Sheila McNulty US can curb carbon emissions even as it promotes oil economy

Alaska’s decision to host the largest oil and gas lease sale of any US state this year is good news for the oil and gas industry, which has been pressing for more access. And while the resulting exploration and production certainly will be good for the overall economy – creating jobs and boosting activity – it is a pity that it is not against a backdrop of better news on the environmental front.

By this I mean concerted steps by the US government to reduce the use of oil as part of a larger effort to curtail carbon emissions. This issue has long disappeared from the political radar, despite being a key platform on which President Barack Obama was elected.

Indeed, it was not long after he was elected that the Obama Administration made clear it had to put the oil industry and the economic activity it provided before carbon emissions. The issue was whether to approve the Alberta Clipper pipeline to bring high-carbon fuel from Canada’s vast oil sands into the US. Upon approving the pipeline, the Obama Administration said:

Canada is a stable and reliable ally and trading partner of the United States, with which we have free trade agreements, which augment the security of this energy supply. Approval of the permit sends a positive economic signal, in a difficult economic period, about the future reliability and availability of a portion of the United States’ energy imports.

Certainly it is important that the US focus on its economy. Large numbers of people remain unemployed, and there are real fears about the risks posed by the massive budget deficit. In addition, energy security is paramount. But that does not mean the government cannot also support cleaner air by promoting energy efficiency measures and renewables that also make economic sense.

Already people suffer health risks  that come with their own economic costs from factory pollutants and vehicle emissions. If the US can clean up its air, the public will benefit.

It would be a pity if the Obama Administration could not find a way to put this issue back on the agenda. To do so would not mean halting lease sales like that out of Alaska. The unfortunate fact remains that the US still uses far more oil than it can produce.