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Can a Climate Bill Still Pass?

Some senators are suggesting watering down the energy bill even further with investments in controversial technologies, but even with reason for pessimism, environmental groups say they’re optimistic about the bill’s passage this year.

It’s been almost eight months since the House of Representatives passed its energy bill. The Senate’s version of the bill, which has been on hold, is facing some major challenges including the loss of the cap and trade, or a system that would allow companies to buy and sell carbon credits for pollution they emit, new incentives nuclear power and investments in controversial technology. But even with such challenges, environmental groups remain hopeful that a comprehensive bill will pass this year.

On Saturday, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) told The New York Times, “cap-and-trade as we know it is dead, but the issue of cleaning up the air and energy independence should not die — and you will never have energy independence without pricing carbon.” Working with Sen. Graham are Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who are restructuring the caps on carbon to apply to different sectors of the economy, reported the Washington Post. Last month, President Barack Obama said that he supports a comprehensive plan, but admitted that the Senate may produce two bills, one focused on energy and jobs, and the other on reducing carbon.

The biggest challenge for the bill might be a lack of concern from the American people. The Pew Center reported last month that the top two policy priorities are the economy and jobs, while global warming is ranked in last place. In an election year with increased pressure to produce jobs during the recession, many senators are wary of working on the energy bill that just isn’t a concern for many Americans.

Proponents of the energy bill argue that the Senate will only pass a comprehensive energy bill with a cap on carbon. “If there’s not a global warming component of the energy bill, then there won’t be an energy bill that will pass in the Senate,” Dan Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, says.

Other top environmental groups, like the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), and the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), agree. Along with providing revenue for tax cuts for the renewable energy industry, the cap, which would cause the energy industry to invest in cleaner and more efficient technologies, provides a clear signal to them about where America is heading.

These environmental groups are confident that a bill will be passed this year based on the efforts. Sen. Graham has already circulated legislation around Capitol Hill and has been a vocal advocate for the energy bill.

“Despite a hundred obituaries being written about this bill from day one, it’s certainly not dead and the administration is pushing very hard for it,” says deputy press secretary of the Sierra Club Josh Dorner.

To pass the bill, senators are considering including subsidies for controversial incentives for nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that captures carbon from a power plant and then buries it underground. Just like scrubbers that remove sulfur from coal smoke stacks, CCS technology is designed to remove carbon dioxide from power plants and bury it underground.

The energy bill that House of Representatives passed last fall included several investments and incentives to make CCS economically viable. The bill provides $60 billion invested in to CCS technology as well as $1 billion in demonstration and deployment. Utility companies that are the first to sequester their carbon for this new technology will receive additional subsidies. While environmental groups consider some of these new provisions unfavorable, they say investment in such technologies are not a reason to abandon the expected energy bill, Dorner says.

“There are compromises [that can go] too far. Fortunately, I don’t think we’re getting near that territory at the moment,” Dorner says.

The State of the Union speech inspired both hope and concern for environmentalists. “To create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives,” Obama said during the speech. “And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country … It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies.”

But Obama’s push for so-called clean coal and other controversial technologies is concerning. “We think that CCS is going to be hugely expensive and uneconomical, requiring billions in subsidies from the government, much like nuclear power,” says Dorner. Advocates for CCS see it as a way to support the coal industry, which currently supplies half of the country’s electricity. But rather than using CCS technology to lower the carbon emissions, which supports the coal industry, the Sierra Club recommends using natural gas as the transition fuel from coal to a renewable energy economy, such as solar and wind technologies.

“Every time you delete a technology from your list, you’re relying on other solutions much more heavily,” says George Peridas, a scientist with the National Resource Defense Council.

CAP’s Weiss says that investing in CCS technology is necessary to reduce the carbon produced by coal power plants and that nuclear technology is going to be a part of any energy bill that goes through Congress, whether environmental activists like it or not.

“Those that would argue that we need to have a global-warming pollution reduction bill that doesn’t include nuclear power and carbon-capture and storage in my view are asking for no progress,” Weiss says.

Corey Shott of the National Wildlife Federation says that CCS and nuclear power are on the political table not because they will lead to a cleaner energy future, but because they can help pass the energy bill.

“That’s how you legislate. You bring the sides together and you start deciding where you can agree,” Shott says.

Despite government incentives, which will make nuclear and CCS more attractive to investors, Shott says that nuclear and CCS technologies aren’t viable in the marketplace, because they are high-risk investments. In 2003, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office reported that there is a 50 percent risk of default on loans to nuclear power plants, due to their high construction costs. NWF and the NRDC would rather have more money invested in wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.

“This is no time to burden taxpayers with additional subsidies for nuclear power,” says Christopher Paine, director of the nuclear program at NRDC. Other scientists point out that nuclear technology has failed to demonstrate its ability to become economically viable.

What both sides do agree on is the necessity of having a comprehensive energy bill that includes a cap on carbon dioxide emissions. Since the public attention has shifted focus to jobs and the economy, some say that an energy bill should follow suit, and leave out the limits on carbon pollution. But environmental groups believe Congress doesn’t have to choose between jobs and the energy bill: They believe the energy bill will create jobs and benefit America’s economy now and in the future.

Tristan Fowler is a staff writer for Campus Progress.

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