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Attacks on Climate Science Connected to New Era of Hydrocarbon Development

August 20, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

There’s nothing polite about the House and Senate campaigns that attack directly the scientific consensus that global warming is occurring and man-made carbon emissions are its primary cause. It doesn’t matter that independent scientific panels uniformly concluded that the emails stolen from East Anglia University last year did nothing to weaken the science of climate change. It also doesn’t matter that temperature records are being set all over the country this year, the Russian wheat crop is a bust because of prolonged heat, and 10 million Pakistanis are homeless because of record flooding.

What conservative lawmakers and their allies in the fossil fuel industry want is 1) weaken or end the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate that largely support climate action, 2) block the Obama administration from using the Clean Air Act to limit carbon emissions, and 3) break the science-based message agenda that climate activists have deployed for two decades to elevate climate change to a global priority.

In other words, the November election is shaping up to be, arguably, the most important test ever in the U.S. for climate action and its antagonists.

Historically, as we all know, mid-term elections favor the party out of power. Whether the attack on climate science will be responsible for more electoral losses is not clear. There are signs of optimism the assault could fail. A poll last month by The Public Policy Institute of California found that 57 percent of Californians favor climate action, but also think the state should set its own climate change policy. That finding, and a separate July 9 Field Poll, are strong signals West coast voters will not approve Proposition 23, a November ballot measure that would suspend California’s 2006 law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But we need much more to earn back the momentum lost over the last year. We need to get agitated. Here’s why.

The fossil fuel industry is spending hundreds of billions annually now in North America to accelerate a new era of hydrocarbon development that will produce more carbon emissions, produce more damage to land and natural habitat, and consume more water than the one it is replacing.

Supported by $75 per barrel of oil, and $5 per thousand cubic feet of natural gas the industry is racing to develop “unconventional” reserves of bitumen-saturated tar sands, oil shales, and deep gas-bearing shales. Instead of sucking oil and gas out of underground reservoirs, the industry is mining sand in Canada and literally melting the oil out. They are drilling miles deep in Texas, the Northeast, Wyoming and the Midwest, pumping billions of gallons of chemical-laced water underground to fracture carbon-rich shales to produce natural gas.

On the surface, a new national infrastructure of pipelines, expanded oil refineries, and gas processing plants is quickly emerging.

Meanwhile, the coal industry forges ahead as the U.S. burns 1 billion tons of coal annually and utilities are modernizing their coal-fired portfolios. This week the Associated Press reported that even with the Sierra Club’s tremendous work to shut down 100 proposals for new coal-fired plants, 32 new coal-fired plants have either opened since 2008 in the U.S. or are under construction The new plants, averaging of nearly 600-megawatts, will each produce roughly 4 million tons of carbon emissions annually. They collectively will produce 17.9 gigawatts of power. That’s a little less than half of the capacity of all the installed wind energy in the U.S.

The G.O.P. is seeking to leverage its climate skepticism to advance a political agenda largely focused on fortifying its power. The fossil fuel industry is quietly contributing to those campaigns, hoping to duplicate the absent oversight for the unconventional fuels expansion it enjoyed under President George W. Bush. If voters go along in November the nation and the world will see even more rapid increases in carbon emissions.

Keith Schneider, a journalist and multi-media producer, is senior writer at the US Climate Action Network. Reach him at


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