By David Roberts
Grist, 12 OCT 2009
Conventional wisdom says that the Kerry-Boxer clean energy bill faces a long uphill slog in the Senate against unlikely odds. BUT – in politics, small changes can build beneath the surface of the news cycle and emerge unexpectedly as a rapid shift. There are seven reasons for cautious optimism.
1. Key Republican support is already in place, as Sen. Lindsey Graham takes to The New York Times editorial page with John Kerry to offer full-throated support for passing clean energy legislation this year.
Graham has been making noises, but this is thunder. The Kerry bill will not be able to pass without at least a little Republican support giving cover to conservative Dems. Graham is offering that cover early in the legislative process.
He’s also made the price clear: more support for nuclear and offshore drilling. That’s odious, but less odious that it appears at first blush, and an affordable price relative to the benefits of passing a bill.
There are at least five Senate Dems that are certain no votes on the climate bill. That means you need at least five Republican yeas. To get them, there are going to have to be provisions for nuclear power and offshore drilling. There’s no getting around it. But I don’t think things are so bleak for those who oppose both those purported solutions to our energy troubles. As long as the compromises do not mandate nukes and drilling, or write them into the architecture of the bill, things should turn out all right.
On offshore drilling, the politics are trending toward opening up new areas for leasing. Once the price of oil and gasoline rises high enough, political pressure will be irresistible. Might as well use it as a bargaining chip while there’s still something to get in exchange. Even if the federal and state moratoria on drilling were lifted, there’s not a lot of reasons to think oil companies will want to lease these areas. They know these areas represent huge investments of time and money for not much payoff. That’s why there are already tons of available leases in the Gulf going unexploited.
So on offshore drilling, you have the makings of what could look like a huge concession from Dems, but could turn out to have fairly modest real-world consequences.
Nuclear has always been a strange subject. Its backers say, ìnuclear can work, once we solve those pesky siting, cost, and waste issues.î Its opponents say, ìnuclear can work, but only if we solve those pesky siting, cost, and waste issues.î The differences between them aren’t that large. It’s just that nuke proponents think the pesky problems can be solved, and nuclear opponents don’t.
So the key on a nuclear compromise is not to mess with the basic architecture of the bill. Specifically, Dems should resist efforts to let new nuclear plants qualify as satisfying the Renewable Energy Standard (RES).
They could increase loan guarantees and smooth out regulatory issues around siting and permitting. They could establish some sort of expert panel to figure out a waste solution. They could even make nukes eligible for the same tax credits and subsidies offered to renewables. What these compromises have in common is that they make federal assistance available if a utility wants to build nuclear plants. They do not mandate or fully fund such plants.
So if you’re a nuclear opponent and you believe that nuclear plants are never going to attract sufficient private capital, it follows that you think the result of these concessions will be ... not much. Maybe a couple of new plants. Nothing like the silly 100 plants McCain and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) keep talking about.
(Side note: Reid will never, ever concede on nuclear issues until Yucca Mountain is taken completely off the table.)
Snowe and Collins are likely yes votes. With Graham so far out ahead on this, McCain may be shamed into joining him (though he’s far from a sure thing). Together they could get a second hearing from other Senators like Isakson who love nuclear power. (Alexander’s probably a lost cause now that he’s in leadership.) Their combined influence, coupled with his longstanding relationship with Obama, could pull Lugar over. In Florida, Crist could see this as part of his legacy and influence LeMieux to get behind it. At some point you can imagine a snowball effect, though the odds of breaking five Republican yea votes are still fairly low.
2. Health care reform might just work out after all. ... When that train leaves the station it will (finally!) free up much-needed Senate staff attention for when the clean energy train pulls in. ...
If a good healthcare bill is signed into law, it will have an enormous boost on morale and generate further momentum.
3. The public wants this bill. Conservative Dems are behind the times. They haven’t been keeping up with the latest polling, which shows that clean energy reform is broadly popular, even in swing states. Recent focus groups show that the right’s ìenergy taxî attack isn’t working. It gets crushed by the message that America needs to take control of its future, cut dependence on unfriendly countries, and create new jobs. Americans want it to get done and they’re willing to pay for it. Clean energy in particular is wildly popular—a recent poll found that ì77% of Americans feel the federal government should make solar power development a national priority, including the financial support needed.î
There’s a good story to tell even about the most carbon intensive states. They are protected in the bill by consumer rebates and allowance money for trade-exposed industries. Every state has enormous potential for efficiency, and according to a new report:
At least three-fifths of the fifty states could meet all their internal electricity needs from renewable energy generated inside their borders. Every state with a renewable energy mandate can meet it with in-state renewable fuels.
Clean energy reform has potential benefits for every state and area of the country. It’s a winning political issue.
4. International pressure is becoming intense. Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize can be seen, at least in part, as a reward for taking the U.S. in a new direction on climate change. Accepting the prize will put him in Oslo on Dec. 10, right next door to Copenhagen, just as international climate talks begin there. Hint, hint.
Once upon a time the lack of action in China and other rapidly developing countries could be used as an excuse for delay in Congress, but that too is quickly changing. China is moving. Japan is moving. Indonesia is moving. Even India is moving. Developing countries have made it clear that they’re willing to be part of a global system of emission reductions. Global green campaigns like 350.org and TckTckTck are building cross-cultural consensus around a set of baseline metrics. Everyone is waiting for the U.S. to step up. That puts enormous pressure on Obama to deliver the goods, which he can’t do without Senate support.
5. The administration is engaged. Ö There’s an extraordinary level of engagement on clean energy legislation at the cabinet level, probably more so than on health. Browner, Chu, and Jackson have been advocating for the bill and meeting individually with Senators for months.
What’s missing so far is the full force of Obama’s personal popularity and persuasiveness, the most powerful forces in American politics. Everyone agrees the outcome in the Senate will at least somewhat turn on the level of his involvement.
6. Greens are getting their act together at last. The formation of the Clean Energy Works coalition a month ago presaged a period of relatively happy media news for greens. Some of it was the Chamber of Commerce stepping on rakes, but some credit goes to a more consistent message and concerted efforts to highlight stereotype-busting greens like veterans and business execs. There are targeted ad campaigns, media stunts (from groups like the Avaaz Action Factory, Greenpeace, and MoveOn), and a growing grassroots youth movement (see: Energy Action Coalition‘s PowerShift 09) making noise. It’s getting loud enough that even Congress can hear.
7. The business community is divided, as recent defections from the Chamber of Commerce demonstrate. More and more CEOs realize that the demographic they most covet—young people—cares about climate change, expects companies to be environmentally prudent, and expresses that opinion in purchasing decisions. Being backwards on climate is bad branding and bad business.
... They understand that clean energy legislation will unlock enormous business opportunities. Big companies want to get their hands on those opportunities, which is why they’re actively lobbying for a bill.
Given the brittle system by which legislation is passed in the U.S., with all its chokepoints and 60-vote mega-majority minimums, failure is always a safe bet. Despite all the heated talk about what Obama must ìdemand,î the truth is that the fate of this bill (and everything that hinges on it) lies with a small handful of Senators, Republicans and conservative Democrats who aren’t accountable to him or his agenda. Their political concerns are more idiosyncratic.
Nonetheless, there is a clear path from here to passage. If everything goes right and the Senate is willing to step up to history, it could happen