Bringing Energy Home

Can local reporting help break the cycle of inaction?

The vast majority of Americans want a “fundamental overhaul” of the country’s energy policies, according to the latest nationwide New York Times/CBS News poll. Most expect that alternative sources of energy will replace oil within the next twenty-five years—but which ones, and how? That’s the rub.

The poll, which drew limited coverage after it was released on Monday, also found that Americans are unwilling to pay higher prices for gasoline to subsidize the development of new fuel sources. Public opinion about energy is rife with such contradictions, according to multiple surveys. Americans strongly favor increased funding for research on wind, solar, and renewable power sources, spending more on energy efficiency and mass transit, and limiting greenhouse gas emissions. But they also want to expand the use of coal, oil, and natural gas.

“With the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico now nearly two months old, the public is sending mixed signals about U.S. energy policy,” the Pew Research Center reported on June 14.

Indeed, after his first speech from the Oval Office, in which he talked about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the future of energy, President Obama drew heated criticism for using the spill to push his policy agenda and for not pushing hard enough. Is it any wonder, as Jon Stewart pointed out on The Daily Show the next day, that every president since Richard Nixon has made bold but unfulfilled proclamations about reforming our energy economy?

“We are an unstoppable, oil-dependency-breaking machine,” Stewart wryly observed. “Unfortunately, the machine runs on oil.”

The machine also runs on coal and gas, of course, but the point is that we’re chasing our tails here, constantly preaching need and support for reform and then failing to deliver. The question is: What can the media do to help break this cycle?

The talk on Capitol Hill this week is about a climate and energy bill that would place a cap on emission from the utilities sector only. A number of savvy commentators, from David Roberts at Grist to Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations, have expressed “qualified” support for this approach (according to the Environmental Protection Agency, electricity generation accounted for 35 percent of U.S. greenhouse house emissions in 2008; transportation and industry contributed 27 percent and 19 percent, respectively). Many environmentalists still prefer economy-wide caps, such as those laid out in Senator John Kerry and Senator Joe Lieberman’s American Power Act, but fear that with,out compromise, the nation might end up with an “energy-only” bill that includes clean-energy mandates, incentives, and subsidies, efficiency standards, and money for clean-teach research and development.

President Obama set the blogosphere abuzz last week when he failed to mention any form (economy-wide or sector-specific) of cap-and-trade during his address from the Oval Office, which some viewed as a tacit admission that the climate half of climate-and-energy legislation is dead in the water. But some environmentalists think a cap is less important than making a much larger direct public investment in technology innovation. Two thought leaders on this front, The Breakthrough Institute and the Center for American Progress, have virtually waged war against one another over this point, with the former stressing the need for investment in technology R&D and the latter stressing the need for carbon pricing.

New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin has covered this virtual war in some detail, as part of his ongoing push for what has been termed an American “energy quest.” Over the course of numerous posts, Revkin has explored what he thinks are some of the short- and long-term steps in that quest, whose ultimate goal is to close the “glaring gap between global energy choices and demand in coming years” in ways that are economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable. This raises the question: What is the media’s in the energy quest?

My guess is that journalism’s role should involve a lot more than producing the reams of commentary that followed Obama’s address from the Oval Office, and more than producing reams of analysis weighing the merits of cap-and-trade vs. cap-and-dividend vs. a carbon tax vs. clean-energy mandates and incentives. Forgive the lame analogy, but while such commentary and analysis is an important cap on political rhetoric and posturing, what is needed is a direct investment in local reporting that connects local socio-economic concerns to regional energy needs.

The Providence Journal in Rhode Island provides a good example of what this would look like. Since the beginning of the year, the paper has published half a dozen editorials, in addition to solid daily news coverage, that have, among other things, assailed local NIMBYims related to wind power and natural gas projects. “For many years, Rhode Island politicians have reaped votes by appealing to the NIMBY crowd and whipping up exaggerated fears, rather than calmly considering the greater good,” the editorial board complained in late January. Not that politicians are the only target of the Journal’s scorn. In early April, the paper had the guts to take its readers to task, observing that:

Some people don’t want any or all of these things: wind power, nuclear power, domestic or imported oil, offshore drilling for oil and natural gas, coal mining or even supplies of liquefied natural gas shipped in by tankers!

But all these people do want heat when it’s cold, air conditioning when it’s hot, lights when it’s dark and electricity to run the sump pump when it rains too much. They seem to believe that these things will magically appear, even as they bitterly oppose all means to get power to them.

For the benefit of those who are more pragmatic and less inclined to engage in magical thinking, we share some data about the proposed Weaver’s Cove liquefied-natural-gas facility in Fall River…

Now, the point here is not that the Journal’s support for liquefied natural gas (or any particular venture, including the Cape Wind project, which it also covered heavily) is necessarily commendable. What is praiseworthy is the paper’s willingness to challenge local intransigence and suggest paths for getting past it.

Fortunately, papers across the country are, in fact, making these kinds of pitches. In March, The Salt Lake Tribune chastised the Utah Bankers Association for blocking a bill that would have helped homeowners invest in solar panels or energy efficiency improvements, arguing that “sometimes you have to spend money to save money.” In January, the Modesto Bee challenged environmentalists to accept large solar farms in the Mojave Desert and offered a few possible locations, acknowledging that “a perfect place is hard to find.” And last year, the Richmond Times-Dispatch urged readers to ditch cheap coal for biomass energy in order to avoid environmental damage, create jobs, and “revitalize rural communities.”

(Papers should look beyond their own borders as well, however, in order to give their readers a better appreciation of the needs, concerns, and happenings in other areas. In the course of researching local energy coverage I found a good example of this at the landlocked Omaha World-Herald, which plugged the potential importance of tidal power to coastal states, even though “This has little impact on alternative energy in the Midlands, where freshwater hydropower, wind, sun and corn do the job increasingly well.”)

We need more of this type of coverage to mount an effective “energy quest” in the media. It would be nice to see newspapers, television, and radio stations launch reporting projects along the lines of The New York Times’s now-defunct Energy Challenge series. If this country is ever to get past the decades-long cycle of talk-and-inaction, the press needs to bring energy issues home, keeping them front-and-center in readers’ minds with sustained attention that hits all the stops, from the economy to security to the environment.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.