Overseer’s Undercurrent: Ending the National Energy Impasse

By Published On: December 10, 2004

If it’s true that insanity is marked by futile repetition of actions with the hope of eventually obtaining a different result, Congress may want to consider attaching a mental health provision to its next comprehensive energy policy bill. Maybe that would pick up a few more votes and break what has become an embarrassing stalemate. Republican legislative leaders promise a “fresh start” with the commencement of the 109th Congress next month, citing a newly bolstered majority in the Senate, the electoral defeat of “obstructionist” Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle, and an increasing urgency about rising energy costs. Still, it’s entirely uncertain that enough has changed to guarantee passage of any package that resembles HR 6–the complex, costly, and controversial bill that was the main energy policy vehicle in the last Congress. Marnie Funk, spokesperson for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, acknowledged that HR 6 failed because of tight margins in the Senate. “We hope that with picking up four seats, those margins will improve,” she said. That might not provide enough comfort for Joe Barton (R-Texas), chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Barton, frustrated by the Senate?s failure to take HR 6 to a floor vote, openly promoted cramming the bill into the $380 billion omnibus appropriations package that Congress grappled with during the post election lame-duck sessions last month. Failing that, he expressed “energy bill fatigue” and recently said that pursuing another comprehensive energy bill will not be a priority for his committee next session. Seasoned Capitol Hill observers cite many reasons for the deadlock, but partisanship and lack of consensus are at the top of their list. “The bottom line is the way the last bill was constructed, looking primarily to the Republican caucus and trying to line up those votes. That was a losing strategy, as it turns out,” said Gene Peters, chief lobbyist for the Electric Power Supply Association. For some, the sheer size and complexity of HR 6 were the major stumbling blocks. Bill Brier, vice-president of policy and public affairs for the Edison Electric Institute, likened the bill to a Christmas tree, laden with gifts for everyone who might possibly vote for it. “We have to sit down and decide what it is that we can do that?s going to have some long-term impact on energy prices and energy supply,” Brier said. Then there?s the White House factor–or lack thereof. “I think the White House started strong on the issue, but as 9/11 happened and other priorities came before the White House, their interest in passing an energy bill sort of waned,” said Toby Anderson, vice-president of the Lighthouse Energy Group, a consulting firm. “A lot of Republicans were disappointed that the White House didn?t weigh in more heavily toward the end to try to push it across the finish line.” Merribel Ayres, the president of Lighthouse Energy Group, added, “If they want to do an energy bill, the White House has got to be involved in it at the critical times.” So what will it take to resolve the impasse over energy policy in Congress? Perhaps what is needed is to put the matter into the hands of an independent, bipartisan commission that can devise a truly consensual, long-term energy strategy to address the most difficult-to-broach issues. There’s a long history of such commissions in Washington, with the most recent examples being the 9/11 Commission and the panel charged by President Bush with finding solutions to the looming Social Security dilemma. That is the rationale behind the National Commission on Energy Policy, composed of 17 notable experts drawn from the full spectrum of energy and environmental organizations, with deep experience in business and government. The commission–a nonprofit group funded by the Hewlett Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust, the Energy Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Packard Foundation?was chartered to craft a long-term energy strategy that promotes national security, economic prosperity, and environmental safety and health. Cochaired by John Holdren, Harvard University professor of environmental policy; Bill Reilly, former Environmental Protection Agency administrator; and John Rowe, Exelon chair and chief executive officer, the group this week just completed two and a half years of work and introduced its final report and recommendations. “Our commission reached consensus on effective policies because of a willingness to take on cherished myths from both right and left,” Rowe said. Unlike HR 6, the group’s proposed strategy looks well beyond today?s hot buttons, such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to take on longer-term issues: reducing the nation?s dependence on imported oil and vulnerability to fossil-fuel price volatility, while addressing climate change. The foundation of the plan is to establish a limit on carbon emissions and a national market for greenhouse gas emission credits. While many others have proposed “cap and trade” systems, the commission has tailored its recommendation to the times by fitting it with the market-driven preferences of the Bush administration and by making the entire plan “revenue neutral” for the federal government. According to the group?s analysis, the whole set of investment and incentive recommendations will cost $36 million over ten years–that’s the same amount that the government could expect from its share of proceeds from the sale and trade of carbon emission offsets. Immediately, the carbon-reduction plan drew criticism from the National Association of Manufacturers, but the commission contends its program will be far less expensive than carbon reductions called for in the Kyoto Protocol. On the other hand, the moderate pace of carbon reductions may elicit criticisms from the environmental community as well, admitted Ralph Cavanagh, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It will not satisfy many of my colleagues who want more aggressive timetables for first stabilizing and then reducing emissions. But it is a step in the direction of creating the international markets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions that I think almost everybody now acknowledges are needed,” he said. Equally controversial may be the commission’s recommendation to pursue next-generation nuclear power technologies, along with accelerating clean coal, renewable resources, and energy efficiency. Updating and expanding efficiency standards for new appliances, equipment, and buildings is central in the commission?s proposals. The plan also advocates much stronger vehicle efficiency standards and would devote $3 billion over ten years to manufacturer and consumer incentives for efficient hybrid–electric and advanced diesel vehicles. The commission recommends doubling federal research and development spending, including $360 million annually for renewable resources. It would provide incentives for early deployment of coal gasification ($4 billion) and carbon sequestration ($3 billion), alternative transportation biofuels ($1.5 billion), and advanced nuclear reactors ($2 billion)–all over ten years. If the commission has any hope of getting a hearing at all in Washington, it will be because of the conscious effort of members to create a bipartisan consensus that backs proposals with rigorous but conservative analysis, said Hank Habicht, chief executive officer of the Global Environment and Technologies Foundation and a former Justice Department official under President Reagan. “I think the individuals in the group have credibility across the spectrum and have come up with recommendations that move the needle in a significant way,” Habicht said. “The experience level of the individuals involved makes the recommendations particularly strong,” he said. The major theme of the commission report is “ending the energy stalemate,? said Cavanagh. “It gives a new beginning to some ideas that everybody had assumed can?t go anywhere in this or any other plausible Congress. The fundamental test here, and the reason why this is all worth doing, is that these are the issues that drive the capacity of a growing economy to deliver better lives and better environments?not just in the United States but internationally.? Energy Circuit readers can find the full version of the National Commission on Energy Policy?s report, Ending the Energy Stalemate, as well as associated technical documents, at www.energycommission.org.

Share this story

Not a member yet?

Subscribe Now