An oil spill but no energy bill: where do we go from here?

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

Guest Blog | August 30, 2010 | Climate Change, Energy Policy

To many people, it seemed inevitable that 2010 would be The Year we passed The Climate & Energy Bill to overhaul the way we make and consume energy in this country.  The stage was set in 2008 when Democrats gained control of both the Congress and the White House and pledged to reduce carbon pollution.  Then in 2009, President Obama signed The Recovery Act into law that contained more than $80 billion for clean energy & efficiency programs.  Moreover, the U.S. House of Representatives took a critical first step in June 2009 by passing climate legislation in the U.S. Congress for the first time.  And now, in 2010, we’ve experienced a year of record snow storms, record heat waves, floods, droughts, a deadly coal mine collapse and the catastrophic Gulf oil disaster.  Surely, we all thought, this confluence of factors and actions would provide the momentum needed to effect a paradigm shift in energy policy in the United States.

Incredibly, though, the U.S. Senate adjourned this month without even starting a debate on energy policy in general or an oil spill response in particular.  Despite early plans to bring a sweeping climate, energy and oil spill bill to the Senate floor this summer, Senate leaders pulled back and proposed a narrow oil spill response with some efficiency measures on the side before ultimately punting on the issue altogether with promises to “circle back to energy again soon.”

There’s an exhaustive laundry list speculating what may have happened –

• Congressional leaders tried for everything and ended with nothing

• The oil spill fractured efforts when it should have strengthened them

• The general public still doesn’t feel the same level of urgency about climate impacts as they do about the poor economy and keeping their jobs

• Opponents were quick to frame and control the debate by arguing against ‘cap and tax’

• Oil and gas corporations and their lobbyists outspent clean energy advocates and lobbyists by a margin of 7 to 1

• Some questioned whether energy reform was simply too ambitious after several other reforms – notably health care and financial regulatory reform – were ahead in the queue

While each of those factors likely had an impact, one of the most critical elements in understanding what happened (or what didn’t, as the case may be) is that the U.S. Senate exists in a state of near paralysis.  Once a rare, little-used procedure, the ‘filibuster’ (a parliamentary procedure requiring 60 votes to end debate and call for a vote) has become the minority party’s primary tactic to stall and derail policy debates.  Thus, the U.S. Senate has often become the stumbling block for major debates about policy reform – as some would say, it’s the place where good ideas go to die.

The question most advocates, lobbyists, leaders and businesses are asking now is “where do we go from here?”  With many of our energy and climate goals still to be realized, there is considerable work left to be done – both offensive and defensive – this year and in the years that follow.

In fact, a long-term perspective on energy reform suggests that what we are witnessing now is simply a new variation on an old theme.  While in no way condoning the delays and excuses of the Senate, it is worth noting that several of our most seminal environmental laws came about months and even years after precipitating events:

• National Environmental Policy Act (1970) was approximately 1 year after the Santa Barbara oil spill
• Clean Water Act (1972) was nearly 4 years after the Santa Barbara oil spill
• Oil Pollution Act (1990) was almost 18 months after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the
• Clean Air Act Amendments (1990) were also 18 months after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Technically, citizens are paying for this Congress to work through the end of this calendar year, with upcoming midterm elections dropped into the middle of the timeline. While it is possible that Senate leaders bring up energy policy in September or October before the elections or in the narrow window after the election and the end of the year known as a lame-duck session, it is looking less and less likely that the 111th Congress will chalk up yet another policy reform before adjourning for the winter holidays.

What is more likely in the near term, is that we can expect Sen. Rockefeller (D-WV) to lead another assault on the Clean Air Act, taking up where Sen. Murkowski (R-AK) left off earlier this year.  Barring delays from legislative maneuvers, the first stage of carbon reduction will commence early next year when the largest stationary sources (such as coal-fired power plants and refineries) will be required to obtain operating permits through the New Source Review process and when new tailpipe standards will be set.  Command and control may not be the most elegant policy tool for reducing carbon pollution, but it is a tool. Until another system is in place, it is essential that we urge our Congressional leaders to preserve existing laws without ‘temporary’ delays that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from protecting human health by reducing carbon pollution.

At the same time, the EPA is finally proceeding with a long-overdue rule making process to regulate coal ash.  SACE encourages everyone to support the option that coal ash should be regulated as the hazardous waste that it is – either by attending a hearing or by submitting written comments by email.

However, a range of legislative solutions that will internalize the price of fossil fuels, thereby lowering the use and amount of carbon pollution, are still needed to compliment these regulatory processes. An oil spill response bill, to increase the liability limits and ensure restoration of the Gulf Coast ecosystems/economies, is considered by many to be the bare minimum that Congress must complete before adjourning for the fall campaign season. If measures to increase renewable energy and energy efficiency are included, then market incentives will help to decrease the amount of fossil fuels we require from deep-water wells in the Gulf of Mexico or from the mountains of Appalachia.  It is vital that citizens keep sending strong messages that we support carbon pollution reductions and a clean energy economy and that time is growing short for meaningful action.  Each citizen will have the opportunity very soon to elect the Congress that will continue to engage in the pending energy debates, and supporting candidates that support clean energy solutions is more critical than ever before.

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