The Ruins of 2010’s Climate Legislation

by Bill Chameides | October 5th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 1 comment

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama spoke passionately of “our addiction to foreign oil” and made the connection to melting ice caps. In the White House, he has been more reticent on the issue.

The last in a series of posts on the senators who straddled the fence on the issue of passing climate legislation in the 111th Congress.

Was the senator most critical to getting climate legislation passed during this session a former senator?

Sometimes it’s better to know how the congressional sausage is made, or was attempted to be made, then to be kept in the dark.

Following the House’s passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (aka Waxman-Markey) in June 2009, all eyes turned to the Senate. Would it follow the lower chamber’s lead and put the United States on a path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — a historic step with huge international and economic implications in addition to environmental ones?

Despite modern democracy’s online galleries like C-Span and, most of us watched the drama of the Senate negotiations from afar. We witnessed the introduction of the Kerry-Boxer bill and then learned of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman negotiations that signaled a bipartisan bill, a legislative creature that seems all but extinct in these highly polarized days. And then, of course, we watched the possibility of a climate bill crash and burn over the summer. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) defected, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) punted, and the heady feeling of change in the air on climate change was gone.

There’s talk of post-election passage of some kind of “energy bill” that might mandate greater use of renewables, but for all intents and purposes it seems that climate legislation is a dead issue for the 111th Congress. And if it couldn’t get done in this session, the chances of the next Congress accomplishing the feat seem from this vantage point to be nil.

But while we were watching from afar, a good deal of wheeling and dealing — and double-dealing — was going on on the inside. A rare and fascinating glimpse into those goings-on is provided by a must-read article by Ryan Lizza that just appeared in The New Yorker magazine. I highly recommend it.

The article has many notable insights. I found two to be especially ironic. 

The Key Senator on the Fence

Of all the senators that helped kill a climate bill in the Senate this year, the most critical one may have turned out to be the former senator from Illinois: Barack Obama. Either by intentional or unintentional blunders, the Obama administration seems to have obstructed rather than encouraged passage of a climate bill during this Congressional session. Lizza writes: “But on climate change Obama grew timid and gave up, leaving the dysfunctional Senate to figure out the issue on its own.”

The bungles and blunders, as reported by Lizza, ranged from:

  • a decision early on by the White House not to give precedence to climate in its legislative agenda, despite campaign promises to the contrary (see here and here ), to
  • giving key pieces of potential compromises away to industry without getting anything in return.

What appears to have been a critical leak (or two) from the administration that left Graham exposed to attacks from the right didn’t help either.

An Oil Disaster Ends Up Protecting Oil Interests

And then there was the tragic and disastrous Deepwater Horizon accident that ended up spewing a record 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. You would have thought that a disaster of that magnitude, with all of us in the country glued to our TV sets watching events unfold, would have produced a national revulsion to oil drilling and sealed the deal on climate legislation. Anything but.

First of all, there was no national revulsion — not even in the gulf, where the BP accident had shut down the fishing industry, putting millions out of work, and was threatening to decimate what’s left of the environmental integrity of the area’s wetlands. During my visit to the Louisiana coast last July, virtually every person I spoke to, from waiters to boat captains to a parish president, opposed the president’s moratorium on deep-sea drilling.

Perhaps most ironic of all, the oil disaster in the gulf may have been the final nail in the coffin for climate legislation.

In the spring of 2010, Lizza writes, the triumvirate known as KGL — insider shorthand for Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Graham, and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) — was working furiously to hammer out a deal that could garner enough Republican support to make passage possible. A key part of a proposed compromise was to allow for expanded offshore drilling in return for industry support of a cap on carbon emissions. Lizza reports that this aspect of the deal was endangered when President Obama announced his intention to open deepwater sites to drilling without getting assurances from industry that they would support a climate bill (and without telling the senators who were busy at work trying to secure the handful of votes necessary for passage that he was pre-empting them).

But with the Deepwater Horizon accident there was no way Democrats and the environmental community would support a bill with expanded offshore oil drilling, and without the expanded drilling there was no way to get the Republican votes needed for passage.

And so, despite great hopes to the contrary back in January 2009, we can say “Rest in Peace” to any notion of U.S. climate legislation from the 111th Congress. All those arguments about tax vs. cap-and-trade, the virtues and evils of offsets, whether a 17 percent reduction by 2020 was too lenient or too much: “A tale …  full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

filed under: carbon dioxide emissions, climate bill fence, climate change, economy, energy, faculty, global warming, oil
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1 Comment

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  1. Jim
    Oct 6, 2010

    The other interesting tidbit was when out of the blue, Harry Reid announced the immigration bill, which didn’t even exist at the time. Reid said the immigration bill must take precedence over any climate bill which blindsided Kerry, Graham and Lieberman and further damaged any chances of climate legislation passing. Going back to Obama, a few weeks ago he said that the WH would not install solar panels, and now he says it is. I think on climate legislation the WH seems to be bipolar and doesn’t know what it wants to do.

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