Earth Day Plays: It Ain't Easy Being Green

From nuclear power to offshore drilling, from coal mine disasters to ash clouds over Europe, the earth has become a major player in the markets.
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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- It's the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on Thursday.

But before we dance around the Earth Day pole and buy Mother Nature the gift of paying her proper attention for a minute, let's accept that sobering fact that Earth Day runs the risk of devolving into a Hallmark version of respect for the natural environment.

Surface-level flourishes as part of this Earth Day celebration are certainties. Sting will sing, for one, and many people will pledge to trade in their plastic water bottle-buying for reusable steel canisters.

There's plenty of reason to paint an Earth Day portrait of the planet again this year, but it's a complicated picture. In the end, it's in the details that the true Earth Day rests, not in the pledges of an end to plastic water bottles ... or the buying of LED light bulbs ... or corporate campaigns to show respect for the planet ... or the race to say the word "sustainability" more times than anyone else.

Astronaut John Glenn once thought he spied a huge glacier covering a portion of South America while orbiting the earth. It was actually the largest salt flat in the world, in Bolivia, where today workers are mining the endless salt for the lithium to make the batteries for electric cars.

The planet, in other words, tends to be more complicated than our first glance analysis. Can one day of celebration handle all the complexity?

A glance at some of the Earth Day coverage -- i.e.

check out the coolest iPhone Earth Day apps!

-- suggests we are still refining our approach to honoring, versus exploiting, the planet.


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The big companies will be doing their part to honor the earth -- part-public relations, part-actual, environmentally-based business achievements.

Siemens

(SI) - Get Report

is the lone, big corporate sponsor of the

Earth Day Network's

activities.

Cisco Systems

(CSCO) - Get Report

has a big Earth Day presence on the web with its Cisco Virtual Earth Day site.

The

NYSE Euronext

(NYX)

is hosting its first Green Summit this week.

General Electric

(GE) - Get Report

is busy planting flowers through the auspices of its

Project Plant a Bulb

program. Just a watch a GE video at www.geprojectplantabulb.com, and Jeff Immelt & Co. will be out in the flower bed settling a bulb into the dirt for you.

As of Tuesday morning, Immelt & Co. were on the hook to plant more than 49,000 flower bulbs. Of course, the campaign is linked to GE's efforts to sell CFL light bulbs and LED lighting.


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CSX

(CSX) - Get Report

is a good example of the contradictions inherent in the corporate celebration of Earth Day.

CSX is having a weeklong celebration this week in honor of the planet's big day. CSX was the first major railroad to join the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Climate Leaders program. In 2009, CSX committed to reducing its CO2 emissions by 8% per revenue ton mile by 2011.

Of course, CSX is also racking up those revenue ton miles by feeding China's insatiable demand for coal. In CSX' most recent earnings report last week, the Street was focused on the extent to which export demand for coal was helping the railroad to mitigate weak coal demand in the U.S.; coal exports were up 21%.

That was good news for CSX and its shareholders. Is it good news for the planet? It's neither good nor bad; it's just the type of news that doesn't fit Earth Day press releases and corporate events, even if it presents a more accurate portrait of a company's double-edged relationship with the planet.

If the point of Earth Day is to bring into focus man's interaction with the environment, coal is a reminder that Earth Day plays out every day on this planet, and often in much more powerful ways than once-a-year concerts held on the National Mall.

The only two words one needs to say to drive this point home are

Massey Energy

(MEE)

. President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are expected to travel to Beckley, West Virginia this Sunday to honor the 29 coal miners killed in the Massey Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia, the worst mine disaster in the U.S. in four decades. President Obama will deliver a eulogy to the miners on the last day of Earth Day week.


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President Obama has also been busy in the months leading up to Earth Day to present a distinctly different view of U.S. energy policy than previous Democratic Party platforms would allow.

For example, nuclear energy and offshore drilling -- to name just two -- are back in.

President Obama created federal funding for the first new nuclear power plant in three decades, and the Department of the Interior plans to

open bidding on offshore regions formerly off limits to energy exploration.


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Meanwhile, comprehensive legislation on carbon emissions remains a holy grail of stalled legislative efforts.

Congress has been inching forward in fits and starts for a year on climate legislation. The Senate is planning to introduce its version of a climate bill on April 26, with the hope that by June or July the elusive goal of a comprehensive climate policy can be achieved.

Politicians are still fighting over whether to even include carbon emission reduction controls in the energy bill, and now the fight over energy policy is being linked to the fight over financial reform. Given the role that the market likes to take in invoking the rhetoric of sustainable development, maybe it's fitting that the financial reform bill and energy bill are coming to a Congressional head simultaneously.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said that if Republicans resist by any and all measures the financial reform effort, bipartisan talks on energy policy may be the innocent bystander that is taken down as a result.

Democratic Party moderates led by Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.) are also at work on a version of an energy bill that would not specifically address global warming.

Time is running out too, with only weeks left in the current Congressional session. Will we see the energy bill version of recent concessions made to pass health care reform in the final rush to get something done, anything done ... anything often being better than nothing in Congressional logic.


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So where does U.S. support stand for renewable energy without specific legislation on global warming?

Some recent data from the wind and solar industries show that for all the promise of renewable energy, there is still a long way to go before the renewable energy portfolio in the U.S. makes a real dent.

The U.S. wind market has been weak as the entire construction industry lagged during the recession. Last week,

General Electric's energy unit reported a 30% drop in wind turbine sales in the first quarter, performance that reinforced the general consensus that the U.S. wind industry is near a trough point.

The U.S. solar industry reported last week that at the end of 2009,

solar energy represented less than 1% of U.S. energy capacity.

At the same time, China's lead over the U.S. continues to grow in terms of being

the place

for alternative energy manufacturing. The level of U.S. solar manufacturing in 2009 was virtually flat, while China now represents more than 50% of the world's photovoltaic solar capacity.

Not that it's all sobering news that has to detract from the optimism associated with Earth Day. Some simple good deeds do come out of forcing the corporate sector to honor the earth in a concentrated holiday format.

Chinese solar power leader

Suntech Power

(STP)

just finalized a donation of 10 kilowatts of solar panels to a girls school in a remote part of Tanzania, as part of the solar industry's recognition of Earth Day.


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So all this doesn't mean we shouldn't party like it's 40 years of celebrating the earth.

It does suggest we might try to elevate our celebration of Earth Day to a more comprehensive level.

After all, the U.S. citizen most important in beginning the modern day environmental movement in the U.S., John Muir, came to his personal "Earth Day" philosophy through actual experience probing the limits of man's respect, or lack thereof, for nature.

As a young man, Muir worked at a lumber mill, inventing clever machines to improve the efficiency of cutting down old growth trees. Muir also herded sheep as the "hoofed locusts" devoured the foothills of Sierra Nevada. Muir hobnobbed with railroad magnates and U.S. presidents as a way of getting environment policy moving, too.

Today, we speak a lot about the warming of the planet and the melting of the world's last glaciers, and we devour the headlines about recent attacks on climate science, including the massively overhyped "ClimateGate" faux-scandal.

One hundred years ago, Muir stuck poles into the glaciers of California mountains and painstakingly watched for any change in the height of the poles that would indicate the ice's retreat.


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We watch way too much from afar when it comes to understanding the earth -- in some ways from as far as John Glenn was watching the earth when he mistook the Bolivian salt flats for a glacier.

We like to think we have dominion over the planet, but then earthquakes in Haiti or Chile or China, or volcanic ash clouds from Iceland, remind us that we stand little chance of telling the earth when it is the planet's time to act, let alone limiting that act to one day on the calendar.

We definitely care when our flights are canceled.

When it wasn't the volcanic ash cloud that held us in rapture any longer, on Wednesday, the day before Earth Day, television screens across the U.S. were transfixed by the flame-filled images of an exploded oil rig platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

Here's a few Earth Day activity suggestions that don't involve creating a compost heap in your backyard, becoming a "low impact" person, or downloading the latest Earth Day app: go spend a day in a coal mine or on an oil rig and report back.**


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Earth Day began 40 years ago when a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, witnessed an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.

It's a convenient sound bite for the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.

However, the fact that the 40th anniversary of Earth Day coincides with President Obama's support of the first offshore drilling in three decades presents the

realpolitik

of the environment, and it often supersedes the rhetoric.

Are we up to the challenge of celebrating the contradictions and complexities of our relationship with the planet?


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-- Reported by Eric Rosenbaum in New York.

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