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Democratic Energy Agenda Outmaneuvered by Hypocritical Republicans August 8, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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In these difficult times for the mainstream media, many traditional outlets are shying away from calling out politicians for obvious contradictions.  Overzealous attempts to avoid accusations of media bias have muzzled the watchdogs that a healthy democracy requires.  In this political free-for-all, the Republican minority is dishonestly yet deftly outmaneuvering the reform agenda.  This is readily apparent in an examination of the oil spill response bill.

I actually pity Sen. Reid right now.  He has an impossible task.  Look at how this mess played out:

The oil spill presented a rare political opportunity to advance the long obstructed climate agenda.  Despite a successful bill in the House, it was clear the Senate was not ready for a similar plan.  So Reid dropped the climate initiatives and pushed an energy bill.

In order to attract even a single Republican vote, the more ambitious and indeed necessary energy solutions were stripped.  As time went on, it became difficult to even call it an “energy” bill.

Still, Republicans and their industry allies demanded that the oil spill response bill contain only provisions pertaining directly to oil spills (a short-sighted strategy that treats symptoms instead of the disease).  Without a supermajority, Reid was forced to remove all but the most uncontroversial energy provisions.

The only remaining contentious item in the bill is the oil spill liability cap.  Democrats want to make oil companies actually pay for the damage they cause.  Republicans are protecting the liability cap on behalf of smaller members of the oil industry.  This should have been a slam dunk.   So what happened?

It is no secret that the larger Democratic tent includes some oil state senators who protect Big Oil, not unlike their Republican colleagues.  One would like to believe, however, that these senators, such as Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Mark Begich (D-AK), want to help their party advance the minor energy reforms in this bill and prevent future spills.  Indeed, these two senators are now crafting a liability compromise to remove that roadblock.

In order to strike while the iron was still at least warm, Sen. Reid tried to push the bill through before the August recess.  So Senate Republicans shrewdly prevented Democrats from negotiating, even among themselves.

Republican staffers made it clear that if the bill were opened to amendments, they would hijack the debate and use the opportunity to file divisive, partisan amendments, purely to score political points and drag out the process.  They said their amendments would attack the broader Democratic energy agenda, including cap-and-trade and the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

This is blatant hypocrisy.  After insisting that Sen. Reid’s bill focus narrowly on oil spills, Republicans threatened to derail the oil spill response bill by injecting broader energy issues.  But did the mainstream media call them out for this political duplicity?  No.

Knowing that Republicans would surely back up their amendment threats, Reid was forced to advance the bill without accepting amendments, a process known as “filling the tree.”

Because Reid wasn’t accepting amendments, Republicans attacked Democrats for shoving through another “partisan” bill without accepting any minority input – a lie, because many of the bill’s provisions were actually coauthored by Republicans!  Additionally, the necessary parliamentary maneuver angered centrist Democrats*.

Democrats lost this round decisively.  Republicans hit the bill from all sides.  To me, it called to mind an image of Sen. Reid as a little boy, trapped in a circle of Republican bullies shoving him back and forth between them.

With the compromise in the works, this bill may pass after the recess.  But without media referees, the reform agenda will continue to struggle.

*To be fair, there was concern that more conservative Democrats, led by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), might also take advantage of the amendment opportunity to limit EPA authority on greenhouse gases.

Republicans Block Anemic Energy Bill for Oil Industry July 28, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Despite the weakness of the pending oil spill/“energy” bills introduced in the House and Senate this week, Big Oil and their Congressional allies are doing everything they can to make sure we do not learn from BP’s unforgiveable mistakes.

100 days after the Deepwater Horizon spill began, Republicans oppose each of the small shuffles down the right path that these bills contain.

For example, anti-science champion Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) takes exception with a provision that requires natural gas drillers to merely disclose which toxic chemicals they are injecting into the ground near our drinking water supplies during the controversial practice known as “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking.”

Why does Inhofe oppose the simple disclosure of that information?  Because Inhofe and the industry claim that the dangers of toxic chemicals in drinking water are overblown.

Comprehensive energy reform is already dead, and even these bills, which could only euphemistically be called “half-hearted”, have a slim chance because Republicans claim that there is little room for compromise. That is a disgusting claim.  These bills are already grotesquely compromised.  They were so thoroughly watered down in hopes of attracting the necessary supermajority that they are scarcely progress at all.  To demand more compromise calls to mind a limbo player lying on the floor.

Republicans most vehemently oppose lifting the liability cap on oil companies that defile our nation’s environment.  They say that expecting oil companies to pay for the full consequences of the damage they cause will drive “mom and pop” oil companies out of business.  That is hardly a defense of limited liability: if that claim is true, perhaps mom and pop should pursue less risky projects.

Republicans are fighting to preserve the apparent right of every oil company, big or small, to remain blameless for the oil spills they continue to cause in American waters. That is senseless.

With midterm elections approaching, Republicans are pretending to have solutions of their own; toward that end, they are circulating an even bigger joke of an energy bill.  Their “alternative” bill contains energy “solutions” such as lifting the deepwater drilling moratorium and preventing the administration from blocking offshore drilling again. You know, the change we need.

However, the Republican bill does contain a provision that unfortunately may influence the Democratic bills.  Instead of unlimited liability for oil companies that cause spills (making them pay for all the damage they cause), Republicans have a different idea: ironically, the party of limited government wants to make the Department of the Interior set liability limits on each individual rig based on 13 different criteria, including a company’s safety record and the estimated risks involved with the specific location.

This is just another way to protect Big Oil and make sure that taxpayers are the ones who have to pay to clean up oil spills. Oil state Democratic Senators Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Mark Begich (D-AK) are attempting to broker a compromise on oil spill liability.

There is one additional point that must be mentioned.  Many Republicans are trotting out this line in various forms:

“This is a serious subject and it deserves consideration by the United States Senate on behalf of the American people.  We are ready for a serious debate, but it appears the Majority Leader is not.” –Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN)

This complaint is not just about the bill’s expedited timeline.  It is true that Sen. Reid is trying to have an energy bill passed by the August recess.  Yet perhaps more importantly, Sen. Reid is unlikely to allow any amendments to be added to this bill.

Such a parliamentary maneuver is necessary because Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) is poised with his amendment to delay the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act; the final regulatory bulwark of climate action in the United States.

Rockefeller’s amendment, about which I will write more soon, is similar to Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) “Dirty Air Act” amendment that was narrowly defeated in June.  If amendments were allowed, she too would certainly poison this bill with something similar.  Indeed, Murkowski is considering adding the amendment to an unrelated small-business bill as she tirelessly does the bidding of Big Oil in the U.S. Senate.

“Energy” Bills Drop and Big Oil Plays Doctor July 27, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Early this week, the House and Senate unveiled their minimalist energy bills.

Far from the comprehensive energy reform our country desperately needs, these bills are largely just a direct response to the oil spill (an approach with which I strongly disagree).

Both bills are amalgamations of other, smaller oil spill/energy bills that have already passed out of their various committees.  The House and Senate bills differ slightly (which was bound to happen even if the House bill wasn’t 238 pages compared to the Senate bill’s 16), but here’s a summary of the Senate bill’s provisions:

  • Lift the $75 million oil spill liability cap (retroactively, to apply to BP)
  • Increase the per-barrel tax on oil producers that feeds the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund
  • Restructure the Department of the Interior to remove conflicts of interest and increase drilling oversight
  • Lopsidedly incentivize electric and natural gas vehicles ($6 billion for natural gas, $400 million for electrification)
  • Finally enact the HomeStar home retrofit program

A full 24-page “draft” summary is available here but subject to change, especially as this bill is likely to move quickly ahead of the looming August recess.  Debate on this bill is scheduled for Friday.

TNR’s Bradford Plumer described the scope of this Senate legislation:

“All told, it’s a tiny bill—the total cost comes to around $15 billion. And it won’t do all that much for the environment: When one reporter asked committee staffers whether anyone knew how much greenhouse-gas reduction this bill would lead to, several people laughed out loud.”

Notably absent from this energy bill (aside from comprehensive energy policy) is a Renewable Energy Standard (RES): a requirement that America generate a certain amount of its electricity from renewable sources by a given date.

Could an RES pass right now?   Renewable energy advocates and former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle insist that they have 60+ votes for the popular, no-brainer policy.  Curiously, Sen. Reid says he doesn’t have the votes.  Someone is misinformed or lying.

Daschle, pictured above, and Reid disagree about whether the votes are there for an RES. Obviously, politicians are quite capable of the seemingly impossible feat of arguing about whether a given number is above or below 60, but Daschle doesn't really have a reason to lie; Reid could be saving the RES as a strong foundation for a subsequent, real energy bill, but he has not given any such explanation.

Both the House and Senate versions are weak as an energy bill, but the House bill does contain some additional commonsense solutions to protect America from the intrinsic risks of offshore drilling.

For example, the House bill would block oil companies with a “significant history” of violating worker safety of environmental laws from drilling in federal waters.  The legislative language, which already passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee, defines that “significant history” as a company having at least one of the following:

  • 5x the industry average for willful or repeat worker safety violations at its facilities;
  • More than 10 deaths at any facility; or
  • $10 million in fines under EPA laws within the preceding seven years.

The package includes further safety provisions that the Natural Resources panel approved unanimously, including new standards for blowout preventers.

It is worth noting that even in the comparatively more aggressive House bill, drilling regulations that were not direct responses to the oil spill were dropped.

So, what does the oil industry have to say about these moderate safety regulations?

The American Petroleum Institute (API) is the oil industry’s main trade association.  And they oppose almost all of these regulations, of course.  As far as Big Oil is concerned nothing needs to change.

In a call with reporters, API president Jack Gerard took particular umbrage at the blowout preventer regulations.  In his eyes, new blowout preventer regulations are premature because we don’t even know what caused the Gulf spill:

“We’re going into surgery without a diagnosis.  This is the ultimate in malpractice.” –Jack Gerard, President and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute.

Granted, I have never been pleased by anything these API lobbyists have said, but this is a remarkably bold statement.  We know fully well that current blowout preventer regulations and practices are not up to the job.

Hypocrisy is a familiar sight in Washington.  In the past, however, you usually had to wait until after an election before side-by-side comparisons of a single person arguing against himself began to show up a la the Daily Show.  But not anymore.

Just a few weeks ago, API spokesperson Bill Bush fought against the deepwater drilling moratorium because:

“The 33 now idle deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf have passed thorough government inspections and are ready to be put back to work.”

Let’s continue the API’s medical metaphor: We can’t operate on (regulate) the deepwater rigs because we don’t know for sure what ails them.  But somehow, at the same time, we can pronounce them healthy and let them keep on drilling?  That does not compute.

API’s Gerard went on:

“We believe what comes out of the discussions on the oil spill should be directly related to the oil spill.”

That makes sense.  The patient was admitted only because of his inability to keep his oil down – why set his broken bones or cure any additional diseases you find during his checkup?

And remember, as I said before, needed but less directly spill-related drilling regulations have already been dropped from these bills in accordance with this oil industry demand.  Such is the price of attempting to overcome Republican obstructionism.

A brief New York Times article detailing the roll out of these bills summarized the likely resistance:

“The oil industry is expected to offer stiff opposition to some of the provisions…”

Maybe I’m reading into it too far, but this quote really irks me (because of the content, not the writing):

The oil industry screwed up, big time.  The damage to the Gulf of Mexico and its dependent economies is catastrophic.  In direct response, Congress is attempting to pass an anemic bill with long overdue and watered down regulations.

The ONLY opposition to this bill is from the very industry that screwed up in the first place and has long enjoyed a political free ride.

Are we really going to let them singlehandedly push back against the regulations they’ve so vividly demonstrated they require?  That’s like losing the bedtime argument with your young child.  This is pathetic.

Watered-Down “Energy-Only” Climate Bill Approaches July 14, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Politics.
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Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he will introduce energy legislation in two weeks.

Sen. Reid said he will push a bill that accomplishes four goals:

  1. Enhance oil rig safety requirements
  2. Create clean energy jobs
  3. Boost alternative energy/reduce oil consumption (read: increase efficiency)
  4. Reduce “pollution” from electric utilities

An aide later confirmed that the “pollution” to which he referred was in fact GHGs, but that he would not even mention GHGs or carbon dioxide explicitly is indicative of the political volatility surrounding this issue.

On the one hand, it is heartening to hear that the Senate will attempt to pass a climate/energy bill this year.  Just this week, four leading climate scientists explained in Politico that “The urgent need to act cannot be overstated.”

Even if a bill cannot pass, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) correctly opined that merely having an energy debate is advantageous for the Democratic energy agenda because it forces the “Party of No” to again block necessary and largely popular reform, with its job creation and increased energy security.

Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel signaled last month that a utility-only bill would have the White House’s blessing, which is not surprising given their track record of centrist compromises.

However, many in the environmental community are less than thrilled that Sen. Reid has decided on a utilities-only approach.  After all, the House or Representatives passed an economy-wide cap last year.

But the Senate has a different political climate, and with the filibuster in place, senators representing just 10.2% of the nation’s population can block any bill they choose (go down to the “SPECIAL RANT.” Also I’d like to take this moment to profess my love for Gail Collins to the world). The prospects of even just a utilities-only bill passing are slim, so the comprehensive energy reform this country so desperately needs is simply not possible at this time.

Power plants burning fossil fuels unsurprisingly release large amounts of GHGs. A utility-only bill would limit the amount of carbon dioxide they can emit.

So, what would a utilities-only bill look like?

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced a utilities-only energy over a year ago: S.1462.  It passed out of his committee in June 2009 with bipartisan support.  This bill, the America Clean Energy Leadership Act of 2009, aka “ACELA”, would reduce energy-sector emissions by 17% in 2020 and by 42% by 2030.

Environmental groups hate this bill.  David Roberts at Grist has been covering this bill for over a year now.  His two-word summary: “ACELA sucks.” Why?  A number of reasons outlined here.  But I will explain the major ones that are the result of the utilities-only approach and apply to any bill of this type.

Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) have abandoned their earlier cap-and-trade bill (the American Power Act) in favor of their own utilities-only approach.  One thing their new bill has in common with Bingaman’s is the emissions targets.  Both bills seek to lower electric sector emissions by 17% in 2020 and 42% in 2030 (Kerry/Lieberman also set an additional target of 83% by 2050.)

As Joe Romm, a former Assistant Secretary of the Department of Energy and arguably the nation’s most authoritative commentator on energy policy put it:

“Meeting such a 17% target [for 2020] in the utility sector alone, as in the latest incarnation of the watered-down bill, would be utterly trivial.” -Joe Romm, Climate Progress.

This is because we are currently underusing our natural gas power plants.  American utilities have built an excess of relatively efficient natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) plants over the last 20 years.  Currently, the NGCC fleet operates at an average of 41% of its capacity.

In that absence of carbon-pricing, utilities choose to meet increased electricity demand by ramping up their dirtier, more inefficient coal plants because coal is currently cheaper than cleaner natural gas.  A recent MIT study found that ramping up production at existing natural gas plants instead of coal plants could cut U.S. power-sector CO2 emissions by 10% today, and without any additional capital investment.

In other words, utilities could meet over half of their emission reduction obligations for 2020 simply by pulling back the coal lever and pushing forward the natural gas lever and not changing a single thing.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t make this switch: it would reduce not only GHG emissions but also those of other coal air pollutants like sulfur and nitrogen oxides.  But a 17% utility-only decrease is barely even a step in the right direction and hardly constitutes energy reform.

More information on our underutilized natural gas capacity here.

Note that even the Waxman-Markey climate bill that passed the House last year had the same 17% target.  It is also far too weak.  However, that was an economy-wide reduction.  Limiting that reduction the energy sector guarantees that this bill will be largely ineffective in the short term.

Grist’s David Roberts and CFR’s Michael Levi wrote good pieces explaining the pros and cons of a utility-only approach a few weeks ago.  A note for reading Mr. Levi’s piece: it defends a utility-sector cap-and-trade program.  Bingaman’s bill caps the energy sector without a trading program.  We do not yet know whether the upcoming Senate bill will contain cap-and-trade, but I personally doubt it.

The morale of the story is that a utilities-only would be a very small step in the right direction.  Like potential EPA regulations, if paired with strong followup bills that address manufacturers and transportation etc, this could potentially be part of the solution.

Electric utilities release about 1/3 of our GHG emissions, and even in an economy-wide cap-and-trade program, roughly half of the emission reductions are expected to come from utilities.  When we generate roughly half of our electricity with a fuel as dirty as coal, switching off of it offers major reductions.

This graph shows the relative emission reductions in different sectors that would be expected under an economy-wide cap-and-trade program. Energy is by far the biggest column.

However, a 17% target, which is highly likely, is too weak, and a utility-only bill is, on its own, not a climate solution.  For those people who support incrementalism to achieve reform in this political climate, such a bill is a tiny increment.  But it is a short shuffle down the path to a sustainable energy future.