States’ hydroelectric plants make the largest contribution to the country’s renewable energy, producing 248,100MW of the 371,700MW (67%) generated through all renewable energy. However, wind power in the United States is a growing industry. Increases in wind, solar, and geothermal power are expected to allow renewable energy production to double in the three-year period from 2009 to 2012, an increase from 8% to 14% of total consumption. Most of the increase is expected to come from wind power.

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Green Mountain Wind Farm, Fluvanna 2004: The Brazos Wind Farm, also known as the Green Mountain Energy Wind Farm, near Fluvanna, Texas. Note cattle grazing beneath the turbines.

Environmental Policy

Environmental Policy has become highly contentious and political, with competing interests involved at any legislation over the environment.

Learning Objectives

Describe the key conflict in environmental policy

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The environment covers so many different aspects of life from health and recreation to business and commerce that that there are always competing interests involved an any legislation over the environment.
  • Many individuals and organizations are involved as stakeholders in the process of making and implementing environmental policy.
  • One of the enduring conflicts in environmental policy is between environmental and business interests. There is often a sense that the regulations or limitations made for environmental protection will limit economic growth.
  • However, some groups are attempting to incorporate concern for the environment with business and innovation.
  • U.S. environmental policy is always international policy as well. For example, when the U.S. pulled out of its obligations under the Kyoto Accord there was a great deal of international criticism.

Key Terms

  • Kyoto Protocol: The Kyoto Protocol is a protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC or FCCC) that set binding obligations on the industrialized countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.
  • environmental policy: any course of action deliberately taken or not taken to manage human activities with a view to prevent, reduce, or mitigate harmful effects on nature and natural resources

Environmental Policy

Environmental policy in the U.S. has become highly contentious, competitive, and political. The environment covers so many different aspects of life from health and recreation to business and commerce that there are always competing interests involved at any legislation focused on the environment.

Additionally, many individuals and organizations are involved as stakeholders in the process of making and implementing environmental policy. These include various members of the executive and legislative branches of government, state and municipal governments, as well as civil servants, external interests groups, and international governments and residents. Within the Federal government alone there are the Environmental Protections Agency, the Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency.

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Environmental Protection Agency: The EPA is just one of the various bureaus involved in U.S. environmental policy.

Various legislation governs environmental concerns in the U.S., including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which was first introduced in 1970. This act mandates the preparation of Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements to try and limit the environmental damage of development.

One of the enduring conflicts in environmental policy is between environmental and business interests. There is often a sense that the regulations or limitations made for environmental protection will limit economic growth. However, some groups are attempting to incorporate concerns for the environment, with business and innovation. For example, the Bright Green environmental movement focuses on developing technological fixes for environmental problems. The Green Jobs movement focuses on combining needed new employment opportunities in low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color with environment improvements in those same neighborhoods.

Finally, because the U.S. has to share the Earth with all of the other countries, U.S. environmental policy is always international policy as well. For example, when the U.S. pulled out of its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol there was a great deal of international criticism.

Oil

Oil remains a major energy source in the U.S., and changing this reliance requires political initiative.

Learning Objectives

Describe the key impediments to severing a dependence on fossil fuels

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the 1970s, politicians began considering the importance of the U.S. becoming less dependent on foreign-produced oil.
  • However, fossil fuels and petroleum remain a major energy source in the U.S.. This is in part because of the strength of the oil and energy lobby.
  • Two concerns over the influence of oil companies on energy policy are ongoing environmental consequences and political impact.
  • Today the idea of energy independence has emerged as an important political buzzword. It is yet to be seen if there is enough political will to make a significant shift from oil to other energy sources.

Key Terms

  • energy independence: Energy independence involves reducing U.S. imports of oil and other foreign sources of energy. If total energy is considered, the U.S. is over 70% self-sufficient.

Oil

In the 1970s, the U.S. faced an oil crisis, with severe shortages leaving lineups at gas stations across the country. The crisis was set off at least in part because of oil embargoes levied by OAPEC (Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries), and conflicts in Libya. The oil crisis contributed to recessions in the country. At that time, politicians in the U.S. began considering the importance of becoming less dependent on foreign-produced oil.

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1973 Oil Crisis: During the 1970s there were oil shortages in the US. This sign outside of a gas station let patrons know the state of their supply.

However, fossil fuels and petroleum remain a major energy source in the U.S.. This is in part because of the strength of the oil and energy lobby in the US. In the 2006 election cycle, oil companies donated $19 million dollars to campaigns with over 80% of that going to Republican candidates. There have also been concerns that oil lobbyists have had direct influence through close relationships with politicians. For example, oil executives were invited to consult on issues such as the U.S. position on the Kyoto Protocol and the involvement in Iraq.

Two concerns over the influence of oil companies on energy policy are ongoing environmental consequences and the political impacts of a reliance on oil. The continuing influence of oil companies has been implicated in limiting the development of new energy resources and technologies. The film “Who Killed the Electric Car? “, for example, looks at the various factors that limited the production and success of the electric car. The movie examines the role of oil companies, and particularly the Western States Petroleum Association, in limiting the production of public car charging stations.

Today the idea of energy independence has emerged as an important political buzzword. It is yet to be seen if there is enough political will to make a significant shift from oil to other energy sources.

Climate Change

Global warming policy can be quite contentious because competing interests get involved in the policy-making and implementation process.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the difficulties confronting cooperative international action on climate

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Global warming, or climate change, is the idea that the actions of human beings are drastically changing weather patterns on the planet, including the temperature.
  • Most scientists agree that the Earth has warmed significantly in recent years. They are quite confident about the human influence on change. However, there is disagreement about what to do about global warming.
  • While 191 countries had ratified the Kyoto Protocol by September 2011, the U.S. was not one of them.
  • Another idea for slowing down carbon emissions is a cap-and-trade system. As a market-based system, it would see limits or caps set on the mount of greenhouse gases that could be emitted.
  • As with all environmental policy, global warming policy can be quite contentious because competing interests get involved in the policy-making and implementation process.

Key Terms

  • anthropogenic: Having its origin in the influence of human activity on nature.
  • Kyoto Protocol: The Kyoto Protocol is a protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC or FCCC) that set binding obligations on the industrialized countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.
  • cap-and-trade: Cap-and-trade is a market-based approach used to control pollution by providing economic incentives for achieving reductions in the emissions of pollutants.
  • global warming: he sustained increase in the average temperature of the earth, sufficient to cause climate change

Global Warming

Global warming, or climate change, is the idea that the actions of human beings are drastically changing weather patterns on the planet, including the temperature. Most scientists agree that the Earth has warmed significantly in recent years. The warming is particularly true around the poles. This is causing polar icecap melting and a degradation of the protective ozone layer. Most scientists are also confident about the anthropogenic drivers of climate change. However, there is a great deal of division over the question of how important these changes are and what should be done about it.

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Arctic Wildlife: Global warming is disproportionately affecting the polar regions, and changing the landscape for arctic wildlife like the polar bear.

One of the key problems is that the immediate effects of climate change are likely to be felt by counties with less political and economic clout. These include many countries in the global south and island nations that will be impacted if the sea levels rise.

One aspect that has been identified as important in slowing down climate change is the reduction in greenhouse gases, also referred to as carbon emissions.

Because of the global impact of these emissions, international treaties have tried to address the issue. The Kyoto Protocol was one such treaty, first introduced in Kyoto, Japan in 2005. While 191 countries had ratified the agreement by September 2011, the U.S. was not one of them.

Another idea for slowing down carbon emissions is a cap-and-trade system. This is a market-based system that would see limits, or caps, set on the amount of greenhouse gasses that could be emitted. Companies would purchase permits for a certain level of emissions. A market for these permits would be created so companies that produced lower levels could trade their permits with companies that wished to pollute at a higher rate.

As with all environmental policy, global warming policies can be quite contentious because competing interests get involved in the policy-making and implementation process. One difficulty is that the process has become highly politicized. Republican politicians often questioning the science behind climate change. Add to that the difficulty that is caused by highly influential business lobby groups, and it becomes apparent why it is so difficult to pass legislation to try and slow climate change.

New Sources of Energy

There are many concerns about the environmental and political impact of continued dependence on nonrenewable, foreign-produced fossil fuels.

Learning Objectives

Describe the challenges facing those attempting to shift the United States away from non-renewable sources of energy

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • There are many concerns about the environmental and political impact of a continued dependance on non-renewable fossil fuels, particularly fossil fuels from sources outside of the U.S.
  • Energy independence has become an important buzzword in U.S. politics. Investment in new and alternative sources of energy has also increased in recent years.
  • The cooperation of various stakeholders is necessary to make new sources of fuel successful. These stakeholders include interest groups, politicians and consumers.

Key Terms

  • energy independence: Energy independence involves reducing U.S. imports of oil and other foreign sources of energy. If total energy is considered, the U.S. is over 70% self-sufficient.

New Sources of Energy

Environmental and political stability in the U.S. has been threatened in recent years by a continued dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels, particularly those from outside sources. “Energy independence” has thus become an important buzzword in U.S. politics, leading to greater investment in new and alternative sources of energy.

However, the widespread use of alternative fuel requires more than just scientific research. Investment in new technology is also affected by the influence of various interest groups, including representatives of traditional fuel suppliers who may have a vested interest in slowing the development of alternatives. Shifting to alternative fuels would also require strong legislative and regulations-based support in order to jump-start and sustain production. Finally, it would require a willingness on the part of consumers to make the shift away from the energy sources they have grown accustomed to.

While there are many alternative energy sources to choose from, none of them is perfect, and each has its own supporters and detractors.

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Wind Farm: These wind turbines exemplify one type of a new and alternative energy source.

Two of the best known and least scientifically controversial new energy sources are solar power and wind power. Both involve harnessing the power of naturally occurring events– sunlight and wind– and converting them into electric power through solar panels or wind turbines.

Critics of these sources often cite aesthetic concerns– for example, that the panels of turbine farms block site-lines or alter landscape and architecture. Particularly in the case of wind farms, there is often extensive community consultation prior to construction in order to address potential aesthetic and environmental impacts.

Other alternatives include biofuels such as ethanol and clean coal technologies. In the U.S., ethanol is produced mainly from corn. Ethanol fuels burn more cleanly than traditional fuels; however, there is some concern that the production of large amounts of corn exclusively for biofuels could be detrimental to farm lands. The idea of clean coal is still largely experimental, but the Department of Energy is investing large sums in research and technology development in this area. The incentive is that clean coal would release less carbon, and that other energy sources such as hydrogen could also be captured for use in the process.

This is not the first time the idea of greater energy independence has become popular in U.S. policy and politics. For example, during the Oil Embargo of the 1970s, U.S. politicians began to discuss alternatives to fossil fuels. It remains to be seen whether there is sufficient political will this time around to make a significant shift towards alternative fuels.