Creating Environmental Capital

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oil well

One thing is certain in the race for cleaner energy system: Nothing is going to be certain for a long time.

Last week the Obama administration abandoned the long-running plan to bury nuclear waste below Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, another potential barrier to new nuclear power plants in the U.S. Big questions loom about the viability of electric cars and of futuristic power plants that would shoot their greenhouse-gas emissions underground instead of skyward. And concerns about unintended environmental consequences are thwarting plans for wind and solar farms from Wyoming to the Mojave Desert.

Don’t expect clarity from the government, the financial world or even the scientific lab, said a number of executives and entrepreneurs who were in New York for a conference sponsored by the Wall Street Journal.

It was only a year ago when thing seemed clearer. Oil prices were high, investors where showering money on renewable-energy developers and federal lawmakers were pushing to limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently had won the Nobel Prize for a report concluding that global warming was “unequivocal” and was “very likely” caused by human activity, so the debate over climate science appeared largely done.

All that has changed. Oil prices, though rising again, are just above half their mid 2008 highs. Tough economic times are pinching clean energy investment and prompting new opposition to a mandatory carbon cap. And the IPCC has said it will appoint an independent committee to investigate questions raised recently about its widely watched climate science reports.

“It’s frustrating, but scientists are human beings,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said at the conference. Society has produced “a greenhouse-gas layer that is absolutely, positively due to humans,” he said, but the precise impacts remain unclear. “The uncertainties are quite large.”

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A writer and photographer, Spowart has publication credits in Canada, United States, Europe and Norway with such publications as The Globe & Mail, The National Post, Sun Media, Canwest News, and Canada News Wire.