Foreign Policy Blogs

Federal Energy Legislation

After working in government for 11 years (in a state environmental agency) and having been an environmental and political activist for a fair number of years before, during and after that, I have come to have a healthy skepticism — okay cynicism — about the reach of good public policy in legislation and actual real world practice. Looking now at the explosion of focus on Washington from the special interests as critical energy legislation is being drafted and debated, I want to shake my head. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.” The “NY Times” noted the other day that “Congress Turns to Energy, and Lobbyists Arrive.”

Who’s at the trough? The coal industry for one. I touched on some of their views in my item, “Fear and Loathing in Coal Country,” from May 24. See also Lawmakers Push for Big Subsidies for Coal Process” from the “NY Times.”  To quote from the article:  “Prodded by intense lobbying from the coal industry, lawmakers from coal states are proposing that taxpayers guarantee billions of dollars in construction loans for coal-to-liquid production plants, guarantee minimum prices for the new fuel, and guarantee big government purchases for the next 25 years.”

I guess it doesn’t really matter that environmental analysts from far and wide universally decry the idea of intensifying our existing problems with greenhouse gases and air pollution by using coal as a feedstock for transportation fuels. The Natural Resources Defense Council, for instance, issued a release the other day titled “Controversial Oil Substitutes Sharply Increase Emissions, Devour Landscapes.” That’s succinct. NRDC coauthored a report, Driving It Home – Choosing the Right Path for Fueling North America’s Transportation Future, that terms liquid coal “A “Clean Fuel’ Mirage.” In a nutshell:

Liquid coal poses disastrous consequences for global warming and local environments, according to the report. The energy required in the production stage of liquid coal would mean twice as much global warming pollution as ordinary gasoline. Mining would tear through natural habitats and contribute to air pollution. Displacing just 10 percent of our total oil demand with liquid coal would require a doubling in coal mining and the construction of hundreds of costly new production facilities , each with its own emissions issues.

The coal industry will very likely see significant funds dedicated toward carbon sequestration and storage research and development. But is there any bang for the buck in this? Here’s a revealing graphic from the recent special report from “The Economist” on Business And Climate Change. (The graphic is courtesy of Vattenfall, the Swedish energy company that is solidly committed to addressing climate change.)

As you can plainly see, all the real bang for the buck is in increasing efficiency, what Amory Lovins has been proving to us for years from his Rocky Mountain Institute and what the U.S. Green Building Council has also been showing developers, architects and planners. Thankfully, the proposed energy package from the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee addresses the need for efficiency upgrades across the board, as does the Senate Commerce Committee draft as concerns vehicle efficiency, namely the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. (The Vattenfall graphic is pretty clear about the usefulness of increasing vehicle efficiencies.) Jeff Bingaman, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, had a comprehensive summary of all the proposals the other day in his remarks on the floor. He noted, for one thing:

Meanwhile, economists take note of our energy policy’s fiscal implications, related to America’s global competitiveness. In 2005 and 2006, our dependence on petroleum imports combined with rising prices to add an estimated $120 billion to our nation’s trade deficit.

Bingaman also noted that:

In addition to the transportation sector, efficiency is a resource we can better deploy in end-uses throughout the U.S. economy.  For example, lighting and common household appliances can account for as much as two-thirds of an average American family’s electricity bills.  By improving a number of appliance efficiency standards, and streamlining and strengthening the Department of Energy’s existing program, consumers stand to collect $12 billion in benefits as a result of provisions included in the underlying legislation.

And, in a delightful and somewhat surprising development, the draft Senate legislation would provide for the conservation of

at least 560 million gallons of water per day ‚ or 1.3 percent of daily potable water usage across the nation.  These savings result from provisions that establish the first ever, federal water conservation standards for clothes and dish-washers.

Bingaman said: “Changing the trajectory of our energy policy is a top priority for this Nation.” That’s the proverbial mouthful. The problem is getting the changes through in the face of a massive onslaught of influence by special interests.

Here’s a good look at the issues and players as of yesterday from the “Washington Post.”

Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, gave a speech Monday at the Center for American Progress Action Fund in Washington in which, in describing the energy package being debated, he said:

Our bill takes several steps:  For the first time in 30 years, it raises CAFE standards for new cars and trucks , to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, with another 4 percent improvement every year thereafter.  I know that the auto industry is still wavering on this issue.  I met with the CEOs of the big three automakers last week, and here is what I told them:  The debate on raising CAFE standards should be over.  It will happen.  And perhaps if they had joined us instead of fighting us these last 20 years, they might not be in the financial mess they’re in today.

Okay, I’ve got to stop and hang my head mournfully. It’s déjà vu all over again. Every single time the auto industry has ever been asked to do something in the public interest, from installing seat belts to catalytic converters, to preventing onboard explosions to installing crash bags, and certainly to increasing MPG, they have whined and moaned, wrung their hands and said the consumers don’t want to pay more.

But they’ve got powerful friends in Congress, not the least of whom is the formidable John Dingell, chair of the House Energy & Commerce Committee. I wrote about Dingell under Politics in my post of March 30. Dingell fought tooth and nail 20 years ago to keep acid rain legislation bottled up. He would’ve succeeded too had not the first President Bush put his shoulder to the wheel on this issue.

So we’ve been hearing that Dingell has got religion and wants to fight climate change, yet now he wants to set aside the authority the EPA has to regulate GHG from vehicles. In early April, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs seeking the establishment of just this principle. I wrote that it was ” probably the most important climate change case to be adjudicated anywhere in the world.” (See my post of April 3.) I quoted Dingell then as saying: “Today’s ruling provides another compelling reason why Congress must enact, and the president must sign, comprehensive climate change legislation.” But Dingell and Rich Boucher, Chairman of the Energy & Air Quality Subcommittee, have offered a bill that would gut this authority and block the efforts by California and 11 other states to regulate GHG from vehicles themselves and offers weaker standards for fuel efficiency for vehicles than even the President’s limp proposal. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is not happy with these high-ranking and powerful members of her caucus. “OMB Watch” has a good take on this. The Attorneys General of 14 states plus the Corporation Counsel of New York City are also not happy with Dingell and Boucher, as evidenced by their letter of June 6.

It will take some real initiative and creativity by Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Jeff Bingaman, and other stalwarts on this issue like Henry Waxman and Ed Markey in the House, and Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein in the Senate, to bring forth good public policy in an energy package. If it’s a good package, and deftly framed for the public, it will be hard for George Bush to veto it. Whether we have anything from the Congress before the July Fourth recess is anybody’s guess. (I would guess not.)  Check your local listings and stay tuned.



Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

Areas of Focus:
the policy, politics, science and economics of environmental protection, sustainability, energy and climate change