Energy Bill a Bad Compromise

Supporters are hailing energy legislation narrowly approved by the US House of Representatives as historic, helping to move the country to cleaner energy sources.

While it opens the door to alternative fuels, the bill gives away far too much to the oil, gas and coal industries to trigger the kind of transformation that is needed.

The legislation – which differs in a number of ways from one approved by the House – would create “a national requirement for utilities to produce 15% of their electricity from renewable sources,” according to The Associated Press. It also would lift a ban on natural gas and oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, the AP said, and gives the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission authority over the siting of high-voltage power lines, a provision designed to ease efforts to upgrade the national power grid.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said the legislation offered “bipartisan, substantive and forward-looking approaches to energy” that “will move America toward the clean jobs and economic growth we need.”

“This bill will help shift our country to cleaner sources of energy, and more secure sources as well,” he said.

The problem is that the shift to cleaner energy sources is being slowly phased in and comes nowhere near the goal set by President Obama. The trade-off is the off-shore drilling provision, which would allow drilling for oil and natural gas within “45 miles of most of Florida’s coast and as close as 10 miles off the state’s Panhandle area.”

That’s one of the reasons that Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., voted against it. In a press release issued following the committee’s June 17 vote, Menendez said the bill contains “too much traditional thinking that will not point us in a direction that creates enough jobs, lowers energy costs enough or produces enough clean energy.

“I certainly support important provisions in this bill to improve efficiency in buildings, appliances and throughout the federal government, to cut energy costs to consumers and reduce some emissions,” he said.” I also support important measures to make our oil markets more transparent and less vulnerable to manipulation.

“However, at the end of the day, I do not think this bill in its current form does enough yet to change our energy paradigm, to create green jobs, to make us a stronger more independent nation, or to address our climate crisis.”

His concerns were echoed by environmental groups, who viewed the alternative energy requirements as insufficient – especially given that the legislation expanded off-shore drilling.

“Numerous changes to this bill during consideration by the committee have significantly undermined its integrity and ability to build the clean energy economy,” said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.

The Union of Concerned Scientists also was critical, saying the Senate bill “should be rewritten or removed before a full Senate vote,” because of flaws that “would undermine progress toward a clean energy economy.”

“Study after study tells us that a robust renewable electricity standard requiring utilities to get a quarter of their electricity from sources like the wind and sun would create jobs and save ratepayers money,” Marchant Wentworth, a clean energy advocate at UCS, said. “This bill’s renewable standard is so pitiful that it wouldn’t require any new renewable energy development beyond business as usual. Moreover, if any states adopted the loopholes and exemptions in this bill, it could reduce the amount of renewable energy development we expect under existing state policies.”

A UCS analysis compared current state policies with the Senate bill and found that the legislation “would require much less wind, solar, biomass and other renewable energy development.” According to the UCS, state rules “would increase renewable energy to about 10.2 percent of total US electricity generation by 2021”; contrast this with the figures for the Senate bill, which call utilities to provide between 7.4% and 10.7% of electricity to come from renewable energy by 2021. And there are no provisions to “stop new carbon-emitting coal plants from coming on line.”

This, says Wentworth, could mean an “increase (in) production and pollution from the dirtiest existing coal plants. This provision could take us backward to a dirtier past, rather than forward to a clean energy future.”

Other environmental groups are opposed to the legislation, preferring the greener House version, while hoping that it gets strengthened when it goes to the full Senate sometime in late summer or early fall.

Will that happen? Only if environmental groups and labor unions step up their efforts and place significant pressure on enough senators to make it happen.

Hank Kalet is a poet and the online editor for The Princeton Packet newspaper group. Email; blog; Twitter; Facebook,

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2009

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