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David Roberts of Vox: President Obama "willing to support policies that boost supply of clean energy; but he is not willing to constrict the supply of fossil fuel energy"

2 min. read

David Roberts has left Grist and is now with Vox, but one thing hasn't changed: he's still one of the sharpest, most insightful analysts of U.S. energy and environmental policy around.  A recent piece by Roberts, "Obama opens thousands more acres of public land to coal mining," is a case in point, as Roberts analyzes the fundamental, underlying contradictions between: a) supporting clean energy scaling and understanding the imperative to deal with climate change on the one hand; and b) continuing to encourage fossil fuel production and exports on the other.

Clearly, as Bill McKibben has pointed out: "you can’t deal with climate on the demand side alone. If we keep digging up more coal, gas and oil, it will get burned, if not here, then somewhere else...yet Mr. Obama — acting on his own, since these are all executive actions requiring nothing from Congress — has opened huge swaths of the Powder River basin to new coal mining." Which raises the question, as McKibben put it, whether any politician will ever be "able to stand up to the power of the fossil fuel industry."  Based on President Obama's decision to open up thousands more acres of public land to coal mining, while - as David Roberts points out - having "presided over a fracking boom, opened up new offshore oil drilling off the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico...[and] increased the number and speed of oil and gas permits on public lands" - it sure doesn't seem like the answer to McKibben's question is "yes."

Roberts raises another, fundamental flaw in the logic  of the "climate wonks," who are "convinced that the only way to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy is through demand — to make it so we don't need them."  While there's no doubt that reducing the demand for fossil fuels is part of the equation, cutting the artificially cheap, heavily subsidized supply of fossil fuels has to be as well.  How heavily subsidized are fossil fuels? As a recent paper by energy subsidies expert Doug Koplow found, fossil fuels received an eye-popping $2.5 trillion in government subsidies between 2007 and 2011 alone; subsidies which "distort the relative prices of energy options, resulting in over exploitation of fossil fuels and exacerbating associated environmental costs." Yet here in the United States, the taxpayer-funded, corporate-welfare gravy train for fossil fuels rolls on, even as the science becomes clearer that we need to get off of fossil fuels urgently, and even as the economics of clean energy get better and better, year after year.

What's perhaps most mind boggling is that even President Obama, a leader who fully accepts the science linking carbon-based- fuel combustion with dangerous global warming, apparently can't say "no" to the politically powerful, wealthy, incumbent fossil fuel industry.  Until that happens, clean energy will continue growing, but not nearly as rapidly as it could, should, or needs to be.