Death of a Climate Bill

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

First things first:

Last Thursday, according to most accounts, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared comprehensive climate legislation to be as dead as the world’s climate-afflicted corals.

Or did he? On the same day, Reid also told Senate Democrats that real action on climate will wait until fall, and Senator Kerry expressed optimism that a post-November elections lame duck Congress – one full of dethroned Democrats with nothing to lose, presumably – would be emboldened to “take a risk.” Some Senate Democrats suggested that a Fall energy bill might include, perhaps as an amendment, a National Renewable Energy Standard that would mandate that all utilities in the U.S. derive at least 15% of their energy from renewables sources by 2020, but Reid dismissed the possibility. (Meanwhile, Oklahoma put its own RES into law.) Obama promised the fight was not over, as did blogger-statistician Nate Silverman, who thinks cap and trade is still viable as a source of government revenue.

There was plenty of blame to go around for failure of the bill, with targets including environmentalists, the President, Republicans, midterm elections, poor messaging, etc. Some environmentalists celebrated the death of the bill, which they argued was deeply flawed. Others contemplated reforming the Senate rules that mandate 60 votes for any contentious piece of legislation (because of the threat of filibuster) that had prevented its passage in the first place, but that doesn’t appear to be any more popular in the Senate than the climate bill itself.

Meanwhile, everyone with an alternative to cap and trade decided this was a teachable moment.

“How Many Showerheads Will $5 Billion Buy?”

Lost in the coverage of what didn’t happen was what is fairly likely to happen: passage of a much-diluted energy bill that provides a few key incentives. The first is conservation: $5 billion for efficiency retrofits of homes, with up to $8,000 in credits per home. Next, in an apparent nod to the Pickens Plan, natural gas-powered trucks, which are slated to get $3.8 billion. Electric vehicles get a $400 million boost. There’s also full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and, of course, measures to stick it to BP by retroactively eliminating the $75 million cap on liability for, e.g., the Deepwater Horizon spill. Only the oil spill related provision looks to be contested by Senate Republicans, who are concerned about its effects on smaller drilling operations. The whole thing is to be funded by a 49c / barrel tax on oil.

“Here Comes Some Old Fashioned Command and Control Climate Regulation”

Climate bill or no, the EPA retains the Supreme Court-directed power to regulate carbon as a pollutant. In the 5-10 years it usually takes environmental regulations to come into effect, anything can happen, but the executive director of the Columbia Earth Institute, for one, is convinced the results will be far more punitive of utilities than a climate bill would have been. A new report says that laws already on the books would allow the U.S. to almost meet its Copenhagen pledge of a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, but only if everyone tries really, really hard

Elsewhere, Cap’n Trade is Undaunted

Preliminary analysis of British Columbia’s two year old carbon tax (which is refunded directly to taxpayers) demonstrated economically neutral and climate-positive results. The Western Climate Initiative, which includes portions of the U.S., Canada and Mexico, announced a cap and trade scheme to go into effect in 2012. They projected it would be three times the size of the existing Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which includes Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

While Congress Fiddles…

Russia burns, with a record-breaking heatwave in Moscow, raging wildfires and knock-on effects including reduced or eliminated exports of wheat. A new study estimates that over the next 70 years up to a tenth of Mexico’s population could become climate refugees in the wake of agricultural collapse, sending them surging across the U.S. / Mexico border. A retired general asserted that a one meter sea level rise (which could occur as early as the end of this century) would create 35-40 million Bangladeshi refugees.

Water shortages will threaten 14 states by 2050, says one analysis, but water managers in some of the afflicted states pointed out that historical water rights and use in agriculture are also a problem.

The new trade route opened up by a thawing arctic won’t allow polar waters to mop up any more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, because those waters are already saturated. Scientists project recovery from the resulting ocean acidification on a scale of tens of thousands of years.

Scientific American declared that hot is the new black, last Winter notwithstanding, noting that “there have been exactly zero months since February 1985 with average temperatures below those for the entire 20th century.” A new report from the National Research Council reminds us that the average temperature of the planet for the next several thousand years will be determined this century.

Post-Terrorism DOD: Defending the Earth From the Sun

A group of 15 retired admirals and generals declared U.S. energy policy a serious threat to the nation’s economic and national security, and proposed as a solution the procurement might and research experience of the Department of Defense.

Some of that innovation might resemble Siemen’s massive new 10 megawatt wind turbines with hubs on the ground rather than in the air, none of which will be ready in time for the just-commenced construction of the nation’s largest wind farm in the Mojave desert. The commissioning utility will likely be dependent on enormous banks of batteries until a better storage mechanism comes along or Google simply buys all the power. Not to be outdone, Chicago announced the world’s largest urban solar farm.

Fresh analyses of the cost-effectiveness of nuclear power painted a grim picture.

A plugin hybrid Chevy Volt will cost $41,000 before government rebates, which might not compare favorably with the price of an all-electric Nissan Leaf, but at least it’s less than an electric Porsche Boxter. All three will be able to charge up anywhere in the country, as long as that country is Iceland. Ford and Chevy made significant headway on efficiency with conventional internal combustion engines.

Meanwhile, In The World’s Leading Producer of Greenhouse Gases

One-quarter of China’s fresh water is so polluted that it is unfit even for industrial use, environmental accidents in the country doubled since last year, and the its leadership officially denied that it is now the world’s top user of energy. On the same day Reid announced the death of the climate bill, China announced the launch of a massive renewable energy program, including a cap and trade system.

As Jonathan Watts, Beijing-based Asia environment correspondent for the Guardian opined:

“The big contrast between China and the United States, particularly in renewable energy for instance, is that China is trapped by momentum, it has to keep moving forward. By contrast, the US is trapped by inertia – it’s trying to protect what it already has. This is also why China is in a better position to become a green superpower. “