Energy & Environmental Policy

Energy and Climate Legislation in the Senate: Hope Moving Forward

The energy and climate baton has been held by the Senate since last June, after the House passed their bill (H.R. 2454). Over the past several months, this baton has been carried by three senators:

Lieberman – an Independent from Connecticut
Kerry – a Democrat from Massachusetts (also the home state of Representative Markey, a primary author on the House bill)
Graham – a Republican from South Carolina

Their work has been a commendable effort – three individuals with significant differences in their basic political ideologies, working together to develop an energy and climate bill that each could live with. In a government that, from the outside looking in, still appears heavily entrenched in partisan politics, these three gentlemen’s efforts gave rise to the hope that we could – united as a country – successfully develop the legislation that will  lead our country to the sustainable energy future that will be key in our continued success as a world power.

Over the past two weeks, these hopes have been brought to a sharp precipice, first by the departure of Sen. Graham from the negotiating table and then by the Gulf Coast oil rig accident that has flooded the ocean with thousands of barrels of oil.  The first dropped supporters’ hopes as a nail in the coffin of a bi(tri)-partisan agreement for energy and climate legislation in 2010. The second has given the same group hope that, in the face of the real negative environmental impacts of our current dependence on oil, citizens will step up and demand that we protect our country’s resources. Perhaps we can pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation before midterm elections get into full swing.

Sen. Graham’s announcement that he would not continue his work on energy and climate legislation in the Senate was purportedly due to his belief that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was going to put immigration reform ahead of energy and climate on the legislative docket. Immigration reform has also been on the Democrats’ and President Obama’s agenda. But, until Arizona’s Gov. Jan Brewer put pen to paper last month, immigration reform had not been the top item on the congressional to-do list.

Her state’s controversial immigration law has drawn America’s fire, being called “hysterical nativism” that puts the conservative border state “at risk of becoming a police state.” At the same time, the law attracts support from 70% of Arizona residents, according to a recent poll, and appears to have the full support of the Tea Party movement. Regardless of your position on Arizona’s law, there is no doubt that it has heated up the push toward federal immigration policy reform. With this increasing pressure, Graham backed away from the energy and climate table, dashing the hopes of many supporters of this work.

At the same time that this immigration versus climate drama was unfolding, so too were the early stages of an environmental tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico. On April 22, ironically the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that had been on fire for 36 hours sank to the bottom of the sea. The resulting oil spill into the water would not be small, as initially predicted by BP (the current leasers of the rig), but would include at least three continuous leaks.

Perhaps worse than an oil spill, where the total volume of oil is known, these leaks have provided a continuous stream of oil to the tune of thousands of barrels per day. This sludge has already reached Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, devastating wildlife and habitats in spite of the Coast Guard’s admirable efforts. How to best stop these leaks and contain the oil is being debated, with consensus arising only with the statement that there will be significant negative environmental impact to our coastline, no matter what we do.

The silver lining to this disaster is the awareness that it has drawn to the negative impacts of offshore drilling. The oil industry has an impressive record when it comes to safety on their oil rigs and significant spills are rare occurrences. But drilling for oil is not without risks as clearly seen by this latest incident. It reminds us of what can happen when the oil we depend on to fuel our cars is let loose in our oceans.

What does this mean for energy and climate legislation? While I am saddened at the sight of the spreading oil slick in the Gulf, my hope has grown. This accident exemplifies the risks of our current energy scheme and so brings with it the possibility of carrying Sen. Graham back to the table, perhaps with his Republican colleagues. It gives new energy and life to the hope that we can come together as a nation to make the tough decisions that will ensure the future success of our country, without sacrificing our land, water and air.

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