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Jewish Energy Advocacy

By Sybil Sanchez

From hydraulic fracturing to tar sands, a rift has been forming between those seeking energy independence and those seeking to protect the environment. But at the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, the mandate to protect the environment while simultaneously fostering energy independence has been the bedrock of our work. As global energy demand continues to rise and new technologies are developed for extracting fossil fuels, the task of supporting both energy independence and the environment becomes increasingly challenging and complex.

COEJL finds the balance by focusing on energy security — sustainable energy production that is sound both politically and environmentally. Mirroring the tension in the rest of the nation, the Jewish community is challenged in terms of how to approach energy security largely because of a desire to reduce our use of fossil fuels while increasing energy independence.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as hydrofracking or simply fracking, is a relatively new way of drilling for natural gas by blasting water, sand and chemicals at high pressures into shale rock. Depending on one’s perspective, it is either a threat to our clean water supply or a way to supplant coal with relatively cleaner burning natural gas.

Supporting the extraction and transport of Canada’s vast supply of tar sands — oil saturated in the earth like water in a sponge — also poses the promise of lessening reliance on oil from regimes hostile to both the United States and Israel. Yet supporting the tar sands by building a transcontinental pipeline to carry it from Alberta across America would increase our reliance on oil. Tar sands oil is a dirtier fuel than even standard crude oil and would require more energy to extract and transport than other fossil fuels. All of this would further increase greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

As with other complex issues, there is no one clear-cut answer for the community as a whole. In considering its own policy, COEJL considers its past precedents, its 27 partner organizations and its parent organization, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Many of our policies are still in development, although at the JCPA’s 2012 plenum in Detroit, a resolution was passed calling for federal regulation of hydrofracking.

Five years ago, COEJL and JCPA brought together 10 other organizations — B’nai B’rith International, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hadassah: Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, Jewish War Veterans, National Council of Jewish Women, The Rabbinical Assembly, The Union for Reform Judaism, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, and Women of Reform Judaism — to discuss energy policy. They endorsed Jewish community priorities that remain relevant as we continue navigating these issues today, including:

  •  promoting energy security policies that are environmentally sound;
  •  increasing renewable energy supply;
  •  reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050; and
  •  increasing U.S. leadership on climate change issues.

Here is an update on some of those issues.

Energy Security

In May 2012, crude oil cost $105.59 a barrel and key concerns regarding the threat to energy security continued to include growing instability in the Middle East. Examples of this are the Strait of Hormuz and conflict over Egypt’s supply of natural gas to Israel. Controlled by Iran, the Strait of Hormuz is one of the world’s most strategic passageways for oil transport. As tensions between Iran and the international community continue to rise, Iran repeatedly threatens to close the strait to international passage, thereby affecting oil prices. At the same time, Egypt stopped supplying Israel with natural gas, Israel’s third-largest energy source.

Efforts to promote environmentally sound energy security continue to hinge around increased support for clean, renewable energy as well as energy efficiency to reduce unnecessary use of energy.

Renewable Energy

According to statistics drawn from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, domestic renewable energy consumption contributed to 8 percent of domestic energy supply in 2009, 10 percent in 2009, 11 percent in 2010 and 12.25 percent in the first half of 2011. While the growth trajectory is clear, most renewable energy is used for electricity generation and much more of it is needed. Barriers to production include the capital investment required to provide renewable energy on a much larger scale to make it market competitive. Increased support for tax incentives and policies that support renewable energy are important responses to such barriers.

In 2008, COEJL, JCPA and the 10 other organizations that convened on these issues endorsed the need to increase fuel economy, encourage use of alternative energy sources, adopt a renewable-electricity standard that would require 15 percent of domestic electricity production to come from renewable sources, and continue exploration and investment in biofuels. The move toward a federal renewable energy standard became part of a larger effort for comprehensive national climate change and energy policy, which unfortunately stalled in Congress in 2010. Nonetheless, more than 30 states within the United States now have similar standards in place.

Meanwhile, the focus of national policy has turned toward various calls for a “Clean Energy Standard” — setting a legal minimum for domestic clean energy generation. The name itself also refers both to Congressional bills and counter-proposals sponsored by Senators Jeff Bingaman, Sam Brownback and Lindsey Graham in 2010 and early 2012, as well as to a commitment made by President Barack Obama to ensure that 80 percent of the country’s electricity comes from low-carbon sources by 2035. The bills have defined both the clean energy percentage as well as the term “clean energy” itself differently, drawing upon a basket that includes solar, wind, biomass, hydroelectric, nuclear, natural gas and so-called “clean coal” — burning conventional coal but using new technologies to reduce the amount of pollution released into the atmosphere.

Discussions about these standards have been overshadowed by 2012 presidential campaign politics. While some of the principles involved have bipartisan support, it is unclear whether such legislation can pass in a campaign year, as recent efforts at reducing national greenhouse gas emissions have been unable to survive partisan politics.

Further, it remains unclear how much support such legislation will lend to developing renewable energy. Renewable energy includes technologies that are sustainable and naturally renew — such as wind and solar — but not fossil fuels that can only be dug up and burned once. The Clean Energy Standard Act that was introduced in early 2012 promotes a bundle that includes renewable energy plus nuclear energy, natural gas and “waste-to-energy” — burning things such as municipal solid waste, landfill methane, animal waste and yard waste.

Reducing carbon dioxide concentrations by 80 percent by the year 2050 and increasing U.S. leadership on climate change issues

In 2008, the 10 organizations brought together by COEJL and JCPA also endorsed legislation to prevent global temperature from rising two degrees Celsius by limiting concentrations of heat-trapping gases in accordance with scientific principles. They said that failure to act in the near term will create undue expense in the future by increasing the eventual cost of reductions and that such legislation should aim to reduce carbon concentrations by 80 percent by 2050, with significant interim reductions, such as a reduction of carbon emissions by 25 percent to 40 percent by the year 2020. In November 2009, before the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, the White House announced similar national goals, with the president calling for an 83 percent reduction of 2005 greenhouse gas emissions levels by the year 2050 and an interim reduction measure of about 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. While national efforts to implement these goals through comprehensive energy and climate change policy have failed, statewide and regional efforts toward greenhouse gas regulations are on the rise. Awareness and action also are increasing in the Jewish community. In 2012, through the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign, 53 national Jewish leaders committed to taking a first step by reducing their energy use by 14 percent by 2014 as part of the national goal of an 83 percent reduction of 2005 greenhouse gas emissions levels by 2050.

Moving Forward

Little happened legislatively in 2012, as Congress was divided and there was a major election. It’s clear that although national legislation is a critical factor in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing energy security, advocates of change cannot wait and see what happens when policymakers finally make their next move. Rather, it is incumbent upon us to bring our strengths — communal, institutional and personal — to bear now. That is why COEJL’s Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign leaders are speaking out as a public Jewish voice on energy and the environment. COEJL intends to work with its constituents in deepening and broadening a shared commitment to the environment and energy security. May this Jewish Energy Guide serve as a tool to move us forward.

Follow-up online

Background information on Jewish environmental issues: tinyurl.com/coejlbackgrounders
Jewish Community Priorities for Climate and Energy Policy of 2008: http://coejl.org/resources/jewish-community-priorities-for-climate-and-energy-policy-2008
Jewish Community Position on Hydrofracking: tinyurl.com/coejl2012fracking

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Sybil Sanchez is the director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. She previously served as executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee and as director of United Nations affairs at B’nai B’rith International. An advisory committee member of the Jewish Greening Fellowship, Jewcology.com and Camp Ramah in the Rockies, and a former board member of the Green Zionist Alliance, Sanchez also chairs the Green Hevra, a network of 15 Jewish environmental organizations. She earned her master’s degree in international affairs at Columbia University.

The Jewish Energy Guide presents a comprehensive Jewish approach to the challenges of energy security and climate change and offers a blueprint for the Jewish community to achieve a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by September of 2014, which is the next Shmittah, or sabbatical, year in the Jewish calendar.

The Jewish Energy Guide is part of COEJL’s Jewish Energy Network, a collaborative effort with Jewcology’s Year of Action to engage Jews in energy action and advocacy. The guide was created in partnership with the Green Zionist Alliance.

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