July 19, 2009

California's price for a failure to launch

Chalk one up for the fossil energy status quo.

Last Thursday, as a result of obstructive votes of five members of the California Senate Environmental Quality Committee (SEQ), a crucial piece of renewable energy legislation titled "Assembly Bill 222" has been delayed yet another year. Call it a failure to launch.

If approved, this legislation would have responsibly (and with articulated recycling and environmental safeguards) given statewide municipalities and utilities the necessary authority to deploy new technologies (in particular, gasification and pyrolysis) to meet and even exceed statewide landfill diversion mandates by converting municipal solid waste into biofuels and biopower.

Versions of this bill have been working their way through Sacramento since early 2005. This "band of five" (all SEQ Committee Democrats) voted to delay action:

• Despite the expressed support of nearly 80 organizations in favor AB 222 (vs. 19 against), which was unanimously approved by the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee in April, and which passed the heavily Democratic California State Assembly by a vote of 54-13.

• Despite approval of the bill by the California Senate Utilities, Energy and Communications Committee on July 7th.

• Despite national bipartisan initiatives to develop alternative fuels and renewable power - namely EISA, the Farm Bill, the cap and trade bill, the preponderance of state Renewable Energy Standards.

• Despite the President spurring governmental agencies to stimulate the economy by quickly approving development and deployment of renewable technologies with investment and policy incentives.

• Despite California's precedent-setting Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), its aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standard, and its ground-breaking Low Carbon Fuel Standard designed to provide cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels and power.

• Despite Governor Schwarzenegger and the California Energy Commission supporting the legislation as a necessary component of his Bioenergy Action Plan.

• Despite a national and California state financial crisis that is the worst since the Great Depression. This legislation would have created jobs and drawn significant private industry investment to the state.

Had the SEQ Committee not interfered the measure was certain to pass the Senate with balanced bipartisan support.

California has a long history of facing crisis after crisis with intelligence, industry, investment, and heroic engineering. It has built paradigm changing technologies in defense, nuclear energy, water and waste management, educational systems, entertainment, environmental practices, computers, and communications that have not only funded the state's phenomenal growth and global influence, but also changed the world.

Not anymore if, as in this case, a few politicians can continue to derail progress when we need it most. Progress to introduce renewable alternatives before our valuable resources run dry. Progress to reduce fossil emissions that threaten public health and global climate change.

Waiting for perfection

What are they waiting for? In a word - "perfection." Opponents to AB 222 are holding out for zero waste and zero emissions.

Zero waste is a universal ideal that we all can agree on whether its energy, natural resources, human capital, efficiency, infrastructure, or funds that is being wasted. The question is not what is the perfect solution, rather how do we improve on the status quo? Inertia is the enemy of progress - it's a form of waste - wasting time.

You can't improve on the status quo by waiting for the perfect answer. We need to support those who spearhead new improvements that build toward better solutions.

That's why Washington is abuzz with the phrase "Perfection is the enemy of the good."

Zero emissions is another example of an ideal that is unachievable without taking progressive steps toward a solution. That's because emissions have many direct and indirect sources. The indirect land use issue is a controversial example of the interconnectedness between sources, processes, and emissions. California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard - and, until recently, the proposed federal cap and trade bill - would handicap certain biofuels for their anticipated direct and indirect impact on worldwide fossil carbon emissions. This is a classic Catch-22.

While we all agree that fossil fuels and fertilizers need renewable replacement, it is unfair to base comparisons of alternatives on their current dependence on fossil fuels for production. Fossil emissions are emitting during production of renewable fuels and power because there are currently no alternatives. We won't have alternatives until we create them. Once we have them we can use biodiesel to replace diesel, and ethanol to replace gasoline, and wood pellets to replace natural gas, etc. But we need to "launch" new alternatives first - and as any Floridians can attest, escaping earth's gravity (launching) takes a significant amount of fossil energy - because that is all we have.

The space shuttle is not perfect. But it is a great example of a technology that resulted from progress through many "good" steps - from Kitty Hawk to Cape Canaveral. And created many byproduct technologies that we cherish today.

Policy-makers need to enable private enterprise ventures to research, develop, and deploy good solutions - not hamper them. Their deployments will still have to conform to economic, environmental, and social sustainability standards.

Enabling legislation is a cheap way for governments to lure investors to take on the financial risk of emerging technologies. Policy delay increases risk and, hence, reduces investment which slows the rate of change and the potential return on investment.

California has failed to launch. Let's hope that other states pick up the gauntlet and lead.

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