Will combining climate and energy into one big bill help or hurt the climate cause?
Congressional leaders want to combine energy and climate provisions into one big bill this year, rather than moving a few smaller bills on the issues.
But while some on Capitol Hill are cheering this as a way to expedite the process, others are skeptical about the chances of passing one giant bill in 2009, and worry that the strategy might slow progress on clean-energy measures that would be an easier sell without a controversial climate program.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on March 3 that she wants “an energy bill that goes farther” and includes a greenhouse-gas cap-and-trade program and improvements to the electricity grid. “I think having it as one bill shows the integrity, the oneness of it all, how it all relates to each other,” she said.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) initially announced that he intended to move three separate pieces of legislation — one on renewables and efficiency, one on electricity transmission, and one to cap greenhouse-gas emissions. But on March 5 he changed his tune, signaling that he will look to move a single package that includes all three measures. He estimated that the bill will be ready to go by the end of the summer.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, is laying the groundwork for regulating greenhouse gases, which ups the pressure on Congress to pass climate legislation this year rather than let the executive branch take the lead.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is working with ranking committee member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on an energy bill that’s likely to include his renewable electricity standard (RES) proposal and efficiency measures. Though an RES bill that Bingaman proposed in 2007 failed, he seems confident that his new measure will win approval this year.
Senate leaders are also optimistic that they can pass legislation to upgrade the electricity grid and make it easier to transmit power — particularly renewably produced power — around the country to where it’s needed. Reid is sponsoring a bill that would give the federal government greater authority in siting electrical transmission lines, and Bingaman is also sponsoring a transmission measure. (Reid’s has met with some early resistance.)
But Bingaman, whose committee has jurisdiction on these issues, doesn’t think the energy provisions would pass if they were linked to a measure to cap greenhouse-gas emissions.
“My view has been that we have reasonable consensus on quite a few things we can do to meet our energy challenge,” Bingaman told reporters on March 5. “I think that it’s worthwhile to get that done separate from a cap-and-trade system. I’d hate to see that held hostage while we wait to pass cap-and-trade.” He added that cap-and-trade is “not ready for prime time.”
Plenty of other senators have qualms about cap-and-trade too, and that will make it considerably more difficult to get a climate bill passed in the Senate than in the House. Last year’s Climate Security Act in the Senate didn’t get enough votes to cut off debate and move forward. Democrats currently have 58 seats in the chamber, but they’re far from unified on climate and energy issues. Ten Democratic senators sent a letter to leadership last year explaining why they would not have voted in favor of final passage of the Climate Security Act, and as many 16 of them are already voicing concerns about an as-yet-nonexistent new climate bill.
A handful of Republican senators will also be needed to get a bill passed, yet opposition to climate legislation is mounting even among those who have in the past said they’d be willing to support a cap-and-trade plan. Last week, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who voted to move forward on last year’s bill, bashed the climate components included in President Obama’s budget proposal. Also last week, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, told reporters, “I’m open, as are several Republicans, to cap-and-trade, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to think about it in the middle of a recession.”
On the House side, both Pelosi and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, say they plan to have a bill passed out of committee by Memorial Day, and approved by the full chamber before the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in December. “I know that we can get this job done,” said Pelosi.
A Pelosi aide told Grist that the leadership believes integrating energy and climate components into one bill might actually help it garner more support in the House, with the energy and grid elements providing incentive for more representatives — specifically Republicans — to vote for it. “Our goal here is to make this a bipartisan process here in the House, so that we have as much buy-in as possible,” said the aide.
Eben Burnham-Snyder, a spokesperson for Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chair of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, said that including an RES and efficiency standards in the climate bill would help meet the ultimate goal of fighting global warming. “The important part is that in the end we have the most effective bill possible that will cut emissions in the most aggressive manner and create jobs,” said Burnham-Snyder.
Markey has already introduced legislation to establish an RES and promote efficiency. Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) plans to introduce a bill on transmission in the next few weeks, and Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) said last week that he plans to reintroduce his 2008 bill to fund carbon-capture-and-sequestration technology for coal-fired power plants.
David Hawkins, director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, favors moving a combined bill, noting that it puts the concepts of an RES and efficiency into the context of the greater goal — moving away from reliance on carbon-based fuel sources. “These are two sides of the same coin,” he said. “We’ve had a number of years of experiments with moving energy legislation without considering climate, and we wind up doing things where we’re spending taxpayer dollars on dirty energy sources and on clean energy sources.”
But Frank Maisano, who represents the energy industry at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, thinks “smashing it together” would be a risky move. “There are a lot of complexities with putting everything together like that,” he said. “This is a difficult bill. Congress has to do its homework to get it done right.”
Dan Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, points out that the way the legislation is packaged is less important than whether or not Congress as a whole is prepared to address the problem of climate change.
“The real question is whether the political urgency is going to catch up with the scientific urgency,” said Weiss. While Reid, Pelosi, Waxman, and other congressional leaders have been vocal about the need to move climate legislation as soon as possible, said Weiss, “It’s unclear if that urgency is shared by enough other people in either body.”