The death of cap-and-trade legislation three years ago sent a clear message to those waiting on Congress to tackle energy policy and climate change: Big bills are out.
Since then, lawmakers have adjusted their focus away from comprehensive energy legislation and toward smaller-bore measures that could attract broad support from Republicans and Democrats, environmentalists and industry executives. Such a bill has proved elusive in the intervening years, and one has to look back to 2007 to find the last example of significant energy legislation making it to a president's desk.
But that situation could change soon, with a popular energy efficiency bill gaining momentum in the Senate. The bill, from Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), is modest in its ambition, proponents acknowledge, but it has support from a broad swath of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and interest groups across the industry-environmentalist spectrum, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Supporters hope to see the bill debated in the Senate as soon as this week, and whenever it comes up, they say, it is likely to usher in a series of targeted bills aimed at accomplishing discrete goals that have long awaited congressional action.
"I think part of the way you do it is incrementally. If you can save businesses money, save on pollution and address national security all at the same time, that helps address a climate change agenda. But I don't think that needs to be the focus of everything that we do," Shaheen told E&E Daily during a brief interview in the Capitol last week.
The Shaheen-Portman bill is nearing the finish line -- although it remains to be seen whether its consideration slips to the fall, as the Senate is expected to spend at least the early part of this week on a transportation and housing spending bill and on some of President Obama's nominations.
But its evolution was the product of a years-long effort to build a coalition of outside supporters and convince lawmakers across the political spectrum that they could find common ground around the goals of reducing energy use even as they continued to butt heads over most other aspects of energy and climate policy. (And, to be sure, the bill is not without its critics among the Senate's most conservative Republicans and outside groups like the Heritage Foundation.)
Some also see it as a cipher that will show whether Congress has any hope of remaining relevant to energy policymaking.
"It's modest, but it's become symbolic," said Joe Kruger, director for energy and environment at the Bipartisan Policy Center's Energy Project. "If we can't come to consensus around this, is Congress still going to be in the game of energy policy -- of passing energy bills on a bipartisan basis?"
The bill was first introduced in May 2011 to relatively little fanfare -- as is the case with most legislation -- and an early acknowledgement that it was far from a panacea.
"Let me be clear, I don't think that energy efficiency solves all of our energy needs, but efficiency remains the fastest, cheapest way to meet our energy challenges," Shaheen said at the time (E&ENews PM, May 12, 2011).
The version of the bill reintroduced this year, S. 761, has been pared back even from the earlier modest effort. Updates to voluntary building codes, industrial assistance programs and directions for the federal government to limit its energy use were maintained, but a loan guarantee program fell out of the bill in the post-Solyndra aftermath, replaced with a smaller program to provide grants for states pursing efficiency improvements.
Nonetheless, its stature has only grown over the course of this year. It received fast-track status in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which voted 19-3 to advance it less than three weeks after its introduction (E&ENews PM, May 8).
Supporters say they are not discouraged by the idea that the bill's modest ambitions are a symptom of a Congress unable to tackle big problems.
"If I let myself get down to this analysis of the Senate and progress, I wouldn't want to get up in the morning," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the ranking member of the Energy Committee and a leading proponent of Shaheen-Portman. "I'm looking at it from a glass-half-full [perspective]. We've got a bill that is ready to go and has good bipartisan support. ... Let's move it. Let's demonstrate that we can legislate in the energy sphere."
In conversations with reporters in recent weeks, Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has portrayed the bill as the heir to Congress' last successful energy law, the Energy Independence and Security Act.
"The last energy bill that was on the floor of the United States Senate was 2007. That was before a whole host of dramatic developments in the energy field, including the huge ... expansion in renewables, the natural gas revolution," Wyden said earlier this month.
Shaheen-Portman doesn't come close to addressing all of the developments in the energy world over the last six years. But maybe it doesn't have to.
"Not to speak for him, but I think he would say, this is just a start," Portman said of his conversations with the energy chairman. "That's what he tells me. He wants this to be a template for how we move forward."
Several senators said last week that a likely second act to Shaheen-Portman could be a pair of bills to promote hydropower that overwhelmingly passed the House earlier this year (E&E Daily, July 11). Wyden has also said he is interested in pursuing legislation aimed at fully harnessing the natural gas boom and has spoken often about his desire to provide parity in the treatment of various energy sources through the tax code in the context of comprehensive reform.
"My hope is that we move forward on the energy efficiency and we will see other energy bills follow," Murkowski told E&E Daily last week.
Whether potential momentum on energy legislation translates into a renewed climate bill push remains unlikely.
An environmentalist lobbying on behalf of the bill, who was granted anonymity to speak freely, acknowledged that Shaheen-Portman's ambitions were relatively narrow compared to what was needed to confront climate change but said that it was perhaps the best that could be hoped for out of a sharply divided Congress.
Besides, this source said, greens can take some relief from President Obama's recently outlined plan to implement new regulations addressing the issue, on which he "has some room to run, based on the law."
The World Resources Institute, a climate-focused think tank, last week published a brief analysis examining how much the bill would aid progress toward the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020.
The analysis pointed to a scenario modeled by the Energy Information Administration finding that aggressive efficiency measures in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors -- those targeted by Shaheen-Portman -- could get the United States about halfway to that goal. However, the bill "is not likely to achieve" as many emissions reductions because many of its programs are voluntary.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who sponsored the cap-and-trade bill that passed the House in 2009 before withering in the Senate the following year, was blunt in his assessment of the broader implications of the efficiency push.
"Comprehensive energy policy is something the Congress is not capable of doing at the moment," he said in a recent interview, placing the blame at the feet of House Republicans who question climate science. "In the meantime, the administration is acting ... that will help a lot. And if the Congress can do some modest things like greater efficiency, that will help, too."
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