Tuesday, June 19, 2007

California’s environmental community has a Dickensian feel to it these days. These are truly the best of times and the worst of times.

On the upside, eco-lovin’ interests hold the upper hand in Sacramento and, for that matter, in most every other corner of the state where politicians smell good PR. A lawsuit against polluting automakers filed by former state attorney general Bill Lockyer has been endorsed by the current attorney general, the always enigmatic Jerry Brown. Even Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican and self-described free-marketeer, has gotten in on the act by signing a law mandating a reduction in greenhouse gases, then criss-crossing the nation (and, in the process, creating a lot of carbon dioxide with his private jet) to self-promote his action. The “Governator” can’t run for president, but at least he gets some satisfaction as the jolly green giant of California politics.

Think about the eco-friendly posture America has widely embraced: recycling, open space, water purification, the increasing market for hybrid cars, the ban on offshore oil drilling along the Florida and California coasts. This is truly a sea change (the oceans have benefited as well), so it’s truly a cause for celebration, no? Well, to hear leading environmentalists tell it, the answer is an emphatic no. And if they keep up the gloom and doom, it could mean real trouble for the larger issues they claim to care about most.

Case in point: the increasingly hysterical posture by environmentalists toward a clean energy source that can have a lasting positive impact for California: liquefied natural gas (LNG). The Golden State’s LNG controversy is strange even by California standards.

No one disputes that California needs natural gas—and is in a losing game to match the state’s appetite for it. Natural gas is a popular choice for both industry and activist because it’s a clean-burning fuel and because green pressure has severely restricted nuclear fuel and the use of coal. The problem is, California generates less than one-seventh the total amount of natural gas that it needs to meet consumer demand.

The LNG proposal is a significant and complicated idea, and deserves the support and even opposition of people who will learn something about the issue and not let their knee-jerk ideology guide reckless words.

What are the alternatives? Wind and solar are attractive concepts, but neither offers a realistic solution in the short term. So, in order to keep the lights on, we are confronted with a bright and shining dose of reality.

But leave it to celebrities to lead us in the wrong direction. In the star chamber that is Malibu, the issue of whether to allow an LNG facility run by the Australian energy giant BHP Billiton many miles north in Ventura County’s Cabrillo Port has sparked a public display that is equal parts bad politics and bad public policy. The liquefied gas would be delivered by tanker, piped ashore, and vaporized before entering the Southern California Gas Co. system. Malibu resident Keelly Shaye, the wife of actor Pierce Brosnan, took to the editorial pages to inform us that we are one re-gasification plant away from true planetary harm. In addition, she heaped special scorn on Robert Kennedy Jr., who is something of a hero within the environmental community for his efforts to clean up New York’s Hudson River.

Specifically, Shaye wrote, “Perhaps Mr. Kennedy is unaware of the trail of environmental degradation that BHP Billiton has left around the world. International newspaper reports have well-documented the devastation.” Who can say for sure if this is true? Surely not Shaye. If the wife of television’s Remington Steele were herself a better sleuth, she’d have better evidence than “international newspaper reports.”

Shaye is not the only celebrity fighting this cause. Perhaps motivated by genuine outrage, or the fact that an LNG terminal would be visible from Malibu’s pricey real estate, celebrities by the drove have campaigned against the BHP project. One rally last fall produced actors Ted Danson, Halle Berry, Danny Stern, Téa Leoni, Daryl Hannah, David Duchovny, and Minnie Driver. Also protesting was actor Dick Van Dyke, who told reporters: “I voted for Ike Eisenhower, because I worshipped him as everybody else did. He told us when he left office, ‘Beware of the industrial military complex.’ And we didn’t do it. And now they’re running the country.”

Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, this sort of rhetoric amounts to the kind of demagoguery that eco-activists routinely accuse energy interests of using to avoid real discussion and thwart their purported good works. And it appears to have had an effect: the California Lands Commission and the California Coastal Commission voted in April to block the $800 million terminal. With friends like Shaye and her fellow Malibu colonists, what environmentalist needs enemies?

Wind and solar are attractive concepts, but neither offers a realistic solution in the short term. So, in order to keep the lights on, we are confronted with a bright and shining dose of reality.

As with many matters, the spotlight is trained on Governor Schwarzenegger and the celebrity element—and not just because the governor is an extended member of the Kennedy clan. It’s common knowledge that California’s governor—who works in Sacramento but resides in the Southland—still moves easily in star-driven circles. And many have concluded that if you want to influence a policy decision, your chances are equally good if you pick the right time and place to dine at the Ivy or if you hire a lobbyist in the state capital.

It’s the mixed blessing of having a celebrity as governor. Schwarzenegger’s glitter appeal has brought attention to his office in ways never before seen in Sacramento. But it’s a sad day for California when star power influences energy needs.

In the final analysis, the LNG proposal for Cabrillo Port is a significant and complicated idea that deserves the support and even opposition of people who will learn something about the issue and not let their knee-jerk ideology guide reckless words. The reality is that we need accessible, affordable energy that is as clean as possible.

Eco-activists are committing the same kind of demagoguery that they routinely accuse energy interests of using to avoid discussion and thwart their purported good works.

California’s energy crisis seems a distant memory now. Californians might remember when the “rolling blackouts” began, but few are familiar with the dynamics of constrained interstate natural gas transportation capacities. The energy crisis unleashed a shock wave that not only undermined confidence in public institutions but rewrote state regulations on energy use and development, bankrupted the state’s largest utility, and prompted Californians to replace a recently re-elected governor with a film star.

If there’s one thing all movie stars know, it’s the backstory of the characters they portray. As for California’s immediate energy needs, time will tell if California’s Governator is especially mindful of this emerging story arc—and does what is necessary to avoid what got Gray Davis written out of his own script.