Energy renewal?

Our view: Gulf spill is a reminder of the dangers of status quo, but it may actually dim the prospects for crucial Senate energy/climate change legislation

May 12, 2010

The massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico may have heightened public interest in the nation's unsustainable demand for oil, but it may have also guaranteed that the energy legislation (also known as the climate change bill) is not likely to escape the Senate, despite the compromise offered today by Democratic Sens. John F. Kerry and Joe Lieberman.

It was bad enough when Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham walked away from the legislation last month over his misgivings about where Democrats were headed on the wholly unrelated issue of immigration reform. But now the very thing that was supposed to attract moderate Democratic and GOP support — expanding off-shore oil drilling — looks politically unpalatable.

What is maddening is that the diminishments of the measure's political prospects are in inverse proportion to its necessity. That a post-recession U.S. economy appears destined to return to its gluttonous appetite for oil and dangerous dependence on Middle East sources for it is only a part of the problem.

The U.S. needs to commit to a climate change policy that recognizes both the seriousness of the threat posed by mounting levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the need to take swift action to address it. The thorny issue also poses an opportunity for the country to become a world leader in the emerging field of renewable energy and the thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in new investment that come with it.

Make no mistake, the Senate's reformulated climate change legislation stacks more compromises on top of the compromises already made in the House. It includes the controversial cap-and-trade provision (by 2016), but streamlined and with greater limits on costs in an effort to reduce the impact on energy prices.

Consumers might still pay more for carbon-based energy, but they'd also receive offsetting credits on their utility bills under the Kerry-Lieberman proposal. What states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could do to further regulate carbon would be restricted.

More encouraging is the decision to give states the right to veto offshore drilling in neighboring states. Such a provision is particularly important for Maryland, where a proposal to drill off the coast of Virginia has raised concerns about the potential impact on tourism and the Chesapeake Bay. But it's not clear whether that restriction goes quite far enough.

Many of these concessions will no doubt prove troublesome to anyone who has listened with any semblance of an open mind to mainstream climate researchers and their dire forecasts for the future. Whatever watering down has taken place, the changes are far easier to accept than the prospect of a gridlocked Senate doing nothing this year.

Yet conventional wisdom in Washington is that partisan gridlock will make it impossible to form a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Looking no further than this November and holding their own political interests above those of the nation, Republicans will simply find it too convenient to paint this much-needed energy reform as a tax bill. Democrats from coal- and oil-producing states will be only too happy to see it fail.

That prospect should cause all Americans deep concern. It has become fashionable these days to advocate for reform on issues ranging from the deficit to national security in terms of their impact on the next generation. By that measure, clean energy should be on top of the congressional to-do list. Without reforms, the ills to be visited upon our children in economic uncertainty, environmental calamity and global instability would represent an intolerable legacy.

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