Passing an energy bill at any cost made us look weak, reduced climate change urgency, handed a significant victory to President Bush, and accomplished little of significance. If we had chosen an alternative path — to take a stand with the fledgling U.S. renewables industry and challenge the obscenely rich oil and coal behemoths — we would have lost, to be sure, but would have built political power, introduced a novel story, and strengthened ties with an important ally.

In acquiescing to a stripped-down energy bill, U.S. environmentalists lost an opportunity to reshape our climate story, strengthen our relationship with the renewable energy sector, and draw a bright line that distinguishes genuine supporters of functional climate action from fair weather friends. Instead, we opted for scraps, gaining emissions reductions of small significance compared to the global problem, displaying political weakness in place of principled courage, and handing a propaganda victory to a president who is singularly responsible for blocking international climate action.

Even environmentalists damned the final Senate version with faint praise. The “landmark” hailed by UCS also, in their words, “failed to take a giant step.” NRDC called it a “down payment toward fighting global warming,” and was “disappointed,” and Environment America (formerly the environmental arm of U.S.PIRG) called the measure “historic,” even as they observed, “big oil and big coal succeeded in stripping out … very important parts of the bill.”

Press and editorial reactions were less equivocal, as this sampling of headlines shows:

Congress Walks Out on Renewable Energy
U.S. News & World Report
December 15, 2007

Disappointments on Climate
New York Times editorial
December 17, 2007

US Energy Bill Good For Biofuels; Refiners, Automakers
CNN.com
December 14, 2007

The Senate’s Soft Energy Bill
L.A. Times editorial
December 15, 2007

Senate Passes Watered-Down Energy Bill
Forbes.com
December 13, 2007

The legislation will be signed into law by a triumphant President Bush, who will boast that the measure furthers the promise he made in his State of the Union address to “modernize fuel economy standards for cars” toward a goal of conserving 8.5 billion gallons of gasoline by 2017.

The alternative? If we had concerned ourselves less with policy and more with basebuilding and political power; if our goal from the outset had been to seize a narrative opportunity, rather than pass a bill at any cost; if we had framed the question in terms of U.S. international leadership, rather than U.S. domestic policy; and if we were working on a five-year, rather than a one-year, plan; then our strategy would have developed very differently.

The direct trade-off between tax subsidies for the oil and coal industries versus support for the fledgling U.S. domestic renewables industry (which lags significantly behind European and Japanese competitors), embodied in the two provisions stripped from the Senate version of the bill, offered a better story, valuable allies, and ultimately, the more important conflict.

The major oil companies have reaped immense windfall profits in the last two years. Exxon Mobil recorded a 2006 profit of $39.5 billion ($154 million a day), the largest ever recorded, on top of $36 billion profit posted in 2005. The tax breaks that were repealed in the House version of the energy bill were worth a mere $13.5 billion over 10 years, and had been instituted in 2004 and 2005 to help struggling oil and gas companies compete with foreign competition.

As a policy matter, we were locked into fuel economy standards — because that, after all, was the core of the original bill, and we have been fighting for decades to win it. But as a political and narrative matter, a head-to-head confrontation between environmentalists and a Horatio Alger-esque renewables industry on the one side, and obscenely rich oil and coal corporate behemoths on the other, would have gained us more ground.

By passing a weak bill, we let off steam, made President Bush look good, significantly reduced the urgency of climate change as a campaign issue, and delayed further congressional action. Had we gone toe-to-toe with Exxon Mobil, Chevron-Texaco, and Peabody Coal, we would have lost, to be sure, but also heightened the conflict and shaped the issue in unaccustomed economic terms — corporate welfare to the richest corporations ever seen for the purpose of extracting the very substances that are endangering us, while putting a truly entrepreneurial, up-from-the-bootstraps renewables industry at a competitive disadvantage.