Yesterday marked the day that Senate Democrats decided to cut their loses by abandoning a year’s worth of work toward a comprehensive energy and climate bill. Today, it is not clear if even the very limited climate and energy bill touted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be presented before the summer recess.
What IS clear is that the Senate has failed to grab the baton passed to it from the House of Representatives. In doing so, they have passed on a prime opportunity to move the nation forward in our drive for a sustainable energy future.
Last June, H.R. 2454 (better known as the Waxman-Markey bill) passed with a single-digit margin in the House of Representatives. This comprehensive climate and energy bill includes key attributes including a renewable energy standard (RES) and a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade system that would regulation emissions from all stationary emitters (ex: power plants, petroleum refineries).
Since passing the responsibility on to their Senate counterparts, those who voted for Waxman-Markey have slowly seen their hopes for federal standards before the end of 2010 quickly fade. The force that pushed federal healthcare reform through Congress – a.k.a. President Obama’s political capital account – has been unable to grab hold in the climate and energy sphere.
After more than a year of debates and committee meetings in the Senate, the decision came through yesterday to dump any major energy and climate legislation from this year’s books. This decision has left Senate Democrats reeling and in apparent need of a strategic regrouping effort during the August recess.
Before then, Senator Harry Reid might still propose a small climate and energy bill (see my post yesterday). Rumors abound that the Senator has decided to add a renewable energy standard (RES) to the bill – if there is a bill, at all – though the Senator’s office denies these rumors.
This latest decision by Senate Democrats is another example of the partisan politics at play in Washington. The climate and energy debate draws straight down party lines, with only six Republicans sitting on the line: Senators Sam Brownback of Kansas, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine. The remainder of the Senate’s republicans are firmly united against any legislation – a black monolith, firmly set in its path.
The frustration felt by the environmental community in response to news that Senate Democrats were dropping their efforts was expressed perhaps no more clearly than by David Bookbinder, former chief climate counsel at the Sierra Club (he resigned in May):
What we have is a year of totally wasted effort by environmental groups that were either unable to do even a fairly simple vote count or ones who simply went along with the prevailing ideology even though they knew that there wasn’t going to be a bill at the end of the process…I think those that knew that there wasn’t going to be a bill and went along with it anyway did so for fear of being seen as not supporting climate legislation, and it wasn’t palatable to them to tell the truth to their members and the public.
Other members of the environmental community wonder if this change could be a blessing, preventing the passage of watered-down legislation that would have been able to achieve the desired outcomes. According to Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, the Senate bill was not able to drum-up excitement in the base – a fundamental problem that could be rectified if Senate Democrats returned to the drawing board.
According to Mark Mykleby, it is time for us to pony up and make the choices in our lives that will reduce our dependence on oil – driving us to a more sustainable future. These views were expressed in a letter written by Mykleby, in response to the BP blame game, and became the subject of Thomas Friedman’s column this past week. The title of the column – This Time is Different – argues that we are our own enemy in the drive toward sustainability. I agree.
Thomas Friedman is one of the few columnists that I follow every week. His commentary on current events and America in an international context is consistently insightful and eloquently presented. More fundamentally – I like reading his pieces. His work challenges me, taking my mind in different directions that it might have gone on its own. It doesn’t shock me to know that Friedman has won three Pulitzer Prizes for the New York Times and is the author of at least 5 books (depending on how you count).
One of Friedman’s banner issues is global climate change. His book, titled Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How it Can Renew America is but one example of his numerous writings on the topic. His NY Times column is another example, that I personally find more compelling (it is a favorite of mine when I only have 10 minutes before class – not nearly enough time to read a 528 page book). Friedman’s column this past Friday was another case of clear, concise, and powerful writing on the topic from the desk of this NY Times author.
In this column, titled This Time is Different, Friedman presented a letter to the editor written by his friend, Mark Mykleby, for the Beaufort Gazette that is “the best reaction [Friedman has] seen to the BP oil spill – and also the best advice to President Obama on exactly whom to kick you know where.”
Quite a bold statement. OK, now I’m intrigued and must read this purported “best” advice. Here goes…
I’d like to join in on the blame game that has come to define our national approach to the ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. This isn’t BP’s or Transocean’s fault. It’s not the government’s fault. It’s my fault. I’m the one to blame and I’m sorry. It’s my fault because I haven’t digested the world’s in-your-face hints that maybe I ought to think about the future and change the unsustainable way I live my life. If the geopolitical, economic, and technological shifts of the 1990s didn’t do it; if the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 didn’t do it; if the current economic crisis didn’t do it; perhaps this oil spill will be the catalyst for me, as a citizen, to wean myself off of my petroleum-based lifestyle. ‘Citizen’ is the key word. It’s what we do as individuals that count. For those on the left, government regulation will not solve this problem. Government’s role should be to create an environment of opportunity that taps into the innovation and entrepreneurialism that define us as Americans. For those on the right, if you want less government and taxes, then decide what you’ll give up and what you’ll contribute. Here’s the bottom line: If we want to end our oil addiction, we, as citizens, need to pony up: bike to work, plant a garden, do something. So again, the oil spill is my fault. I’m sorry. I haven’t done my part. Now I have to convince my wife to give up her S.U.V.
Short, sweet and to the point. Nicely done, Mr. Mykleby.
In the face of the growing oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, we should all pause before placing the blame exclusively on the shoulders of BP and recognize our role in creating this mess. But, we should also recognize that acknowledging our role is the first step toward solving the problem (sound familiar?).
Over the past few weeks, I have written about the status of the energy and climate bill in the Senate and the recent accident in the Gulf of Mexico with the sinking of an oil rig and the resulting three leaks that are pumping oil into the gulf. These events have given rise to great doubts and great hope when it comes to our nation’s ability to successfully develop legislation that is necessary to ensure a sustainable energy future for our country, a key to our continued success as a world power.
The departure of Senator Graham from the negotiating table (see post on April 28th) lowered supporters hopes as a nail in the coffin of a bi(tri)-partisan agreement for energy and climate legislation in 2010. But, the subsequent accident in the Gulf has given the same group hope that, when faced with the real negative environmental impacts of our current dependence on oil, citizens will step up and demand that we protect our country’s precious ecosystems, wildlife, waterways, and air. They hope, perhaps realistically, that we can pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation before midterm elections get into full swing.
The oil leaks in the Gulf of Mexico have already caused irreversible damage and as the oil continues to flow, the number of casualties in the form of ecosystems and wildlife will only increase despite the commendable efforts of the United States Coast Guard. How to best stop these leaks and contain the oil is being debated, with consensus arising only with the statement that there will be significant negative environmental impact to our coastline, no matter what we do.
The silver lining to this disaster is the awareness that it has drawn to the negative impacts of offshore drilling. The oil industry has an impressive record when it comes to safety on their oil rigs and significant spills are rare occurrences. But, drilling for oil is not without risks as clearly seen by this latest incident. It reminds us of what can happen when the oil we depend on to fuel our cars is let loose in our oceans.
What does this mean for energy and climate legislation? While my heart has saddened at the sight of the spreading oil slick in the Gulf, my hope has also grown. I hope that this latest incident will bring Senator Graham back to the table, ideally with his Republican colleagues. I hope that we will come together as a nation to make tough decisions that will ensure the success of our country, without sacrificing our land, water and air.
The energy and climate baton has been held by the Senate since last June, after the House passed their own bill (H.R. 2454). Over the past several months, the baton has been carried by three Senators:
- Lieberman – an Independent from Connecticut
- Kerry – a Democrat from Massachusetts (also the home state of Representative Markey, a primary author on the House bill)
- Graham – a Republican from South Carolina
Their work has been a commendable effort – three individuals with significant differences with regard to basic political ideologies working together to develop an energy and climate bill that each could live with. In a government that (from the outside looking in) still appears heavily entrenched in partisan politics, these three gentlemen’s efforts gave rise to the hope that we could – united as a country – successfully develop the legislation that will lead our country to the sustainable energy future that will be key in our continued success as a world power.
The past week has brought these hopes to a sharp precipice, where all but the most dedicated appear ready to let go of their hopes for comprehensive energy and climate legislation before midterm elections hit this November. This shift occurred as Americans watched the third musketeer, Senator Graham, step away from the table just days prior to the planned release of the bill. His reason for walking away from this process – his belief that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was going to put immigration reform ahead of energy and climate on the legislative docket.
Immigration reform has long been on President Obama’s agenda. It is not a new topic – having been explored in past administrations (we still have not forgotten the Bush border fence). But, until Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer but pen to paper on Friday, immigration reform had not been the top item on the congressional to-do list. Her state’s controversial immigration law has drawn America’s fire, being called “hysterical naitivism” that puts the conservative border state “at risk of becoming a police state” and at the same time attracts support from 70% of Arizona residents according to a recent poll. Regardless of your position on Arizona’s law, there is no doubt that it has heated up the push toward federal immigration policy reform.
Senator Graham has long been an advocate for immigration reform and expects to be involved in the process, which he believes may not be a feasible option given his time commitments to energy and climate legislation. He further justified stepping away from his work with Senators Kerry and Lieberman in part through voicing his belief that immigration reform would be put ahead of energy and climate on the legislative docket because of Senator Reid’s personal agenda for his reelection campaign this fall. According to the White House, it is more likely that Senator Graham walked away because of pressure from conservatives.
According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, energy and climate legislation from the three Senators is still a priority in front of immigration reform if nothing else than because of the simple fact that the Senate has been working on this topic for longer, and losing momentum now would be detrimental to the future success of this legislation.