Panel: Conflict Looms over Environment and Energy in 2015

March 1, 2015



Clashes between Congress and the White House, a suspenseful countdown to Paris climate talks, a fast-changing energy landscape, and the run-up to a presidential election, amid plentiful environment and energy news – that’s what top journalists see in store for 2015.

The predictions came at an annual panel, co-produced in January by the SEJ and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., that has become a media ritual defining agendas that journalists will work to cover, a kind of gathering of the tribes that draws many attendees from out of town — and players from the nonjournalism community. Many listened from an overflow room or watched the livestream nationwide (the entire program can be viewed online here).

The 2015 stage has been set for some serious conflict, they projected, with control of the Senate (and Congress) changing to Republican hands as a Democrat president pushes forth with executive branch initiatives.

Conflict was also the gist of the keynote outlook presented by Larry Pearl, director of environmental news for Bloomberg BNA. Pearl pointed to conflicts over climate regulations, Clean Water Act jurisdiction, and fracking — conflict between Democrats and Republicans, environmentalists and industry, and the different levels of government.

The scheduled December 2015 international meeting on a hoped-for climate agreement loomed large as a yearlong news generator, not just for Pearl but for most of the panelists who followed. The outcome of the Paris meeting is hardly a given, most agreed.

President Obama's trip to India a few days after the Wilson Center predictions only demonstrated the point. The uncertainty — and the news — revolved not merely around whether there would be an agreement, but whether any “agreement” would be worthy of the name. And, as symbolic Senate amendments on the contentious Keystone XL pipeline bill demonstrated a week later, doubt remained over whether Obama could sell any climate agreement to the Senate.

State pushback on CO2, ferment in food policy, falling oil prices

A star panel of journalists from deep in the trenches followed Pearl — moderated by Douglas Fischer (until recently editor of The Daily Climate and now director of the whole Environmental Health News operation). Each gave a take on what key stories they saw coming up.

Randy Lee Loftis of the Dallas Morning News, a 30-year veteran of the beat, talked about expected push-back from many (but hardly all) states over EPA's effort to control carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. He suggested court cases could push any real resolution over to the next administration.

Another panelist, Lisa Palmer, a prolific freelancer, cited ferment in the food-policy arena as signaling a trend toward “connecting the dots” ecologically between extreme weather, soil health, water and food.

Meanwhile, the falling price of oil is “the talk of the town and the industry,” said Amy Harder, who covers energy for the Wall Street Journal. The low oil price casts a dark shadow over prospects for fuel efficiency and development of renewable and alternative energy. But it also casts doubt over the profitability of many fossil-industry infrastructure development plans — such as the Keystone pipeline. Harder said oil prices were likely to stay low for “a while” and that that would present “a challenge for the green agenda for sure.”

Speaker Neela Banerjee of InsideClimate News saw 2015 as a year for ‘setting down markers’ for environmental issues in the upcoming presidential campaign.
                               Photo by Schuyler Null, The Wilson Center

Neela Banerjee, who recently moved from the Los Angeles Times bureau to Pulitzer-winning InsideClimate News, noted the “flashpoints” for conflict between Obama and Congress. She looked at the coming year as a story of “setting down markers” for the 2016 presidential contest.

That, Banerjee said, was what was going on with many of the amendments offered to the Senate KXL bill. She saw much of the “thrust and parry” of GOP politics in those terms, citing Democrats' belief that “you can not be a climate change denier and win in 2016.”

Paling beside those issues are the Paris climate talks, which Lisa Friedman, deputy editor of ClimateWire and a climate-talks maven, described as the equivalent of the “Superbowl.” Even though any Paris agreement remained “a list of maybes,” she said, it would likely be “fundamentally different” than any previous climate agreement — if only because it would bring in developing nations as well as developed ones.

Bilateral deals, like the one Obama reached with China in 2014, would be a “huge part” of the final product, she added. Whatever the outcome, Friedman said, the pledged cuts might not add up to enough to avert catastrophic warming.

The science — on climate and more — will be source of intense dispute

Just two days before the Wilson Center panel, on January 21, the U.S. Senate had taken a vote on whether climate science was true. And various panelists agreed science would be an arena of intense conflict in 2015.

Banerjee pointed to a coming EPA study on how fracking could affect water. With many players looking to science to settle important controversies and problems (e.g., neonicotinoid pesticides), she predicted disappointment. “Scientists are not seen by various parties as honest brokers anymore. ... and that becomes enormously problematic when you're trying to develop policy based on science.”

Banerjee also raised a key question about how the news media cover the debate among politicians (there's virtually none among scientists). “We can't talk about the way politicians react to science without talking about who is actually funding the campaigns of politicians who now sit in Congress,” she said.

“There are so many people who are backed by vested interests — fossil fuel interests — who have a lot to lose if we put a price or a cap on carbon,” Banerjee added. “I think the interpretation of science by politicians cannot be divorced from who is funding politicians — and I think that we as reporters often do that. We don't talk about the campaign finance link.”

Harder, too, felt that ultimately the political debate was not really about science: “Climate change has become a religion and is no longer a science, at least in the public realm, and I think that is something that needs to be changed.”

Agriculture, Banerjee argued, is another vested interest the Obama administration (and perhaps by implication, journalists) remain uncannily silent about. “They've not gone after agriculture, which is the biggest emitter of methane,” she said. “They are enormously powerful, and nobody touches ag.”

While none of the panelists expected Congressional action on climate this year, many were interested in political support (or opposition) to climate action among various constituencies, especially religious groups, from Catholics influenced by the Pope to the religious right.

Harder said the most important grassroots groundswell she saw was the anti-KXL movement. However the KXL question was resolved, she said, that movement had spread to include many more pipelines in other places. “It really does tell the story of the ... North American energy boom.” Friedman added: “For a lot of actors, the Keystone movement is the climate movement.”

Joseph A. Davis has been writing about the environment in some capacity since 1977. He directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and compiles SEJ's daily news digest.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2015. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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