Advocates for energy policy reform and legislative action on climate change have long anticipated their opportunity to effect change. This summer may be the turning point they have awaited.
In recent weeks, energy and climate policy have taken over the political limelight. The devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has forced Americans to consider the promises and pitfalls of our current energy supply. Now, more than ever, Americans want to know that our future energy choices will be reliable and safe.
In June 2009, the House of Representatives passed a landmark bill that would overhaul the United States energy portfolio and address global climate change. Co-sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Cal.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) passed by a slim margin of seven votes. The bill promotes renewable energy, sets efficiency standards, funds research and development of low-carbon technologies and establishes a cap-and-trade system for regulating carbon dioxide emissions.
In the months that followed, focus shifted to the Senate, where views on climate and energy are more divisive, regional interests are more entrenched and the politics are more complex.
First, Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, passed a bipartisan energy-only bill out of his committee just days prior to the ACES victory. Later, in December, Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced their own bill to address energy and put a price on carbon. And in June 2010, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) proposed measures to reduce oil dependency and promote new energy policy. Across the board, these options – which are now being weighed as serious contenders for a new energy policy framework – abandon cap-and-trade (as adopted by the ACES bill). The Cantwell-Collins bill, in fact, is the only proposal that addresses climate in any form.
The bulk of the Senate’s attention, however, has been focused on legislation introduced by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). In September 2009, he and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.) introduced a climate bill that, in several ways, mirrored the House bill.
Their bill was replaced in May 2010, when Kerry partnered with Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to produce a bipartisan proposal now known as the American Power Act. Graham, however, backed out of the bill he co-authored, throwing his support behind Sen. Richard Lugar’s (R-Ill.) energy plan introduced early in June. Siding with a bill quite similar to the type he described as “half-assed” earlier this year, Graham attacked and abandoned the bill he had co-authored.
The BP spill has focused political attention on these rivaling proposals. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle are now pressing for reform of the oil industry and new measures that will prevent disasters like the one unfolding in the Gulf region. But while the spill has fast-tracked efforts to pass comprehensive energy legislation, the prospects for climate policy are less certain.
For months, Senators have considered prioritizing energy and addressing climate further down the road. Just weeks after the American Power Act was introduced, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) caused a stir within his party when he suggested that measures to tackle climate change might ultimately be introduced as an amendment to an energy-only bill.
Schumer’s comments underscore the fact that Democrats, who have pushed for action on climate change, are divided on how to proceed: while some advocate stringent carbon-pricing mechanisms such as cap-and-trade, others reject any measures that may economically burden their constituents. One thing Democrats agree on, however, is that none of the bills on the table are likely to get 60 votes.
On June 10, the Senate voted down a resolution proposed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to block the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases. With 47 votes (all Republicans and six Democrats supported the measure), the attempt fell four votes short of passage. It succeeded, however, in drawing attention to the intense debate that surrounds climate change and the uncertainty of how Congress should move forward.
The vote’s close split did not necessarily reflect the chamber’s views on whether emissions should be curbed, but rather highlighted the dispute over who has the responsibility to mandate such actions. According to Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, 61 senators in total voiced the need to address emissions during debate over the Murkowski measure, indicating a majority opinion that the Senate must act in one way or another on climate.
Making matters more complicated, the White House has sent mixed and vague signals on how policymakers should proceed. While President Barack Obama has urged the Senate to interpret the oil spill as an impetus for clean energy legislation, he has remained quiet on specific policy options. Moreover, in his June 15 address from the Oval Office, the president failed to mention plans to cap carbon dioxide emissions, raising concern that his push for climate legislation has taken the backburner.
With November elections quickly approaching – and oil continuing to spew into the Gulf of Mexico – Senators are under intense pressure to make quick and comprehensive changes to energy policy. The question, however, remains: what does the near future hold for climate policy?
The answer likely lies at the intersection of five proposals floating through the Senate:
- the American Power Act (co-sponsored by Sens. Kerry and Lieberman)
- the Lugar Practical Energy and Climate Plan
- the Carbon Limits and Energy for American Renewal (CLEAR) Act (co-sponsored by Sens. Cantwell and Collins)
- the American Clean Energy Leadership Act (ACELA) (sponsored by Sen. Bingaman)
- Sen. Merkley’s energy strategy, known as “America Over a Barrel: Solving Our Oil Vulnerability”
Whether or not measures to curb emissions are included with energy legislation, Senate policymakers will almost certainly take a piecemeal approach towards constructing a bill. By picking and choosing the strongest features from the “smorgasbord” of options, a bipartisan bill may be possible.
This post is the first installment in a series that aims to assess and compare these proposals, helping to clarify the effects that their competing and complementary provisions may have on energy and climate policy.