Opinion

The Great Debate

Assad’s terror farce at the Geneva talks

Just days before the most recent Syrian peace talks in Geneva began, a report detailing “industrial-scale” killing in President Bashar al-Assad’s prisons revealed the nature of his government. Despite this setback, the regime continues to claim that it is only fighting terrorists.

While their rhetoric is convenient, the reality is that only one side of the Syrian negotiations is actively fighting al Qaeda – the opposition. Though Assad has the capacity to attack extremists, from the spring of 2011 until today he has chosen to target civilians instead.

During two weeks I just spent interviewing Syrians in the southern border towns of Turkey, I found nearly universal opposition to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the army of foreign jihadists backed by al Qaeda that has now taken over many liberated areas across Northern Syria.

Syrians decried ISIS’s brutal campaign to target aid workers, journalists, respected leaders and moderate clerics. They describe the dual terror of Assad’s airborne bombs and al Qaeda’s guns on the ground. Citizens risked their lives earlier this month to march in protest against ISIS, and the poorly-armed opposition began to push al Qaeda out of key parts of the north and reopen communities to aid.

Assad knew that the enemy of his enemy could be his friend, at least for now. His cynical but effective logic was that if he could convince the world he was fighting terrorists, we would live with his war crimes. He sowed the seeds for this in his widely mocked first speech addressing mass protests at the end of March, 2011. He then set to work making it more reality than rhetoric, releasing extremists from his own prisons to become the face of the opposition.

Mexico’s reversal of fortune

In Latin America, this looks to be the year of Brazil — thanks to the impending World Cup and presidential elections. But with another lackluster year looming in emerging markets, fans of transformation, growth and investment potential should instead look to Mexico.

Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, is expected to win a second term this year, and its soccer team stands a good shot at victory. But growth has slowed considerably. In the world’s seventh largest economy, reforms are stagnating and the country faces a possible ratings downgrade.

Mexico, by contrast, is in the throes of serious reforms. It will likely lead Latin America with at least 4 percent growth this year and an improving investment outlook. Standard & Poor’s recently boosted Mexico’s credit ratings because of energy reforms that the rating company trumpeted last month as a “watershed moment” for the country. It is becoming a story of inverted fortunes, as Michael Shifter and Cameron Combs of the Inter-American Dialogue recently wrote.

The Case Against Natural Gas Exports

President Barack Obama has made middle-class jobs and natural gas two of his top second-term policy objectives. Both could be undermined if his Department of Energy (DOE) continues to approve gas industry applications for exporting American gas.

There is already a move in Congress to remove DOE’s authority, so approvals can move even faster, and the oil and gas industry has thrown all its lobbying muscle behind this effort to steamroll through the permission process.

Natural gas, the cleanest of the hydrocarbon-based fuels, has long been a primary choice for heating and power generation, as well as an essential raw material, or “feedstock,” for a vast range of chemistry-based products, including every kind of plastic, synthetic cloth and high-tech composite materials. When gas supplies came under pressure in the late 1990s, the chemical industry — and most other energy-dependent U.S. heavy manufacturers — were hard hit.

The oil boom’s foreign policy dividend

The domestic benefits of the U.S. oil production boom are well documented — everything from the creation of high-paying jobs to sending less money to foreign oil producers.

Less well appreciated are the geopolitical benefits. U.S. oil production has already paid foreign policy dividends in at least one vital area: It has paved the way for stronger sanctions on Iran by helping to keep the global oil market well-supplied and minimizing oil price volatility.

This development is timely and instructive.

By the first half of 2014, according to credible estimates, Iran is likely to be able to covertly produce enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear device in as little as seven to 10 days — before it could be detected by the international community. While it remains unclear how close Iran is to nuclear weapons capability, the consensus is that the window for preventing it from happening is closing.

The darkness behind fracking’s silver lining

A natural gas pipeline under construction near East Smithfield in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, Jan. 7, 2012. REUTERS/Les Stone

Climate change may have reached the point of no return last month.

CO2 levels in the atmosphere topped 400 parts per million on May 19, for the first time since the Pleistocene era, over 2.5 million years ago. President Barack Obama’s historic speech on climate change today highlights his growing focus on this issue for his second term.

Climate scientists have long regarded that 400 number as the symbolic threshold. One step beyond, and it would be virtually impossible to put the brake on human-generated climate change. The bad news escalated last week when the International Energy Agency reported that global emissions of carbon dioxide rose 1.4 percent in 2012, the largest annual increase on record.

The inter-state job search migration

The Internal Revenue Service created a bit of a kerfuffle last week when it announced that it would no longer publish data on interstate taxpayer migration and the income they take with them. This would be a huge disservice not just to economists and policy analysts but to all Americans.

This IRS migration data provides the best evidence that low-tax, limited-government states attract employers, families and individuals, while states pursuing the same policies as the White House – higher taxes, bigger government and more onerous regulations – drive businesses and taxpayers away. It’s not hard to fathom why the Obama administration, despite its promise to be the most transparent in history, would want the IRS to stop publishing this damning evidence.

California, Illinois and Maryland, which have some of the highest tax burdens and biggest state governments in the country, may have finally realized the deleterious economic effects that come with following President Barack Obama’s approach to governance.

‘Energy independence’ is a farce

It can be hard to find areas of agreement between the presidential candidates on economic or domestic policy. Tuesday night’s debate, though, revealed one exception: energy policy. Alas, what it also revealed is that both President Obama and Governor Romney are making their policies based on a false premise, and they are pandering to Americans’ ignorance instead of telling them the truth.

The second question in the debate at Hofstra University came from audience member Phillip Tricolla, and was directed to Obama: “Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it’s not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?” The premise that the Energy Department can lower gas prices is incorrect. But Obama chose not to confront Tricolla with the hard truth — that global economic forces have put gasoline prices on a long-term upwards trajectory, and that trajectory is beyond our government’s control.

“The most important thing we can do is to make sure we control our own energy,” said Obama, neglecting to answer the actual question. He went on to boast that domestic production of oil, coal, natural gas and clean energy has increased, while he has also raised fuel efficiency standards. “And all these things have contributed to us lowering our oil imports to the lowest levels in 16 years,” said Obama. “Now, I want to build on that. And that means, yes, we still continue to open up new areas for drilling.”

Ending renewable energy’s villainy

The Republican and Democratic National Conventions mark the beginning of the end for the 2012 presidential campaign and – one hopes – the end of a regrettable chapter in American politics: a time when supporting real economic growth by encouraging American entrepreneurs became less important than throwing political punches.

For the better part of a year, politicians have paid lip service to aiding entrepreneurship, arguing that to pull our economy out of a recession we need to support small businesses and growing industries. Despite this, one sector filled with entrepreneurship and successful companies has been maligned, ignored, and in some instances vilified (Solyndra being the most prominent example). What’s so wrong with the U.S. solar, wind, biofuels and other clean, renewable energy industries?

It’s long past time to move beyond the accusatory politics of misrepresented facts and return to the bipartisan collaborative spirit that has driven clean energy’s success in this country. With less bad politics and more good policy, the sector can rapidly expand and make America a world leader in clean, renewable energy technology.

Should ExxonMobil be broken up?

This book review was originally published in the American Prospect, and is republished here with permission.

Even granting that testifying to congressional committees is not on the list of an oil CEO’s favorite things to do, when ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond, known to his employees as “Iron Ass,” arrived at the Dirksen Senate Office building one morning in November 2005, he was in an especially reticent mood. Among other things, the Senate Energy Committee wanted to know about the corporation’s role in formulating policy with Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force. Raymond – who was chummy with Cheney and seven weeks away from his retirement, after 12 spectacularly profitable years at the helm first of Exxon and then Exxon-Mobil – did not think the committee needed to know. Thus when New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg asked Raymond whether he or any ExxonMobil executives participated in a 2001 meeting with Cheney, Raymond responded with a single syllable: “No.”

The truth of that statement was something only a lawyer or a comedian could love, but it was consistent with how the company prefers to be seen: independent, apolitical, above the muck of any particular political fight. Yet as Steve Coll documents in his groundbreaking investigation, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, sometimes even the aloof need a little assistance. Just days before the hearing, the company had found itself frustrated with the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which seemed to be stalling on giving ExxonMobil its slice of a hugely valuable 50-billion-barrel oil field. The State Department did not seem to be pressing ExxonMobil’s case as hard as Raymond wanted, so he called Cheney and asked, according to Coll’s paraphrase, “What in the hell is with this country?” Cheney called the UAE government himself, and ExxonMobil got what it wanted.

America’s path to alternative energy runs through Brazil

Mitt Romney alone can no longer be saddled with the label of most obvious flip-flopper among this year’s presidential candidates. That honor instead belongs to Barack Obama, whose 180 on the Keystone XL pipeline construction last week was sufficient to induce whiplash among oil industry executives and green advocates alike.

In an effort to actually make good on his “all of the above” energy policy, promoting both fossil fuel and renewable energy, President Obama had no choice but to pull off a neck-twisting reversal. Five months ago he postponed a decision on whether to build a controversial $7 billion pipeline to bring Canadian oil sands fuel down to Texas refineries. But it turns out that was only a temporary sop to the activists who see the structure as both an environmental threat as well as the embodiment of reckless Big Oil greed.

Now, with his opponents falsely equating current high oil prices with Obama’s perceived inaction on domestic energy development, Obama is acting differently. He’s scrambling to counter them by not only reconsidering the earlier postponement but actually accelerating the pipeline’s build as a national priority.

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