Don’t miss Jesse’s great post from earlier today. It’s thoughtful and provocative and I wanted to offer a few observations in response.

His basic take is as follows: the Dems, in their quixotic pursuit of a price on carbon — even the leaky, ramshackle contraption that cap-and-trade has become — are ignoring opportunities for real bipartisan progress on energy. Now they risk ending the year empty-handed, which will be disastrous for both them and the country.

Lemme say up front: if the Dems could wrangle the kind of energy bill Jesse describes, I would happily sacrifice the Kerry-Lieberman cap-and-trade system. It really is true that the role of carbon pricing has been exaggerated. In the short-term, smart energy provisions could do just as much to kick off the changes we need. We’ll need carbon pricing eventually, but it’s pretty much inevitable. After all, the EPA’s going to regulate CO2 either way. Sooner or later, probably sooner, Congress is going to get serious about doing the same. In the meantime a strong energy bill would represent immense progress.

But is the bill Jesse describes in fact an available option? I have my doubts. I see two big problems.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

First of all, PAYGO (pay as you go) rules now have the force of law. Congress cannot pass a bill that contains spending that isn’t paid for. The notable feature of all the “energy-only” ideas is that they cost lots of money. As it happens, there’s a handy source of revenue to pay for all that stuff: a price on carbon. But centrists and conservatives are absolutely, unbendingly opposed to raising revenue, including through carbon fees. So … what’s the solution? They can’t pass a bill without revenue, and the opponents of the bill refuse to sign off on any revenue raising mechanism. What’s the way out of that dilemma? Unless that question is answered, abandoning carbon pricing sounds to me like abandoning a bill.

Second, Jesse seems to assume good faith on the part of centrists and Republicans: they have legitimate, substantive concerns about cap-and-trade and are sincere in their support of energy alternatives. I don’t see what in the past two years provides evidence for that proposition. Jesse presumes that if Dems give up something (else), conservatives would respond by accepting stronger energy measures. But when have conservatives given anything or moved at all in this faux debate? They don’t care if a bill doesn’t pass. In fact they prefer a bill doesn’t pass! Their short-term self-interest is overwhelmingly served by blocking any Dem victory.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

After all, we know what kind of energy provisions emerge from a bipartisan process: Bingaman’s ACELA bill. That’s the amount of efficiency Murkowski and crew were willing to sign off on. That’s the level of RES they were willing to accept. Why should we believe they’ll compromise and accept much stronger provisions? It’s just not clear that the politics of strong energy measures are all that much more congenial. Seems to me the overwhelmingly likely outcome if carbon pricing is abandoned is something akin to ACELA, perhaps mildly improved.

That might be better than nothing, though that’s arguable. But it doesn’t seem like nearly so clear a choice as Jesse makes out.