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Environmentalists Size Up Climate Change Legislation’s Odds Against a More Conservative Congress


Protesters advocate for climate change legislation in front of the Capitol. (Flickr/UOPowerShift09)

This year, Congress passed the most ambitious agenda in recent memory, overhauling how the nation regulates banks and financial products and dramatically reforming the health-care system. President Obama had hoped to add comprehensive energy legislation — with a cap-and-trade program — to that list, but the Senate failed to move even a slimmed-down version of the bill this summer.

[Environment1] Environmentalists are increasingly realistic about the dwindling chances for ambitious legislation, despite a recent pledge by Obama to move a comprehensive energy bill in 2011. Next session, they fear, Congress will be more conservative, whether Republicans control either house or not. As a result, environmentalists hope that Senate Democrats might try to move energy bills during the crowded lame-duck session. And, they are carefully watching key races, to see how next year’s Congress might deal with environmental priorities.

Dan Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, says the fate of energy and climate legislation will be decided on Nov. 2. “Depending on what happens on Election Day, during the lame duck there could be a strong push by [Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)] to not do anything because Republicans picked up more members,” Weiss says, noting that Democrats can’t pass any bill without a “dedicated cadre of Republicans.”

He said he is pleased with Obama’s promise to push for a bill next year, but said it is mostly out of the president’s hands. “I think that remains to be determined based on who gains seats in the mid-terms,” Weiss says. “One of the challenges is that some climate deniers could be elected.”

Weiss points to a list of six close Senate races that could have climate change implications, a list put together by the Wonk Room. “Even if half of them get elected, it’s going to be much more difficult to do anything in the Senate,” Weiss says.

Included on that list is the Senate race in Pennsylvania, where Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) is trailing in the polls behind Pat Toomey. The Colorado Senate race is another one to watch, Weiss says, where Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) is behind his Republican challenger, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck. Both Buck and Toomey have been named to the League of Conservation Voters’ “Dirty Dozen” list for, among other things, their opposition to comprehensive climate change legislation. The Cook Political Report predicts a “7 to 9 seat net gain for Republicans” in the Senate.

Obama, speaking with Rolling Stone, said that it may be best to pass energy and climate legislation in chunks rather than as one big, comprehensive bill. There are a number of pieces floating around the Senate that environmentalists are hoping to move in the coming months.

The lowest hanging fruit are the less-controversial proposals, like a bill to provide incentives for natural gas and electric vehicles. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) this week filed cloture for the bill, setting an initial vote for Nov. 17. Electric vehicle advocates say they are confident the bill can pass because it has gained support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

At the same time, Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kans.) have offered renewable energy standard legislation that would mandate 15 percent of the country’s electricity come from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2021. The proposal has been co-sponsored by 33 lawmakers, including at least four Republicans. One renewable energy advocate closely involved in efforts to move the RES who is not authorized to speak on the record says backers of the bill remains “laser-focused on the lame duck.”

“The votes are there for the RES. All that’s needed is floor time. And Senate leadership — Reid, Durbin, Schumer, Dorgan and Stabenow – are co-sponsors,” the RES advocate says. Reid has said he won’t bring the bill to the floor until lawmakers show him it can pass.

In a move that could complicate efforts to move an RES, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is circulating a so-called “clean energy standard” bill that would include in the mandate nuclear and “clean coal” technology, something that liberal Democrats say they can’t support. Graham’s bill may throw a wrench in plans for passage of an RES this year and next year, as Republicans could be lured away from supporting the Bingaman proposal in favor of Graham’s. The RES advocate dismisses the Graham bill as a distraction that could not garner 60 votes in the Senate.

In addition, Bingaman, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), ranking member on the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, have introduced an energy tax incentives package they want to move before the end of the year.

Looming over all of this are efforts to respond to the Gulf oil spill. While the House has passed its version of an oil spill response bill, the Senate has been unable to move forward. The main flash continues to be whether an oil company responsible for a spill should pay for all of the resulting economic damages. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) proposed legislation making oil companies 100 percent liable for the damages from a spill. Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska), both from drilling states, argued that full liability will keep small- and medium-sized oil companies from drilling in the Gulf of Mexico because they would not be able to insure against the potential damages.

Staff from the lawmakers’ offices have been negotiating for more than a month and Senate sources familiar with the conversations say they are nearing a compromise that would establish a mutual insurance pool into which all oil companies drilling in the Gulf would pay. In the event of a spill, oil companies would be responsible for much of the damages, but the insurance pool would cover some of the costs.

Environmentalists are livid at the slow progress of oil spill legislation in the Senate. Bob Deans, federal communications director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says, “The country expects the Senate to act on this. We had a national disaster. Every American expects the Senate to act on this.”

And Weiss, of the Center for American Progress, points to oil industry lobbying as one reason the bill may have been slowed down. Though he says he can’t “demonstrate causality,” he adds, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

Still, environmentalists say they are going to be lobbying for action when the Senate returns in November, despite warnings from Senate leadership that there may not be enough time to move major energy provisions in the lame duck.

“The Senate is in a state of paralysis that’s hurting our economy and it has to end. The next opportunity for that to happen is when senators come back from the elections,” says Franz Matzner, climate center legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That’s the next opportunity to go forward. That opportunity should be seized.”

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