Gulf spill helps revive left-for-dead energy legislation


Passing a major energy bill seemed virtually impossible a few weeks ago, but Democrats, bolstered by public anger over the gulf oil spill, are pushing for legislation with renewed hope of success.

A new energy bill could be shorn of its most controversial feature — the costly and complex “cap-and-trade” system, which would set a declining limit on emissions from power plants and factories and force emitters to buy permits for the release of heat-trapping gases.

But even without cap and trade, the measure contemplated by Senate Democratic leaders could bring far-reaching change, including new renewable energy requirements, tougher liability caps on oil companies and stronger energy-efficiency measures.

Last week, the Senate narrowly defeated a Republican-led effort to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions — a vote seen by some as a test of the difficulties Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could face in delivering yet another Obama administration priority without a filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes.

The vote suggested that while energy and environmental legislation would not be easy to pass, it might be possible.

“The obituary for comprehensive and clean-energy-reform legislation has been written every week,” said Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund. “All of those predictions were wrong.”

The Senate has long been considered the place where such legislation goes to die. That became clear to House Democrats over the last year as their chamber passed a sweeping climate change bill only to see it stall in the Senate.

House Democrats, many in reelection fights in swing districts, came under attack as Republicans deftly labeled the bill a light-switch tax because it could raise the cost of coal and other carbon fuels used to generate electricity. Just eight House Republicans supported the measure.

Hope for Senate action was dashed when the main Republican negotiator, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said in late April he was pulling back.

But the gulf spill may have changed the equation.

“I want you to know, the votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months,” President Obama said in an early-June speech in Pittsburgh. “I will work with anyone to get this done — and we will get it done.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said, “I think it gets tough, but everybody is watching the oil spew from the gulf…. This is the time for us to be putting together a much more sustainable energy strategy.”

Reid will soon begin crafting a bill in much the way he developed the healthcare overhaul, culling the most popular provisions from existing legislation.

“I think the oil spill has generated a lot of discussion, a lot of soul-searching,” said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the finance committee. “This country has to address climate change. The question is how and when — and when are there 60 votes?”

Energy policy has tended to be more of a regional issue than a partisan one, and even the worst oil spill in the nation’s history may not be enough to win over conservative Democrats and those from oil- and coal-producing states.

Any hint of a carbon tax or the ambitious government foray into regulating private industry — like those in the House bill and some Senate proposals — could be politically deadly this election year.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), for instance, cited the concerns of coal miners in his state as rationale for voting to block EPA’s authority over greenhouse emissions.

“They are so terrified that this is the end of their existence, and EPA has become the symbol to them — and to me, to some extent — as a very hostile force at work,” Rockefeller said.

In a sign of how politically toxic the cap-and-trade concept has become, Graham has declared the effort dead and Democratic leaders have stopped referring to the term.

“That’s something that’s been deleted from my dictionary,” Reid told reporters. “Carbon pricing is something we talk about.”

Yet Obama’s reengagement has encouraged the environmentalist community.

Environmentalists still hope for an economy-wide system to cut carbon emissions, such as cap and trade, but that seems to be near the outer limits of what’s possible among other provisions.

Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, expects a full-scale debate to emerge. He says Obama and Democratic leaders are eager to achieve all they can before the November elections reduce their majority in Congress, as is expected.

“They’ve got the adrenaline going,” Ornstein said. “The fact that [Obama] can continue to show people, in this difficult environment, he continues to solve problems … that becomes a nice plus for him.”