Energy bill takes fatal blow before Congress adjourns for summer as oil spill efforts soldier on

wikimedia commons

Publish date: August 4, 2010

Written by: Jonathan Temple

WASHINGTON – At the end of last week, the Senate abandoned efforts to put together a comprehensive energy bill that would have limited greenhouse gas emissions, delivering a fatal blow to a proposal most Democrats supported and US President Barack Obama campaigned on.

One of the major components of this failure is also the downfall, for this year at least, of a cap and trade bill for the United States. Obama will therefore revert to a back-up plan of having the US Environmental Protection Agency regulate carbon individually for each power plant and factory that emits greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide.

Yet, even with these setbacks, US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern said the US position for the approaching Cancun UN climate talks in December remains effectively unchanged, saying that the America still stands behind the promised emissions cuts it made a the Copenhagen UN climate summit last December.  

On a more cautiously upbeat note, Obama announced Wednesday that the “long battle” with the Deepwater Horizon spill is nearing an end, based on government reports lead by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, which fixed the rate of oil left in the Gulf of Mexico at 26 to 31 percent of what had been spilled since the April 20 blowout.

Legislatively, however, the rest of the summer is expected to be a quiet one with Congress adjourning on Friday, August 6th to return in September.

Congress fails to pass cap-and-trade legislation

At the end of last week, the Senate abandoned efforts to put together a comprehensive energy bill that would have limited greenhouse gas emissions, delivering a fatal blow to a proposal most Democrats supported and President Obama campaigned on. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the plug on the proposed legislation after he concluded that the supporters of the legislation could only muster 59 votes, one short of the 60 required to guarantee passage.

“I had to make a decision. Here’s the decision I made,” Reid told reporters after meeting privately with the Senate’s 59 Democrats. “We know we don’t have the votes.”

The decision caused consternation among environmental groups and renewable energy supporters who see a rare opportunity slipping away. Democrats are at risk of losing their majority in the House and perhaps several seats in the Senate during the midterm elections in November. “It’s time for all of us to make our voices heard. Over the (summer) recess, we must deliver a message to senators: ‘Do your job!’’’ David Hawkins, director of climate programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “Don’t fail us. Don’t fail our children. Don’t come home again without having tackled these real and present dangers.”

Carol Browner, Obama’s top adviser on energy and climate, made it clear that the White House will continue to pressure lawmakers with its biggest stick: US EPA regulations on carbon that are poised to take effect in January. Those rules could be much more rigorous than legislation designed by Congress to soften the economic impact on electricity producers and other businesses.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters said it is still possible that the Senate could vote on climate legislation in autumn but he was one of few optimists. So Reid’s decision was made for him, say colleagues and observers, who saw the effort to pass climate legislation slow down in a year plagued by a weak economy and high unemployment in the US. Other Democratic senators supported Senator Reid’s decision to pull the bill from consideration. “I think the majority leader is realistic, and he is pragmatic,” said Senator Mark Udall (D- Colorado). “Given the time constraints, this is probably a realistic judgment on his part,” said Senator Jeff Bingaman (D- New Mexico).

US cap-and-trade legislation may be revived but not this year.

EPA writes rules to regulate carbon.

The failure of Congress to pass a cap-and-trade bill is A disappointmet for the administration. President Obama had campaigned on the issue in 2008 and with majorities in the House and the Senate, things seemed set for a successful passage of a bill.

But things haven’t worked out. So President Obama will go to plan B: The EPA will regulate carbon emissions factory by factory, power plant by power plant. It will be unwieldy, expensive and unpopular. But for now it’s the only game in town. Starting in January 2011, under EPA rules, new permits will require the largest factories and power plants to show that they have installed the “best available” technology to reduce emissions. These are modest steps compared to what legislation might have called for. But it’s a start. Yet, even before they have been implemented, the opponents of such measures are lining up in court to try to prevent or delay them.

Stern says the US bargaining position for Cancun remains unchanged
In an interview with Climatewire, Stern said that the US still stands by its promise to slash global warming pollution this year. Stern said that the Obama administration is “not backing away” from its Copenhagen pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and more thereafter.

Stern maintained that while US legislation cutting carbon is critical, its absence does not change the dynamics for 2010.

“The fact that we don’t have it right now will certainly affect the atmospherics of the negotiations, but the fundamentals of it aren’t different,” Stern said. He continued “ Somebody asked me the other day, ‘What is the US going to put on the table?’ There’s nothing else to put on the table. We’ve got it on the table. The President has made it perfectly clear that he’s committed to energy and climate legislation, and we will press on,” he said.

Gulf Oil Spill

On Tuesday, BP began the process of pumping mud into the blown out Macondo well. This is not a quick operation by design, pumping mud into the well at a rate of about 2 barrels per minute. Engineers have calculated that about 2000 barrels will be needed to fill the well.

President Obama and several of his top advisers expressed cautious optimism yesterday about the prospects of permanently sealing BP’s leaking well.

“The long battle to stop the leak and contain the oil is finally close to coming to an end, and we are very pleased by that,” Obama said at the start of a speech to the AFL-CIO. The president’s remarks came after BP announced on August 4th that its so-called “static kill” effort to hold back the flow of oil was successful. Obama said this was “welcome news”. On the same day, US government scientists released a report showing the majority of the spilled oil has been dispersed or contained. This was reported yesterday by Bellona’s Charles Digges.

The report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says three-quarters of the 206 million gallons of oil that gushed into the Gulf this summer has evaporated, dispersed or otherwise been captured. The rest, the report says, is so diluted it will pose little harm, according to a NOAA’s press release.

President Obama’s advisers welcomed the news as well. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said “the bottom line here is we can account for all but 26 percent of the oil, and of that, much of that is in the process of being degraded and cleaned up on the shore.” Leader of the recovery effort retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen told reporters at the White House that “the last 24 hours have been fairly consequential in the lifecycle of this response.” Carol Browner agreed with Allen. “It’s been an interesting 24 hours. We’re making real progress in getting this well closed.” Allen added “the job will not be complete until we finish the relief well.” This is expected to take a few more weeks.

Jonathan Temple is the director of Bellona USA