US climate bill on ice for remainder of Obama’s first term while a bipartisan push for a Renewable Energy Standard mounts

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Publish date: September 29, 2010

Written by: Jonathan Temple

WASHINGTON – The much sought after US climate bill has been mothballed for the remainder of President Barack Obama’s first term in office, said Senate Energy and National Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman.

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans alike have promised to make a push for a renewable energy standard (RES) in the US, and the State of California is forging a standard of its own, saying it will raise its renewable energy portfolio standard to 33 percent by 2020.

California’s is a tack that over half of US state legislatures are taking as a result of the stalled federal climate bill.

Climate bill dead for Obama’s first term says Bingaman

Speaking last week at a conference hosted by Reuters, Bingaman, a Democratic Senator from New Mexico, said that the failure to pass climate legislation while the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress meant that the plans would have to be shelved for the rest of Obama’s first term in office.

“I don’t see a comprehensive bill going anywhere in the next two years,” he said, according to Reuters. “I’d be surprised if that kind of comprehensive climate and energy bill could pass both houses of Congress in the next Congress, since they’ve been unable to pass in this Congress.”

Bingaman is not alone in expressing scepticism over the prospects for climate legislation with pundits predicting that anticipated Democrat losses during Congress’s mid-term elections on November 4th will make it impossible for the Obama administration to force through plans that include a cap-and-trade mechanism.

However, Bingaman said that while he was pessimistic about the prospects for climate legislation, he was confident he could secure support needed for a national Renewable Energy Standard (RES) bill, which he unveiled last week.

“I do think there are a variety of areas where we have agreement and the RES is one of those,” Bingaman told the Reuters gathering, reiterating his view that the bill could attract 60 Senate votes and perhaps pass during the session between the mid-term elections and the end of the year.

The failure to pass a climate bill will increase pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce carbon emissions under the existing Clean Air Act – a strategy that the Obama administration originally stowed away as its “plan B” should the Senate fail to act on he climate bill.

However, as Bellona President Frederic Hauge predicted early this year, EPA’s plans to tackle emissions from vehicles, power plants and industrial sites are already subject to numerous legal challenges and this battle is likely to take years to progress through the US legal system.

It remains unclear how the US failure to pass comprehensive climate legislation will affect American clout in the upcoming COP16 UN climate negotiations in Cancun, Mexico this December. The US delegation to last year’s COP15 UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen heavily promulgated the notion they would return to the table in Cancun this year with a comprehensive climate bill already passed.

Obama promises climate action on Capitol Hill

In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, President Obama has vowed to throw his weight behind climate legislation but he acknowledged that broad legislation may now be off the table. .

While all embracing energy legislation may scratched from the agenda for the foreseeable future, Congress is likely to tackle bit and pieces. As President Obama has said, “we may have to do it in chunks.”

The President blamed various domestic issues for the failure to pass legislation during his first two years. “It is very hard to make progress on these issues in the midst of a huge economic crisis” he said. “That diverted attention from what I consider to be an urgent priority.”

Congress’s appetite for broad climate legislation is not likely to improve next year when the Republicans are expected to make gains in both the House and the Senate.

“We don’t need a thousand-page, complex bill with special deals in it in order to make progress on energy,” Maine’s Republican Senator Susan Collins said last week in remarks reported in US media.

“We don’t do ‘comprehensive’ well,” she said.

Collins urged her Senate colleagues to focus on smaller bills that could command consensus such as measures promoting electric vehicles, a renewable electricity standard and renewable-energy production tax credits.

US Renewable Energy Standard

In the absence of comprehensive legislation, Senators Bingaman and Kansas Republican Sam Brownback have introduced legislation proposing a nationwide renewable energy standard that would require US energy firms to produce 15 percent of their electricity from renewable energy by 2021 although states would be allowed to meet up to a quarter of the target using energy efficiency measures.

The bill represents the last chance for Democrats to pass some form of energy legislation ahead of the mid term elections. It is not the first time that a national renewable energy standard has been proposed in the USA – all previous attempts have failed because individual states resist the intervention of the federal government in what is considered a state issue.

California introduces higher renewable standard

But it is not as if the US has no renewable energy production. Altogether, 33 of the 50 US states have some sort of renewable energy target

Only last week, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) raised the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard to 33 percent by 2020 and opened the door to clean power imported from other states. A phased-in approach will be applied to reach California’s targets, with 20 percent in 2012, 24 percent in 2017, 28 percent in 2019 and 33 percent by 2020.

Any electricity provider selling less than 200,000 megawatt-hours per year will only be subject to reporting requirements. CARB says the rules will reduce greenhouse gases about 13 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year in 2020.

Jonathan Temple is the Director of Bellona USA