And yet, as it turned out, 2011 was a remarkably hectic year in environmental news. It’s just that most of the biggest stories had nothing to do with Congress. The White House finished up a number of big energy-related regulations; the world kept tossing up surprises — from natural disasters to oil disruptions; and greens started battling oil and gas producers at the local level across the country. Here were the five biggest environmental and energy storylines of 2011:
1) Global warming wouldn’t go away. Perhaps the most salient fact about environmental politics in the United States is that one of the two major political parties — the GOP — tends not to believe in climate change. And yet, the planet’s still warming. Greenhouse-gas emissions had a record rise last year after a brief post-recession lull. All told, 2011 will likely turn out to be the 10th-warmest, year on record, and the warmest year by far that featured the cooling effects of La Niña.
Meanwhile, the United States was battered by 12 natural disasters costing $1 billion or more, a new record. While those snowstorms and hurricanes and tornadoes can’t all be blamed on climate change (scientists are still trying to sort much of this out), it was a portent of the toll that freak weather events could take in a warming world.
In December, the global climate talks in Durban, South Africa, didn’t provide much optimism on the climate front. The world is still on pace to heat the planet 3.5°C by century’s end. Given what scientists are learning about the link between climate change and natural disasters, as well as about worrisome feedbacks like melting permafrost in the Arctic, that’s a risky prospect. The International Energy Agency expects that global emissions need to peak by 2017, or else we’ll have locked in enough fossil-fuel infrastructure to make a “dangerous” 2-degree Celsius rise in temperatures impossible to avoid. Tick, tick, tick…
2) Energy policy shifted from Congress to the Obama Administration. Most of the big, consequential moves on energy policy this year came out of the Environmental Protection Agency. There were new rules on mercury, smog and acid-rain that will prod utilities to retire many of their oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants. The White House unveiled new fuel-economy rules that will boost the efficiency of cars and lights trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, arguably Obama’s biggest oil-saving move to date. Republicans in the House held hearing after hearing on EPA overreach, but, in the end, virtually none of their attempts to hamstring these new pollution rules made it into law.
That’s not to say conservatives couldn’t affect the debate from afar. In September, the White House nixed the EPA’s strict new standards on ozone pollution (smog, basically), partly to stave off criticism that it was regulating too stringently. But in the end, it was President Obama and EPA administrator Lisa Jackson determining the fate of these rules, not Congress.
3) Greens turned their focus to local battles over fossil-fuel production. It starts with fracking. In the past decade, oil and gas companies have devised clever new ways to extract natural gas from America’s vast reserves of shale rock. The prospect of lots and lots of cheap gas could, potentially, reshape the country’s energy landscape (and, among other things, put plenty of coal plants out of business).
Yet, this year, communities in Pennsylvania, New York and elsewhere began questioning whether the process used to extract this gas, hydraulic fracturing, was leaking dangerous chemicals into the water supply and causing other assorted harms. The technical debate over “fracking” is unresolved (and Congress is only just beginning to investigate), but local opposition could end up hampering the shale-gas revolution.
Similarly, one of the major environmental actions in 2011 was a grass-roots battle over TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, down to the Gulf of Mexico. A handful of ragtag activists, led by, among others, writer Bill McKibben, managed to raise enough of a ruckus that the White House felt compelled to delay the project. With Congress out of the picture, greens focused their ire on local fossil-fuel projects as a proxy in the larger war over climate change.
4) Unexpected global events — like the Arab Spring — still shaped our energy world. In February, a civil war in Libya disrupted world oil markets, causing crude prices to spike and contributing to weak economic growth in the United States and Europe. It was a stunning reminder that global oil supplies are still tight and that we’re still ferociously dependent on the stuff. Similarly, in March, a massive earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan, causing a series of equipment failures and meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. That, too, had repercussions, as both Japan and Germany began devising plans to shift away from nuclear power, while regulators in the United States have had to go back and recheck their own safety standards for reactors.
5) Despite a bad rap, clean energy is booming. Ask a Republican what the biggest energy story of 2011 was, and many of them will say, “Solyndra, Solyndra, Solyndra.” And, indeed, the fact that the Obama administration gave a $535 million loan guarantee to a solar manufacturer that went bust was a huge embarrassment.
And yet, the Solyndra scandal obscured a larger, and potentially more important, trend. Prices for solar panels are tumbling dramatically, to the point where some analysts now wonder whether they could start competing with conventional fossil-fuel sources in the next decade. It’s still unclear how sustainable the solar boom is: In the United States, the boom has depended partly on subsidies that will soon expire, and relied partly on an overproduction frenzy in China that isn’t likely to last. Still, solar is starting to emerge as a serious power source — it’s no longer merely “cute,” as Bill Gates once dubbed it. And if it ends up surpassing expectations, then it’s possible that we could, one day, look back on 2011 as a major inflection point in the history of energy.
Note: This is the first in a weeklong series looking back at the major policy stories of 2011. In the days ahead, we’ll also review the year in health care, financial regulation, and, of course, the economy.