Senate Energy Legislation Showdown Next Week

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid plans to bring some kind of energy bill to the floor during the week of July 26. Just what it will contain is still open for conjecture. But it’s a sure bet it will be less than environmental activists want, and more that industrial activists will find acceptable.

Reid’s  task, collaborating with a much-engaged President Barack  Obama, is to decrease energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible, while holding onto a Senate majority that must include at least two or three Republicans. Most Republicans would prefer leaving individual corporations free to set their own goals for reducing the release of pollutants into the air. The GOP seems to object less to calls for decreased energy consumption in general.

Most Democrats want to see a cap on carbon emissions; many favor the bill proposed by Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, which would permit companies that pump out less carbon than their allowance to sell the excess allotment to those that want to emit more. (It’s referred to as the American Power Act. As far as I can tell, it has never actually been filed. You can find a draft proposal on Kerry’s web site, but it has no Senate number, and Thomas, the Library of Congress site that tracks legislation has never heard of it.)

With their customary genius for attaching negative labels to measures they dislike (think “death panels,” for example), Republican opponents to the idea of capping carbon emissions are trying to tag it a “light-switch tax.” The Democrats’ “cap and trade” label is far less evocative.

Senators Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins’s Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal (CLEAR) Act (S. 2877), which uses fees paid by carbon emitters to help households pay their electric bills – and thus can’t be considered a tax of electricity use — has seen little discussion and probably won’t be incorporated in whatever Reid comes up with next week.

Last week in a White House meeting, Obama and a group of Democratic senators gave up on capping carbon emissions in all industries. Instead, they will focus on carbon pollution from electricity generating plants, which account for about one-third of all carbon released. Their hope is to pass some credible energy legislation before the Senate’s August recess, slated to begin at the close of business August 7, with the session to resume the day after Labor Day.

Carbon emissions are not the only issue, of course. An overall reduction in energy consumption appears in several of the bills in the hopper, and it’s Reid’s job to take from each whatever he thinks will find sufficient favor to allow passage.

Other possibilities being discussed include a system of tax incentives for truck fleets that convert to natural gas. Nobody is calling that an environmentally beneficial choice, only something that reduces reliance on refined oil and may appeal to Republicans.

Today, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tim Johnson are to introduce the Securing America’s Future with Energy and Sustainable Technologies Act,” or SAFEST, calling for 25% of America’s energy to come from biofuels by 2025, and rewarding the use of biofuels such as ethanol for transportation. The thing to watch out for here is whether the preference is for corn ethanol, which not only reduces the worldwide food supply but also costs about as much in energy to produce as it provides in use. Other forms of cellulose (switchgrass, cornstalks, for example) might be encouraged if the bills is not meant simply to make corn farmers happy.

Whatever provisions of which Senate proposals Reid selects for the bill he brings to the floor, and whatever results from subsequent Senate debate – assuming anything is passed – remains to be reconciled with H.R. 2454, the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, which the House of Representatives adopted last year.

I hate to sound pessimistic, but I won’t be holding my breath waiting for Congress to give the president an energy/climate bill to sign before the November election. I have a hunch a majority, even of Democrats, would rather hang onto their seats (literally as well as figuratively) than do anything that would really move us toward ameliorating the climate disaster that awaits us. I hope they prove me wrong.

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