H.R. 8, the “North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act,” is a 236-page bill that passed the US House of Representatives Thursday and is now on the way to the Senate. It’s not an easy read but from what I can see, if it becomes law, it will have significant adverse effects on the health of our rivers. It has serious impacts for the fish and wildlife that depend on healthy river ecosystems and those of us paddlers who enjoy a special relationship to these natural treasures. These effects are hidden so deep within the language and the nuance of the bill, however, and they may be difficult to see at first.
The driving idea of the bill is to broaden the definition of “renewable energy.” It eliminates many current government energy efficiency standards and it proposes to loosen energy efficiency standards for consumer items as well. By expanding the definition of what is “clean” and “green” (and adroitly applying this benign terminology to hydropower projects that are clearly anything but), the bill is saying one thing while actively doing another.
Greenwashing, doublespeak and hidden consequences are everywhere in our political system and the sociopathic use of language has always been one of the hallmarks of political salesmanship. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the language of advertising has penetrated our political system just as effectively as it has in other areas of our lives.
The daily headlines are thick with more illustrations of this kind of open deception. Natural gas, for example, is still considered a “clean” energy source (which is true as far as it goes, as it emits 50 percent less carbon dioxide when it’s burned than coal does). This makes it cleaner than coal, but that’s about it. It is an extremely low bar to begin with and that doesn’t even take into account that before it can be burned it has to be fracked and transported across half the country, with every step in the process having its attendant environmental impacts. Recent reports have found that leaking methane from natural gas drilling and transportation infrastructure may have a much larger impact on climate change than previously thought. Then, when giant production facilities are built on the west coast to convert that natural gas into methanol (an extremely toxic and volatile liquid alcohol), the nodding public is assured that this is a “green” process. When the methanol is shipped to China to be used for plastic production, greatly contributing to the pollution in our streams, rivers and oceans, the program still wins the support of home state pols as part of a “clean energy future.” More irony for you.
It’s the same irony that has environmental groups getting funding from oil companies. There’s something deliciously complicated about getting money to assist with environmental programs from the companies that are directly responsible for the existence of the problems that those programs are designed to address. By this point, it should be obvious that there is a fine line between irony and hypocrisy.
The “North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act” is a rotten bill. The specific hydropower provisions fly in the face of the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and plenty of other current laws that protect fish, wildlife and recreation in public lands. It removes accountability for dam owners and developers for the damage that their dams cause to rivers and the communities that depend on them. By changing the definition of clean energy, this bill discourages the development of new renewable sources of power while cynically claiming support for the very things it seeks to destroy. Because it exempts dam operators from other governing legislation, paddlers would see lower flows and fewer river days, while the same provisions would make restoring affected rivers significantly more challenging.
According to some policy wonks, H.R. 8 has just a 33 percent chance of actually being enacted into law. Still, it’s worth a letter to your senator, just to let them know what you’re thinking. And it serves as a prompt to all of us to pay attention to the details. We already knew this – not to judge a book by its cover, to read the fine print – but it’s good to be reminded from time to time.
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