Saturday, June 23

The Capitol Energy Crisis


When you watch a baby being born, after a difficult pregnancy, it is so painful and bloody for the mother it is always hard to tell the truth and say, “Gosh, that baby is really ugly.” But that’s how I feel about the energy legislation passed (and not passed) by the Senate last week.

The whole Senate energy effort only reinforced my feelings that we’re in a green bubble — a festival of hot air by the news media, corporate America and presidential candidates about green this and green that, but, when it comes to actually doing something hard to bring about a green revolution at scale — and if you don’t have scale on this you have nothing — we wimp out. Climate change is not a hoax. The hoax is that we are really doing something about it.

No question, it’s great news that the Democrat-led Senate finally stood up to the automakers, and to the Michigan senators, and said, “No more — no more assisted suicide of the U.S. auto industry by the U.S. Congress. We’re passing the first bill since 1975 that mandates an increase in fuel economy.” If the Senate bill, which now has to go through the House, becomes law, automakers will have to boost the average mileage of new cars and light trucks to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, compared with about 25 miles per gallon today.

But before you celebrate, pay attention to some fine print in the Senate bill. If the Transportation Department determines that the fuel economy goal for any given year is not “cost-effective” — that is, too expensive for the car companies to meet — it can ease the standard. That loophole has to be tightened by the House, which takes up this legislation next week.

But even this new mileage standard is not exactly world leading. The European Union is today where we want to be in 2020, around 35 miles per gallon, and it is committed to going well over 40 m.p.g. by 2012. Ditto Japan.

There are other things that make the Senate energy effort ugly. Senate Republicans killed a proposed national renewable electricity mandate that would have required utilities to produce 15 percent of their power from wind, solar, biomass and other clean-energy sources by 2020. Twenty-three states already have such mandates. No matter. Making it national was too much for the Republicans.

And the Senate, thanks again to the Republicans, also squashed a Democratic proposal to boost taxes on oil and gas companies that would have raised some $32 billion for alternative fuel projects.

Despite all the new research on climate change, the Senate didn’t even touch the idea of either a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax to limit carbon dioxide emissions. An effort by Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota to legislate a national reporting (“carbon counter”) system to simply measure all sources of greenhouse gas emissions, which would enable a cap-and-trade system to work if we ever passed one, also got killed by Republicans. We can’t cap and trade something we can’t measure.

Here is the truth: the core of our energy crisis is in Washington. We have all the technology we need right now to make huge inroads in becoming more energy efficient and energy independent, with drastically lower emissions. We have all the capital we need as well. But because of the unique nature of the energy and climate-change issues — which require incentives and regulations to build alternatives to dirty, but cheap, fossil fuels — you need public policy to connect the energy and capital the right way. That is what has been missing.

“We have to work to ensure that the House will at least toughen the provisions that the Senate passed,” said Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s Global Warming Program.

The public wants it. But energy policy gets shaped in the halls of Congress — where wily lobbyists, legacy industries and politicians greedy for campaign contributions regularly sell out the country’s interests for their own. Only when the public really rises up — as it has finally done against the auto companies — do we even get moderate change. Don’t look to the Bush team to lead the revolution.

“We are the only major country in the world where no one even knows the name of the environment minister — the head of our Environmental Protection Agency,” said Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. “Whoever it is — and most people don’t even know if it is a he or a she — has been in a six-year witness protection program. Until the Democrats took over, no Bush E.P.A. administrator appeared before the House committee in charge of energy and climate change.”

Folks, we’re home alone. So call your House member — especially the Republicans. If you don’t, some lobbyist will.