When Scott Brown’s Senate win in Massachusetts brought the forty-first vote against health care to the Republican caucus, Washington shifted its focus to other items that started high on the legislative agenda in 2009, but found their way to the back burner in the health care battle royale. A comprehensive energy reform and climate change bill climbed right to the top of the list.
After all, the House already passed the Waxman-Markey bill in 2009, and the Senate has its own promisingly tri-partisan gang of three (Democrat John Kerry, Republican Lindsey Graham and Independent Joe Liebermann) who seem to have the makings of a compromise bill. Now, as the White House makes it clear that the State of the Union will mark a shift in focus from deeply-detailed and controversial policy reform to bread-and-butter middle class issues (like daycare subsidies, student loan reform, and middle class tax relief), the path to Senate appproval of a climate and energy bill seems to lie in adoption of the same central principle that will drive the Obama SOTU message: JOBS!
Post-Copenhagen: Redefining Climate Progress
The jobs-first focus will inevitably push a lot of the more aggressive green tech/clean tech proposals to the side. To get a bill this year, Kerry and Graham are looking to a few trump cards that most people probably did not expect to see as the big beneficiaries of a climate change bill in this session: oil, coal and nuclear.
Their compromise bill – pitched by Graham not as a climate bill, but as a path to “energy independence” – would “provide subsidies to kick-start construction of nuclear power plants, encourage the development of technology that would bury carbon emissions created by the burning of coal, and promote offshore drilling,” according to a Boston Globe story.
How did these technologies – anything but new or green – get back on the agenda and get in line for huge government investment?
Three Words: Oil, Gas and JOBS
First, the ambitious green plays that led the Obama and Democratic agenda for a climate bill back in spring 2009 do not offer enough brisk stimulation to the economy, something that advocates of a climate bill will need to get the bill through this year. The legislative environment has been tough and bitterly-divided all year, but now – with the Massachusetts special Senate election still ringing in the perked-up ears of Democrats in vulnerable 2010 seats – even the Democratic caucus is likely to be more divided and less willing to take risky votes as an undivided whole.
Put simply, there are certain job gains to be had in established industries and with well-known companies in the more conventional fossil fuel programs. Green jobs have been – and remain, in large part – a centerpiece of the climate bill, and they hold a lot of promise for the future in even many conservative economists’ projections, but it is unclear exactly how many real and sustainable jobs those programs could create today.
The problem with going after a full-blown green bill is that 1) the technologies and companies are largely still research and development plays, and 2) too much of the the money that would be set aside for renewable energy would be eaten up by subsidies for the increase in costs for renewable energy, rather than going to coal, oil or nuke incentives, technologies and subsidies that would create jobs instantly.
Greens and Their Envy
Proponents argue that the research and development has to get underway to begin to address both the cost and capcity concerns around renewable energy conversion. Further, they add that there are plenty of nitty-gritty, not-overly-technical, still very green investments that would create immediate jobs and offer instant stimulus.
In other words, investments in places like utility efficiency programs and energy efficient retrofitting are the the equivalent of the famous “shovel-ready” projects, and would mean jobs and energy savings right now. No doubt, some money will still find its way to utilities and community-based organizations for smart grid programs and other efficiency programs, but much will be diverted to the fossil fuel projects.
Finally, as to the cost of green power, supporters of a progressive, comprehensive bill point out that the higher kWh price for green power is reflective of the true cost of a unit of energy, once cost to the environment, for clean-up and other externalities is included.
Can Compromise Appease?
It is hard to say how hardcore greens will react to this compromise. Groups like Greenpeace came out in opposition to a weakened House bill; but, as Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett noted on Meet the Press this Sunday, the White House is stepping back to take stock of its whole agenda, noting “it is the art of the possible.” Part of that calculation has obviously been the roll-out of less wonky policies and programs that will be more accessible to the disenchanted middle class voter, but will inevitably deliver less in pure policy power for industry insiders and hardcore greens.
Still, with that shift in focus by the White House and bipartisan leadership from Senate heavyweights like Kerry and Graham, Ms. Jarrett and her boss may find that as their art applies to energy and climate progress, possibilities are improving.
Flickr photo used under CCL, credit Ekey84