Friday, December 7, 2007

Energy bill will need extra support in Senate this week

Greens Take Heart at Final Energy Bill
By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Report

Thursday 06 December 2007

When the Democrats took the helm of Congress last January, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed to make energy independence a top priority. Democrats will "energize America," she said, and get the country off of imported oil.

Last summer, both houses of Congress passed energy bills oriented toward increasing energy efficiency and boosting renewable power and biofuels. But there were major differences between the House and Senate versions: The House version had no Corporate Average Fuel Economy program (CAFE) car mileage mandate due to Michigan Rep. John Dingell, (an auto industry champion), and the Senate version had no Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) due to strong opposition from Senate Republicans. Green-leaning energy advocates and environmentalists wanted both mandates in a final bill.

The Democratic leadership had a job in front of them to reconcile these two versions and get a final bill to the floor, especially since Senate Republicans refused to appoint a conference committee. But it appears they have finally done it. And not only that, it is a bill many greens think is worth supporting.

Just a few weeks ago, the chances of Democrats bringing a strong bill to a vote looked slim. Before Thanksgiving, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that to smooth the way toward passing a bill by Christmas, they would drop the RES. Advocates for renewable energy reacted strongly, calling the move a "lump of coal" in their Christmas stocking.

The final bill will now include a 35 mpg CAFE standard, an RES of 15 percent, and 21 billion dollars of investment in the renewable energy economy.

Among other things, the 21 billion dollars will fund production tax credits for solar and wind power over a four-year period; it will fund research and development programs for renewable energy and job training programs for solar power installers; and it will fund individual tax credits for solar energy, home weatherization and purchase of fuel efficient vehicles like plug-in hybrid cars.

Some greens were positively bubbly about the turn of events. Dave Roberts, a writer at the green online magazine Grist said, "Thanks to the persistence of Nancy Pelosi (and others), the energy bill has been almost entirely restored to its original strength ... A tip of the hat to you, Madame Speaker. You are restoring my faith."

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have literally declared war on the bill. Sen. Pete Domenici said, "If it comes over here, we have no alternative but to have war." In other words, a filibuster. And President Bush has warned he is likely to veto the bill if it does pass the Senate.

Senate Republicans have drawn the line on two provisions: the Renewable Electricity Standard and the $21 billion tax package that will fund the bill, especially the $13.5 billion in higher taxes on oil companies. Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, of Texas, was the one who put a hold on the bill back in October, preventing the appointment of a conference committee. She called the tax increase "discrimination against one industry." Hutchison received $2,029,825 in contributions from the oil and gas industries in 2006.

Tyson Slocum, of Public Citizen, thinks taxing the oil industry is a sensible way to fund renewable energy. He points out most of the 13.8 billion dollars in oil industry tax breaks the energy bill would repeal were awarded very recently, in 2004 and 2005, at a time when the oil industry was making record profits.

The biggest tax break for the oil industry, about 10 billion dollars, came in 2004 when the World Trade Organization found Boeing had been receiving tax breaks for airplanes it manufactured for export. As a result, the US government rewrote its tax rules and created an economy-wide tax break for US manufacturers. The oil lobby made sure that, in that process, oil and gas exploration got defined as "manufacturing."

Slocom said, "We are not talking about a manufacturing tax break for processing oil in a refinery, just for finding and pulling a barrel of oil out of the earth."

Scott Sklar, a solar energy industry lobbyist, also favors the Democrats' tax strategy. He compared the current energy bill to the Energy Policy Act of 2005: "The 2005 Energy Policy Act cost 14 billion dollars and 8 billion of that went to subsidize oil, coal, gas and utilities. It was paid for by cutting low income health programs. Poor people paid for the oil subsidies."

Tyson Slocum was pleased the 50 billion dollars in loan guarantees for new nuclear plants passed in the Senate version last summer have now been dropped.

When asked how he would rate the final version of the energy bill, Slocom said he would give it a seven out of ten. One of the things keeping it from being a ten was "inadequate money for household support to move to greater energy efficiency." For instance, although the bill doubles the solar energy tax credit from $2000 to $4000, since the cost of a complete solar electric system is upwards of $20,000, only the affluent will be able to take advantage of it.

After cautioning that changes could still be made at the last minute that might reduce his support, Slocum said, "It is a fine first step to a renewable energy future. Not as big as it could be, but it is a step in the right direction."

So, what caused the turnaround from the dark days before the Thanksgiving recess, when it looked as though the Democrats would disappoint green expectations for the bill?

Scott Sklar credits an outpouring of grassroots pressure. But also, he said, "Nancy Pelosi, in her heart, loves this stuff. The Democrats decided to draw a line no matter what happens."

When contacted on Wednesday, Pelosi's office said the House vote would take place on Thursday. However, other sources predicted it would slip until Friday evening or even until next week. Harry Reid has promised the Senate will take it up as soon as it passes the House.

Kelpie Wilson is Truthout's environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry. She is the author of "Primal Tears," an eco-thriller about a hybrid human-bonobo girl. Greg Bear, author of "Darwin's Radio," says: "'Primal Tears' is primal storytelling, thoughtful and passionate. Kelpie Wilson wonderfully expands our definitions of human and family. Read Leslie Thatcher's review of Kelpie Wilson's novel "Primal Tears."

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