Club calls for balanced energy plan, blasts Bush approach
By John Byrne Barry
When President Bush arrived in St. Paul, Minn., on May 17 to announce his energy plan, the Sierra Club had been there first, to frame the real story - that the administration's plan won't work, and that it focuses too much on fossil fuels and not enough on energy efficiency and renewables.
The Club learned of the president's itinerary just six days in advance. Working with national and field staff, North Star Chapter leaders Scott Elkins, Clyde Hanson, Brett Smith, Paula Maccabee and hundreds of other protesters rallied to expose Bush's "drill, dig and destroy" plan.
The president planned to tour the District Energy co-generation plant in St. Paul, the kind of clean energy plant his plan claims to support.
Jeff Fellows, a new volunteer from Minneapolis, was in the chapter office when Elkins, chapter director, was looking for help. Next thing he knew, he had loaned his pickup truck as a prop and was helping Hanson, chapter conservation chair, make it look like it was hauling a ton of coal.
"With particle board, screws, black spray paint and several bags of chunk charcoal, we made it look real," Fellows said. The day before Bush's visit, the chapter gathered community members for a press conference in front of the "coal truck" and the High Bridge coal-fired power plant.
The Club's coal truck may have been an illusion, but it illustrated a larger truth - that the High Bridge plant emits a ton of soot pollution every day it operates.
Bush's whistlestop in front of the District Energy plant was not so truthful.
That morning in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Club ran an ad that asked, "President Bush: Wouldn't a trip to the St. Paul's High Bridge Coal Plant be more honest?"
The administration's 170-page plan spells out 105 recommendations, including $1.5 billion in tax incentives for new nuclear plants, loosening clean-air protections to build power plants faster and expand refineries, and drilling for oil on public lands, including the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. (See Wildlands Threatened by Bush Energy Plan)
While the plan does contain a number of energy-efficient incentives, the president's budget actually cuts research and development monies for energy-efficiency by 30 percent.
Bush used an underground entrance to the St. Paul convention center, so he didn't see the protesters holding signs like, "My, what big oil you have."
"But Bush didn't need to actually see us," said Elkins. "He knew we were there."
A similar scene, sans coal truck, played out the next day in Lancaster, Pa., where Bush toured a "fish-friendly" hydroelectric facility. There, the Club pointed out the proximity to Three Mile Island, the site of the nation's worse nuclear accident. More than 200 protesters turned out for a rally to counter Bush, including a contingent of volunteers from nearby Burks County who wore antlers on their heads to represent themselves as caribou.
The Club presence and message so penetrated the local and national media that on the Sunday talk shows following the energy plan announcement, Vice President Cheney tried to defend the administration's proposal as environmentally sound, claiming it included 11 of 12 benchmarks in the Club plan.
As Club Executive Director Carl Pope said in a memo to staff and volunteers, "What is truly remarkable is that we have shifted the terms of the energy debate so fundamentally that, at least in its media statements, the administration has gone from planning to demonize us to trying to court us.
"The single greatest political tool in the world is the bully pulpit represented by the presidency of the United States," he said. "I have never seen a major White House launch so successfully hijacked."
After Cheney compared the administration's plan with the Club's, Pope offered to meet with the vice president to discuss areas of agreement. To the surprise of many, Cheney accepted. On June 5, Pope and Dan Becker, director of the Club's Global Warming and Energy Program, joined representatives from the Natural Resources Defense Council, U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Union of Concerned Scientists at the White House for a sit-down with Cheney and his energy team.
The environmentalist contingent urged the administration to add three elements to its plan: higher fuel-economy standards for cars, light trucks and SUVs (See "Buckle Up for Better Fuel Economy," Page 6); a requirement that electricity suppliers get at least 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020; and new standards on carbon dioxide pollution from power plants.
While the administration's plan supports renewables, its goals are extremely modest. For example, it proposes an increase in electricity generated by non-hydro renewables from today's 2 percent to 2.8 percent by 2020. The Club calls for a goal of 20 percent.
The fight is just starting, of course, but the Bush team is on the defensive. Just three weeks after announcing the plan, the administration appeared to be backing away from it. One official said the administration had "miscommunicated" some elements of the plan, that some projections, like the 1,300 new power plants needed by 2020, were a "statement of reality," not a blueprint.
Stung by criticism that all these new fossil-fuel plants would contribute to global warming, the administration said it had always intended to find ways of reducing greenhouse gases beyond what was in the energy plan.
But in a speech delivered before heading off to Europe in June, Bush reiterated his rejection of the Kyoto global warming treaty, though he did acknowledge the severity of the global warming problem.
A June 5 poll by ABC News/Washington Post found that 58 percent of adults surveyed disapproved of Bush's handling of the energy situation. The shift of power in the Senate will make it even tougher sledding for the administration to stick to its proposal.
And if Club activists across the country are as savvy and tenacious as those in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, the president's plan may be dead on arrival.
Take Action: Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper in support of a balanced energy plan that promotes energy efficiency and clean renewable energy like wind and solar power. Stress that the Bush plan would increase carbon dioxide pollution, nuclear waste and harm to public lands.
See the most current information on the Club's energy campaign and the Bush Energy Plan.
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