It’s all about power

—Dr. Robert Peltier, PE Editor-in-Chief

The Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act (L-W) that proposes to cut carbon emissions by two-thirds by 2050 was delivered stillborn on the Senate floor in early June, as expected. Faced with public outcry over record-high gasoline prices, no senator was able to breathe life back into a bill that is estimated to cost the economy $6 trillion through 2030. In the end, proponents of the bill deferred L-W until next year under a procedural vote rather than admit defeat. Mark Twain aptly described such a decision as “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.”

Senate sponsors of the bill appeared disorganized and unprepared to answer critics’ charges that this bill will drive our already soaring energy costs even higher. The lackluster debates also failed miserably to persuade the American people that passage of this bill is essential when sharply rising unemployment, energy, and food prices are issues that hit closer to home. It was the wrong legislation debated at the wrong time. In the end, its sponsors were able to patch together only 48 of the 60 votes required to overcome a Republican filibuster and force a vote.

Dueling analyses

The number of “authoritative” reports and hyped press releases circulating during the unusually short debate was mind-numbing and of little help in understanding the issues. Here are a few examples:

  • The “progressive think tank” Center for American Progress Action Fund noted that, “Once again President Bush acted as big-oil lobbyist in chief to help block debate over the Lieberman-Warner [bill].” Great hyperbole, but just another outspoken regulatory policy group that knows so little about our industry: The U.S. generates only about 1% of its power by burning oil, so I fail to see the connection between carbon controls and big-oil interests. And Bush controlling the Senate debate? Get real.
  • The Natural Resources Defense Council responded to criticisms of the bill’s costs by reporting the results of an internally funded study. Its results are fanciful—the “do nothing option will cost our economy $3.8 trillion annually by 2100 in today’s dollars”—and are followed by the inevitable: “The report’s findings are undeniable—we must act now.”
  • Wood Mackenzie, an international energy research and consulting firm, concluded that L-W “will raise natural gas prices by up to 90% and will negatively impact the economy $2.8 trillion through 2030.”
  • The conservative National Association of Manufacturers hyped the results of its study that concluded L-W would cause “national employment losses of up to 4 million jobs, electricity prices increases of up to 120%, gasoline price increases of up to 145%, and a loss of household income of up to $6,752 per year.”

If such pronouncements were presented in a criminal court, a jury would surely find that there is more than a reasonable doubt about the bill’s impact on our economy and citizens— no matter how flawed these and many other similar studies are. Congress owes us a thorough and comprehensive public debate on the 491-page L-W bill—not just a cursory debate punctuated by a quick vote that’s followed by senators hitting the campaign trail strutting their newfound environmental cred.

Expect a sequel

L-W Part II is inevitable, but it will have a less-predicable result. Presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama said they support L-W (see p. 88 for an overview of the candidates’ views on energy policy), and one of these two senators will sit in the Oval Office come January, when a retooled L-W is brought before the 111th Congress. Also consider that next year Democrats may hold as many as 58 Senate seats; Senate rules require 60 votes to close debate and move to a vote, so expect the do-over about this time next year.

Power over power

Affordable, reliable, and available electricity is the lifeblood of this country, fueling both the economy and individual opportunity. Roy Innis, national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, pointed to the latter fact in a fiery March 19 speech to the New York City Climate Conference. Innis called affordable energy “an indispensable but neglected civil right.” He eloquently characterized this climate change legislation as “usher[ing] in a new era of energy Jim Crow laws.” His remarks are provocative, but few dispute that large surges in energy prices will be disproportionately felt by those who can least afford it.

My personal opinion is that L-W has little to do with saving the planet or reducing carbon emissions. Misguided legislation, like L-W, is often born of a desire to enhance political and economic power. In this case, a Republican and Independent saw an opportunity to win points for being “responsive” to climate change concerns. That their bill was overflowing with unpalatable (and perhaps unintended) consequences, was of no concern to them.

It may be giving too much credit to the presidential candidates to say that Obama and McCain were wise to be absent for the vote on L-W. Now they can argue that they favor climate change legislation—but something more finely tuned than their colleagues recently proposed.

Those sitting in Congress and the White House next year will have the power to shape the fate of power politics in this country for decades to come. The outcome depends on how they tackle climate change legislation. Let’s hope they know the difference between oil and gas.