Thursday, May 28, 2009

BBC's Ethical Man in Amerika... He dropped into Texas and spoke with T. Boone and wandered about Sweet Water's Wind Mills....


About this blog
I'm Justin Rowlatt and I am the BBC's Ethical Man. My family and I spent a year trying to cut our carbon emissions. Now I'm back and travelling across America with a bigger challenge - to save the world! You'll be able to see my reports on Newsnight and World News America. Follow me on Twitter, or join our Facebook group.

We travel to Texas to see the low-carbon America Obama envisioned, a forest of wind turbines growing up among the pump jacks and pipelines of the oil state.

The idea was his cap-and-trade system would turbo-charge America's transition to this new clean energy world. And, just last week, the cap-and-trade bill President Obama asked Congress for passed the committee stage in Congress and now looks set to be made law. But it is nothing like the radical legislation Obama spoke about in San Francisco.

Instead of the aggressive cap Obama promised, carbon emissions will be reduced by just 17% from 2005 levels by 2020. Europe (whose carbon trading system has been widely criticised as ineffectual and weak) has set a far more stringent standard: cuts of 20% from the much lower start point of 1990 by 2020.

And where is the auction that was going to ensure that polluters pay for every unit of greenhouse gases emitted? It's gone, struck out from the bill.

Now just 15% of permits will be auctioned, the rest will be given away free. Thirty-five percent of all permits are being handed to electricity companies, the guys who own those coal plants Obama said could be bankrupted.

What is more, a ceiling has been set on how far carbon prices can go. The carbon price - the engine that was supposed to drive the change in the economy - has been capped at $28 a tonne.
If you need evidence of the effect that will have, look no further than our film. In Sweetwater, Texas we meet David Fiorelli who's company, Tenaska, wants to invest $3.5bn on the world's first full scale Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) coal plant.

Many greens say industrial scale CCS is unproven. Mr Fiorelli says that is plain wrong. He says the problem with large scale CCS is that it is very expensive. As a result his company plans a plant that will draw in a range of revenues to make it pay.

It will sell the 600 megawatts the plant will produce (200 megawatts are needed to strip out the carbon dioxide (CO2) from the coal). It will sell on the CO2 it captures to oil companies which will use it to pump out 10 million extra barrels of oil a year (Tenaska says the CO2 will stay underground). But to make the plant viable it also needs a carbon price of $40-$50 a tonne.
At a stroke the new bill has threatened the viability of the great hope for clean fossil fuel plants, CCS. Not what Obama imagined his legislation would do when he was talking about it back in San Francisco.

Now, I understand that democratic politics is about compromise. I understand that the architects of this bill needed to make concessions to the power companies and to congressmen and women from coal states. But did the compromise really need to be on this colossal scale?
In the run up to the crucial climate change conference in Copenhagen in December the world is looking to America for leadership on the climate issue. It is clear President Obama, his Energy Secretary Stephen Chu and his climate team understand the degree of danger climate change represents.

So, this is what I want to know: why didn't President Obama use some of his extraordinary political capital to force through truly transformative cap-and-trade legislation?
Ultimately the question I really want answered is this: has Obama, as we say in Britain, lost his bottle? What do you think? Leave your comment below or get with the new social media revolution and tweet me right here, right now.

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