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Is Kerry’s Green Your Green?

Clean energy joins oil as the lightning rod for conflict of interest charges.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Environmentalists are generally enthusiastic about Massachusetts Senator John Kerry’s appointment to the cabinet post of Secretary of State. Historically, Kerry probably has the most stellar voting record on environmental issues of anyone who’s served in the office, including votes for increasing CAFE fuel efficiency standards, promoting hydrogen fuel and ending federal subsidies for the fossil fuel industry; and votes against oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and stripping the EPA of the power to regulate greenhouse gases.

Since the State Department has a say in all things international, the most immediate decision before him with big environmental implications will likely be to approve or reject TransCanada’s proposal for the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, an issue which has already brought scrutiny of his predecessor and her potential conflicts of interest because of existing personal investments.

Kerry—who with a net worth of $184 million is the wealthiest man in the U.S. Senate and has broad investments through multiple trusts—has vowed to divest holdings in stocks that might be similarly scrutinized, including two energy companies that could benefit from approval of the pipeline. In something of a twist, however, some conservative critics have pointed to stakes in “greentech” and alternative energy companies that could also be considered suspect—investments that would thrive if, say, the Keystone pipeline project is nixed, or if Kerry tinkers with tariffs and other international trade policies that have broad effects on global energy markets.

Fair enough—and were the federal government a place where purist ideals flourished, the truthier-than-thou left would laud its opponents’ demand for honesty and transparency. But cynical veteran tree-huggers might secretly cherish this opportunity to turn the tables on their long-spoiled nemeses, preferring not to demand too rigorous an inquiry into Kerry’s “green” holdings. Why?

Though his direct influence might be less at State than it was in the Senate, Kerry seems to be tugging for control of environmental policy-making using much the same rationale as Bush and Cheney did for oil: national security. In recent confirmation hearings, he referred to climate change as “among the top international threats facing the United States,” prompting conjecture as to whether invoking that same specter, which for generations served to shore up government support for oil interests, could be used to justify an environmental “defense” agenda.

In fact, funding alternative energy development through the national defense budget is not so outrageous a proposition; the U.S. Navy already has extensive solar projects in the works. Some, like the one at California’s China Lake research center, even turn a profit. That’s something the Navy—and the government—could certainly use more of, especially in the age of deficit aversion and sequesters.

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So far, Kerry seems to be sticking to his strong environmental record, and it’s clear that both he and President Obama have at least a relatively progressive attitude toward steering the nation (and hopefully the world) toward cleaner, greener solutions to our energy needs. It’s also clear that both are believers in climate change, the science behind it and the threat it poses to people everywhere through increasingly extreme weather, food insecurity and disruption of the world’s oceans and other sensitive ecosystems. Responding to a not-so-subtle suggestion from Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso to lay off environmental regulation in favor of economic relief, Kerry countered “The solution to climate change is energy policy. You want to do business and do it well in America, we’ve got to get into the energy race.” He also went on to cite Massachusetts and California as examples of clean energy policy that have actually helped their economies, saying the industry was “growing faster than any other sector” and calling it “a job creator.”

For decades, presidential administrations have included many people like Dick Cheney, whose revolving-door relationship with the oil industry has (besides enriching himself) delayed America’s advancement in cleaner, more renewable energy technologies and put us at a competitive disadvantage in those global markets. What’s more, the historic push for the fossil fuel agenda has engendered hatred for America abroad and racked up a breathtaking cost in money and lives through foreign wars that protect and further the capital interests of that industry. If Kerry happens to profit from crafting energy policy that ultimately saves lives, the budget and the planet, it would be ironic if conservatives claimed the right to cry foul.•

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