I’m trying to get a handle on the prospects for federal climate/energy action in the next year or two. Initially I was going to do a quick overview post on it, but the post got way (waaay) out of hand. Now it is many thousands of words and counting, so I’m going to break it up into a series. In it, I try to lay out a bird’s eye view of the players involved and the possible sequence of actions. I’m sure I’ll leave a ton of stuff out, so I’d love to hear from you all along the way.

First, the players.

Two things are worth noting overall:

  1. The U.S. has never had more people in positions of power both cognizant of the scope of our climate/energy problems and committed to solving them.
  2. Nonetheless, many of the key steps ahead will be uphill battles against stiff resistance and with uncertain support. To be quite honest, especially in light of what’s happened around the stimulus bill, I am not optimistic.

The House

For greens, everything has gone right in the House.

The 110th House, led by a Democratic majority ushered into power by 2006’s sweeping midterm victories, was already a source of ambition on energy policy — thanks in large part to the forceful presence of majority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — though it ultimately fell victim to the timidity of the Senate.

The 111th is even stronger. Last session the crucial Energy & Commerce Committee was in the hands of chair John Dingell (D-Mich.), who used his position to protect Detroit, and Energy Subcommittee chair Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who used his position to protect coal.

This session, after a bruising intra-caucus fight over leadership, the committee is now chaired by Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), an early and vocal climate champion who has promised a climate bill by Memorial Day; the subcommittee (which has consolidated energy and environment jurisdiction) is chaired by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), possibly the House’s leading clean energy advocate. Markey also chairs the Select Committee on Energy Independence & Global Warming, which is devoted to compiling expert testimony and educating members on the issues, making him a double threat.

Add to that the increased Dem majority, along with the apparent intention of the remaining House Republicans to become a bitter, irrelevant remnant, and the House is raring to go. It may even be jumping the gun a little early … but more on that later.

The Senate

The Senate is ultimate choke point, where urgency and ambition go to die.

Last session majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stood by watching with his droopy look as energy measures passed by the House were stripped away in the face of Republican filibuster threatened filibuster (Reid never called their bluff). It happened again and again. For example, the energy bill was sent to the Senate with a Renewable Energy Standard, a Renewable Fuel Standard, a tax shift from fossil fuels to renewables, and a modest boost in CAFE standards. It came out of the Senate with … a modest boost in CAFE standards (for which Bush promptly took credit, and later delayed implementation).

Environment & Public Works Committee chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is an enthusiastic climate champion, but her enthusiasm hasn’t always been matched by leadership acumen. She backed the Lieberman-Warner climate bill last session, but didn’t exactly cover herself in glory in the ensuing fight. The first full-floor debate over climate mitigation was short and ugly, and the bill ultimately died with a 48-32 cloture vote — far, far short of the 60 necessary to overcome the inevitable filibuster threat. Nonetheless Boxer seems geared to go again. (Warner, meanwhile, is gone, and not many Republicans look eager to replace him as climate advocates.)

With Al Franken’s win this year there are 59 Dems in the Senate, but there are nowhere close to 59 reliable green votes. As John Broder’s NYT story the other day made clear, there remains a sizeable bloc of Dems from Midwest/Southern manufacturing states that views climate policy as a threat. Jesse Jenkins calls it the “Technology 15.” I prefer “Coal 15.” Whatever you call them they’re more than enough to bring Republicans to the 40 votes needed for a filibuster. It’s not Republicans but these folks, led by the Dread Bs — Bingaman, Baucus, Byrd, Bayh — who will be the single largest obstacle to the passage of strong climate/energy legislation.

On the slightly brighter side, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is now chaired by Sen. John Kerry, who has promised to make climate a central priority. (See: Al Gore testimony.)

(Next up: Obama’s team.)