Waiting for Godot . . . and the Energy Bill

Ever since Barack Obama was inaugurated as president, the air in Washington has been thick with expectation for a coherent energy policy. When Obama announced early in his administration that energy was one of three critical priorities—along with health care and education— hopes were high that this country was on a leadership path in the global effort to reduce greenhouse gasses.  We are still waiting and chances are not good that we will soon any significant breakthroughs any time soon.

While the Waxman-Markey clean energy bill that came out of the House of Representatives last June may have been flawed, many observers believed that even a weak bill was better than no bill. There is not currently a national renewable energy standard under which the utilities would have to meet a certain minimum electricity demand through renewable energy.  The Waxman-Markey bill would have at least set these minimal renewable energy standards for the entire country: 20% by 2020—but with many loopholes and opt-outs. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which advocated a standard of 25% by 2025—without the loopholes—endorsed the bill despite the bill’s shortcomings. Hopes were high that a watered-down version of this bill would pass in the Senate, but again these hopes were dashed.

As the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December of last year drew newer, there was some optimism that the Senate would act to pass its version of the energy bill. Passage of the energy bill would have given the President ammunition to show global leadership in Copenhagen. One Senate committee did indeed vote for a bill, which contained an almost laughable renewable energy standard of 15%, which the UCS analyzed and with the loopholes translated into 7.2-10.2%. Yet, even this version of the bill could not garner broad support and momentum for the energy bill was again lost.

The spectacle of health care reform took center stage in Congress earlier this year and the energy bill again dropped off of the radar screen. But in the background, three senators, Lindsay Graham, Joseph Lieberman, and John Kerry, endeavored to develop a bipartisan approach to the energy bill. With recriminations going back and forth, and another domestic item, this time, immigration, threatening to upstage the energy bill, Lindsay Graham walked out , leaving Senators Lieberman and Kerry to launch their own one-sided bill—without the needed cover of a Republican Senator.  Some are happy that at least there is a bill that could attract discussion and debate. As others have pointed out, however, there is not even a national renewable energy standard in the bill.

The major factor affecting this newly released energy bill is of course the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The pundits are all over the place on the effect of the spill on the chances for the energy bill. One thing is for sure with the pundits; they are more often than not simply wrong. That opens the field to the rest of us.

There are two leading and disparate theories on the effect of Deepwater Horizon on the bill. First, some commentators believe that the disaster will congeal public opinion and that, in response, the Senate will have no choice but to move the bill forward. The other view is that the disaster will only splinter whatever bipartisan support there may have been for the energy bill. I subscribe to the latter view, particularly considering the upcoming midterm elections that have a way to accentuate the differences between the two leading political parties.

Obama adroitly determined that to garner bipartisan support in a very partisan atmosphere, he had to give on two critical issues: nuclear energy and offshore drilling. For many in the solar industry, this compromise may have been a bitter pill to swallow. But you talk about bad timing, and of course, there is never a good time for an ecological disaster, but just a month after Obama signaled his willingness to give on offshore drilling, the first major offshore drilling accident in US coastal waters occurred since Santa Barbara in 1969. The fail safe mechanism wasn’t so fail safe after all and every day we hear of another system or procedure that failed. Obama may have been swayed by shouts of Drill, Baby, Drill before the accident, but now he is more apt to be swayed by the sarcastic taunts of Spill, Baby, Spill.

Offshore oil drilling is off the table and without the offshore and nuclear compromises energy policy is sadly going nowhere in this country. Deepwater Horizon will eventually be capped, but we will still be waiting for Godot, and the Energy Bill for some time to come.

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