Green Concerns Over the Energy Bill

  • Share
  • Read Later
Eduardo Abad / EPA

New environmental legislation could require energy companies to generate 15 percent of their power out-put to be harvested from renewable forms of energy, such as solar.

Environmental groups are anxiously watching three votes this week that could significantly water down the energy bill currently before the Senate. The outcome of the votes will determine whether or not the environmental community supports the legislation drafted by Senate Democrats.

"We're as nervous as can be," Kevin Curtis, legislative director for the Pew Campaign for Fuel Efficiency, said of the votes on renewable energy, fuel efficiency and coal-powered gasoline. "The thumbs-up/thumbs-down decision really does depend on the next votes." If the votes don't go their way, Curtis added, "there's really not much left in the bill to support."

The energy debate in the Senate stalled last week when Democrats failed to garner enough backing for an amendment that would require utilities to produce at least 15% of electricity from renewable sources by 2020. The Senate Tuesday is expected to vote again on that provision — considered essential by environmental groups and most Democrats. Also this week, the Senate will vote on an amendment sponsored by Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, that would weaken the fuel efficiency language in the bill. The current measure would require all vehicles to achieve 35 miles per gallon by 2020. Levin's alternative would give cars until 2022 to reach 36 miles per gallon, and light trucks (including SUVs, the only automobile category American companies still dominate) until 2025 to reach 30 miles per gallon. "They're trying to knock a decent standard off the road and replace it with a clunker," said Frank O'Donnell, head of Clear Air Watch. "We've heard crying wolf for three and a half decades from Detroit."

Senator Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican, Monday introduced the third controversial amendment, which would mandate the use of 6 billion gallons of gasoline made from coal (Bunning's original amendment failed the Energy Committee by one vote). Environmentalists across the board loathe this provision, which they say would result in massive increases of carbon emissions. "Coal to liquid is an unspeakable boondoggle," O'Donnell said. "It's an absolute abomination."

Environmental groups have been largely disappointed with Democratic efforts to fulfill their campaign promises to increase the use of renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and they always knew getting a favorable bill out of the Senate — which Democrats control by just a single vote — would be tough. But they hoped that a lot could be fixed in conference with the House, which Democrats control by a much larger majority. But to the environmentalists' dismay, when House chairmen floated their bill last week, it came out even weaker than the Senate version — with more lax fuel efficiency standards and a coal-to-liquid provision.

"So far it's been disappointing," said John Coequyt, Greenpeace's energy policy specialist. "I don't think there's a lot of reason for excitement for the legislation improving in conference. The House bill would actually increase carbon emissions."

Neither side has claimed they have the votes on any of the three amendments, and lobbying from environmental groups has reached a near fever pitch. U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) got 50 Senators to sign a letter supporting the renewable provision (plus Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, who penned his own letter) and sent that to the Democratic leaders. Without that measure, the group would be "hard-pressed" to support the overall legislation, said Anna Aurillo, legislative director for PIRG. Friends of the Earth, meanwhile, tried to dump a ton of coal in a Senate park last week, but when the Capitol Police prevented them, they blackened their faces and hands in protest instead. Greenpeace, LCV, Clean Air Watch and dozens of other environmental groups all have letter and e-mail campaigns in addition to the direct lobbying the groups do on the Hill.

The overall legislation would expand energy efficiency and renewable fuel incentives, end many tax breaks for oil and gas companies, increase the mandate on biofuels (such as ethanol made from corn and soybeans) from 6 billion to 36 billion gallons, authorize a carbon sequestration pilot project (which would trap carbon emissions underground) and make price gouging on oil and gas a federal crime. Ironically, it was meant to be the easy one of the two planned global warming bills. The second, expected later this summer, would set a cap on and establish reduction timetables for carbon emissions.

If the energy legislation is not finished by the middle of this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has threatened to pull it in favor of the immigration bill, though he has promised to finish the measure before July 4 recess. The bill probably has enough in it pleasing to other constituencies — farming states love the biofuel provision, wind states like the renewable incentives and most Democrats want to see the tax breaks for oil and gas companies go away — to pass Congress. But Democrats will have their work cut out for them to appease environmental groups if the bill is passed over their objections.