A Congressional Review: Clean Energy Policy in the 111th Congress

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | December 29, 2010 | Energy Policy

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been very busy: the 111th Congress (from January 2009 through December 2010) will be known as the busiest Congress in half a century.  While the early headlines were dominated by the Stimulus (American Recovery & Reinvestment Act) and health-care reform bills, and the recent headlines focused on the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the ratification of the nuclear START treaty, there were a number of smaller, but beneficial energy measures supported in this Congress.

The first major energy-related policy in this Congress was the February 2009-passed Recovery Act.  The energy portions of that legislation represented the single largest investment in clean energy and energy efficiency in our history.  The Recovery Act directed nearly $80 billion to improve building efficiency, weatherize homes, improve the national grid, research advanced batteries, build a high-speed rail system and support renewable energy production throughout the country.

After such an auspicious start, clean energy proponents were eager to see more clean energy policies enacted, yet there was a considerable wait before other energy bills were passed into law.  In June 2009, the House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy & Security Act (ACES) to establish a legal limit on global warming pollution while creating clean energy jobs and saving consumers money.  Although the full Senate has considered its own version of climate legislation three different times (in 2003, 2005 and 2008), the Senate failed to consider the issue at all in the 111th Congress despite the urging of President Obama in his first State of the Union:

“So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America.”

Unfortunately, a climate bill was not the only time in this Congress where the House of Representatives led in energy-related legislation but the Senate failed to follow.  In response to the horrific Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which gushed more than 170 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico this summer, the House of Representatives passed an offshore oil drilling reform bill that would have required tougher safety standards and raised the liability limits in the event of another catastrophic accident.  Nevertheless, the Senate failed to follow suit and adjourned for the summer recess/election season without even beginning debate on the matter.

An important climate/energy vote did occur in the Senate this session when the Clean Air Act was defended in a close vote.   In June 2010, Senators rejected a resolution best named the “Dirty Air Act,” which would have blocked the Clean Air Act rules that safeguard human health by regulating carbon pollution.

Twenty-two months after the Recovery Act’s energy policies were signed into law, the compromise tax package was passed by Congress which included these critical clean energy provisions: a one-year extension of renewable energy grants (known as the Treasury Grant Program/Section 1603), a $1/gallon tax credit for biodiesel and biomass fuels for 2010 and 2011, and tax credits for energy efficient improvements to existing and newly-manufactured homes.   Extension of the biodiesel credits was particularly good financial news for small to mid-sized biodiesel producers like Clean Energy Biofuels, LLC. Less beneficial for clean energy development were the measures that provided tax subsidies for corn ethanol and “coal to liquids” production.

A final clean energy ‘gift’ arrived just in time for the holidays when Congress reauthorized the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA).  Since 2005, DERA has reduced emissions from millions of existing, older diesel engines in use today by as much as 90 percent.   An extension of this funding will mean that at least $500 million in grants and loans will be available over the next five years to help put a large number of cleaner diesel vehicles on roads in the Southeast. While that’s a drop in the bucket when you consider that $70 billion in tax breaks and direct subsidies were provided to fossil fuels from 2002 through 2008, its still a directionally correct step and proof that good, clean energy policies can be bi-partisan.

On balance, the 111th Congress passed more good than bad when it came to energy policies.  With a split Congress in 2011 and 2012 (as the House and Senate will be controlled by different parties), it’s unlikely that sweeping energy legislation is in the cards.  Nevertheless, incremental energy policies will still achieve the goal of reducing carbon pollution while growing a clean energy economy. SACE will continue to advocate on behalf of energy policies such as a national renewable energy standard, wider-deployment of electric vehicles, improvements in energy efficiency and a transition to lower carbon fuels. We hope you will continue to support this work in the New Year!

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