Some 'stimulus' may be bad for environment


Despite their greenish credentials, Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress are bound to offer a mixed bag of environmental policies. Reality ho.

Yes, they'll push conservation deals like the Omnibus federal-lands package that Congress just passed. They'll try to address climate change and energy and they'll try other greenish moves. But it's already apparent, some of their moves won't be so green.

Transportation is one sign. In their attempt to stimulate the sick economy, they're going to spend many billions on road construction in the West, funneling money through state governments. Those projects will "create" jobs, but they'll also encourage drivers to drive more -- which means more emissions -- and they'll encourage sprawl developments.

As Alex Steffen at warns:

… The vast majority of the transportation funding asked for by the states is for new highway construction, primarily on the suburban fringe ... At this critical juncture, nothing could be a worse investment … You can't build your way out of a traffic jam. As you pave more lanes, more drivers crowd on to them.

... (The effect on) pollution is critical. A highway-focused federal transportation agenda can't be reconciled with (Obama's) promise to take on climate change. Building new highways to provide mobility is the transportation equivalent of building new coal plants to provide energy.

A bold-face question: Do you ever get the feeling that your getting out of bed in the morning is bad for the environment?

Anyway ... Obama's choice to run the massive federal Transportation Department -- Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican symbolizing bipartisan politics -- is also a worry, Steffens says ...

...LaHood is a conservative … with little transportation expertise and almost no administrative experience, who has earned a (League of Conservation Voters) lifetime voting score on critical environmental issues of 27 percent, and who maintains deep financial connections to the very industries he's now supposed to regulate ...

… (LaHood's) appointment is a profoundly uninspiring vote for business as usual at a time when we need change … The U.S. Department of Transportation is not a minor agency. This year it had a $58 billion budget and employed almost 60,000 people. (LaHood) will guide the spending of vast amounts of stimulus spending … and be responsible for a raft of critical policy decisions that will dictate the shape of our cities and the choices we have for getting around for decades -- and thus indirectly our energy policies as well, since transportation is where much of our energy use goes.

Ironically, if the economy remains sick -- if they do no economic stimulus -- that might be good for the environment, writes David Owen in a brief commentary in The New Yorker:

… Shuttered factories don’t spew carbon dioxide; the unemployed drive fewer miles and turn down their furnaces, air-conditioners, and swimming-pool heaters; struggling corporations and families cut back on air travel; even affluent people buy less throwaway junk.

… Governments … understandably want to put people back to work and get them buying non-necessities again -- through programs intended to revive ordinary consumer spending (which has a big carbon footprint), and through public-investment projects to build new roads and airports (ditto). Our best intentions regarding conservation and carbon reduction inevitably run up against the realities of foreclosure and bankruptcy and unemployment.

Likewise, the Obama-Dems' efforts to impose tougher fuel-efficiency standards on cars have another unintended consequence: When each mile you drive takes less gas, then driving is less expensive -- and you're likely to drive more. As The New Yorker's Owen says:

… Getting more miles to the gallon is of no benefit to the environment if it leads to an increase in driving -- and the response of drivers to decreases in the cost of driving is to drive more. Increases in fuel efficiency could be bad for the environment unless they’re accompanied by powerful disincentives that force drivers to find alternatives to hundred-mile commutes.

… Electric cars are (also) not the panacea they are sometimes claimed to be, not only because the electricity they run on has to be generated somewhere but also because making driving less expensive does nothing to discourage people from sprawling across the face of the planet, promoting forms of development that are inherently and catastrophically wasteful.

Let's hope some of this (from Steffen) gets into the mixed bag:

Transportation for America, a new national coalition of smart growth, transit and good government groups, has already put forward an alternative list of $33 billion worth of shovel-ready but environmentally-friendly transportation infrastructure projects, and is lobbying for $100 billion in total investment in transit and other climate-friendly solutions.

PS -- A very green writer at busts a gasket criticizing The New Yorker's view.

About Ray

Ray has been a Western journalist since 1979. He's now High Country News senior editor, based in Bozeman, Montana. He's earned national recognition including a George Polk Award for political reporting, a Sidney Hillman Foundation Journalism Award for investigating oil-field accidents, and an Investigative Reporters & Editors scroll for going undercover as a prison inmate. He's had three novels published.