Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Federal Climate Legislation Passes the House

Last Friday's vote on the floor of the US Congress was certainly historic, but it may not have been the victory environmentalists have hoped for. The fact that climate legislation including a cap and trade provision even passed at all symbolically represents what is already a shift toward a new energy economy in America. It was very important for President Obama to get legislation passed to show the rest of the world that we are making progress, and he certainly pushed hard right up to the vote. The House leadership helped out by refusing to allow strengthening amendments that would hurt chances for passage. Concessions were made to almost every group that needed them.

While Congressman Langevin and others worked hard to strengthen the bill, their efforts were put on hold by the House Speaker while each member's yes vote was negotiated. Much has been said about the fact that so much was added at the last minute no one read the bill they finally voted on. Putting the politics aside and looking at the science, there are some serious flaws with the legislation.

The most eggregious is that it preempts the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gasses under the Clean Air Act, a recent ruling that would have prevented the development of many new coal fired power plants that now may move forward. The coal and oil industries will get billions in free allowances and money for unrealistic carbon capture technology. The renewable energy standard was weakened to 15% by 2020, and 85% of carbon allowances will be given away.

With a weak cap on carbon and additional offsets, the bill barely keeps us at a business as usual position when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. So, maybe the vote was just a symbolic victory, but it was important and historic. The next step is to work to strengthen the bill in the Senate, which will certainly be very difficult, but we have dedicated champions in Senators Whitehouse and Reed.

The new EPA under the Obama administration is obviously a much stronger and more threatening agency, because much of the climate bill was used to undue and remove its authority. That should tell us where the battle will be. Industries do not like to be regulated. The dying fossil fuel sector is grasping at straws to prop itself up, but it won't stand the test of time. This is more evidence that we have reached peak oil, and a new energy economy needs to take its place. Unfortunately, we are not doing enough to make it an easy transition. Onward we march.

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