Energy Policy

CAP's Weiss discusses Senate's new policy strategy

With the Senate making a major shift on the direction of climate and energy policy last week, what are the prospects for passing legislation this year? During today's OnPoint, Daniel Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, gives his take on the Senate's new, narrower energy package. He also discusses the role the White House may play in the negotiations.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Daniel Weiss, senior fellow and director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress. Dan, thanks for coming back on the show.

Daniel Weiss: Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: Dan, a major shift in direction on energy and climate coming out of the Senate last week. Senator Reid has been working on a much narrower energy bill that excludes a renewable electricity standard and also a cap and trade. Who's to blame for this shift?

Daniel Weiss: Well, basically, you had enough support in the Senate to get a majority, a thin majority to vote for reducing global warming pollution, but we didn't have a super majority of 60 votes, which, as you know, is what's required to do anything in the Senate, even declare, let's say, national saxophone month or what have you. And so because of that a minority of senators, pretty much the entire Republican caucus plus a handful of Democrats were able to stop something that is still very popular in the polls. And the recent Washington Post poll showed more support for regulations on global warming pollution in June of 2010 than in December of 2009. And so it's not that there was a great public outcry against it, it was that conservatives in the Senate, primarily Republicans with some Democrats, prevented progress.

Monica Trauzzi: But do you believe that there were more votes this time around on cap and trade than there have been in previous years, more than 35, more than 40?

Daniel Weiss: Absolutely, yes. I do believe that there would have been more votes had we actually gotten a chance to take a vote, but Senator Reid, with a short calendar, basically said, look, we're not even near 60 votes. We're like in the low 50s, which means although we may have a majority, we don't have a super majority. And the reality is, is that almost no Republicans were willing to engage with Senators Kerry and Lieberman on their compromise American Power Act. Even Senator Graham, who did a great job in helping to put the bill together, pulled out of the debate. So, because of that, because of conservative opposition, because of opposition from the big oil companies and the dirty coal companies, Senator Reid did the only thing that was left to him, which was to bring up a very narrow energy bill, which is what he plans to do this week.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, so the lack of an RES is pretty significant because it's seen as a cornerstone piece of the energy puzzle. What's the logic for holding off on the RES and do you think that it might actually be squeezed in before a vote is made on this bill?

Daniel Weiss: Well, we hope a renewable electricity standard that will require utilities to use a certain percentage of renewable power is included in the bill that's brought to the floor. So far at least, that's not the signals that we're getting. However, we think it would be a very important step forward to require utilities to generate at least 15 percent of their electricity from wind, sun, geothermal and, like the House passed bill, require another 5 percent in demand reduction. So, we're having both renewable electricity getting a boost, as well as energy efficiency. Hopefully, that will be in the bill that is passed by the Senate, although that's not looking very likely right now.

Monica Trauzzi: And why he hasn't Senator Reid included it? What do you think the reasoning is?

Daniel Weiss: Well, you'll have to ask him, but my guess is there's probably not 60 votes for it. As I said a couple of minutes ago, the Senate works on these super majority rules and, as long as they do, a handful of determined conservative senators, backed by big coal in this case, can jettison a proposal that's got 75 percent approval among the American people.

Monica Trauzzi: So, this new package, this narrower package, we haven't seen the final bill yet, but what surprises have we seen so far in terms of what's been omitted?

Daniel Weiss: Well, this bill is going to be very narrow and designed to do just a couple of things. First, it's going to respond to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It's going to help reorganize the agency that oversees offshore oil drilling. It will lift the liability cap on oil damages, oil spill liability from 75 million to hopefully no cap, but certainly it will be much higher than 75 million. In addition, it will include the Home Star Program, which creates incentives for homeowners to retrofit their homes to make them more energy-efficient. That will create 170,000 new jobs, it will save homeowners millions of dollars, and it will be the equivalent of taking more than half a million cars off the road in terms of its global warming pollution. In addition, it's likely to include the proposal to invest more in having trucks and buses use natural gas. We did a study that you can find at that estimates that this would save over a million barrels of oil a day by having trucks and buses use natural gas rather than diesel fuel. So, we think these are all important components, but it is no substitute for comprehensive clean energy legislation and it's certainly no substitute for reducing of global warming pollution.

Monica Trauzzi: Do you think this new package has the votes to pass?

Daniel Weiss: Senator Reid is an excellent vote counter and my guess is he will bring a bill to the floor that will be able to get the 60 votes despite solid opposition from Republicans and other conservatives. It's unfortunate that those are the rules we have to play with. Hopefully, they'll change those rules so that a concerted minority cannot block the public will in future Congresses.

Monica Trauzzi: Is this the end of cap and trade? Do you think this marks a significant change in the direction of the discussion on climate?

Daniel Weiss: I own think the change in direction. What it is, is that it is efforts to control global warming pollution has hit a brick wall and that brick wall is solid opposition from Republicans in the Senate. Without some Republican support it has no chance of passage. However, big utilities still support the concept. Some in the oil industry support the concept. It was invented by a Republican president, George H. W. Bush. It's a market-based approach, as opposed to a command-and-control approach. Instead what's going to happen now is that EPA is going to use its existing authority that's been granted to them under the Clean Air Act, under the Clean Air Act by Supreme Court, to enforce the law and begin to set global warming pollution limits that are going to be much less to the liking of big coal and big oil companies. That's the irony in all of this. Those that oppose the American Power Act by Senators Kerry and Lieberman are going to get something much less to their liking in that EPA is going to set standards for each individual sector of the economy, power plants, steel factories, etc.

Monica Trauzzi: And, to that end, do you think there will be another push to limit the authority that EPA has on this?

Daniel Weiss: There's certain to be continued efforts to overturn the Supreme Court and take away EPA's authority to reduce global warming pollution under the Clean Air Act. As I understand it, on Friday White House officials were quoted as saying that President Obama would certainly oppose those sorts of provisions. He's got to make that threat much more explicit and issue a formal veto threat against Senator Rockefeller's bill to delay by two years EPA's addressing this problem or any other efforts. And certainly in the next Congress we can expect, as EPA setting standards draws closer, we can expect pro big oil, pro dirty coal members of Congress to continue to propose this. President Obama has to vigorously oppose these efforts. The conservatives in Congress, or should I say the Senate, conservatives in the Senate didn't want the Senate to design a global warming reduction system that included a smooth transition for the affected industries, so now they're going to get everybody's second choice, our second choice, President Obama's second choice, Senator Kerry's second choice, which is to have EPA act in absence of congressional action.

Monica Trauzzi: You spoke about the need for a comprehensive energy policy. Do you expect that the president will get involved at some point and make a big push to get the Senate on track to that?

Daniel Weiss: Such an effort is probably going to have to wait until next year. It's not too late for the president to convene utilities, states, other stakeholders and some of the senators who are on the bubble and try and get an agreement at least on a cap on global warming pollution from utilities that could be introduced in September. That's what Senator Kerry said last week that he tried to do, but absent direct president involvement, it's hard to see how that succeeds and we're going to be sort of like not the president's favorite Chicago White Sox, but more like the Chicago Cubs, wait until next year.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we'll end it there on that note. Thank you for coming on the show again.

Daniel Weiss: Thank you, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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