Mighty Winds A-Blowin’

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

First Things First: A high-stakes political drama unfolded after the Senate Majority Leader announced the body would consider immigration reform ahead of anticipated climate legislation. The surprise political move caused a key Republican to bolt the tri-partisan effort to craft a federal climate program. The episode has greatly intensified doubts that the U.S. will pass a climate bill this year.

Two developments in offshore energy this week competed for both attention and nothing less than–cue Carmina Burana–the future itself.

Tough Climate in ‘Battle Born State’: Nevada state politics sometimes have an outsized influence on federal energy debates. That’s been true since at least 1987, when Congress designated Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the geological storage site for America’s nuclear reactor waste.

With Nevadan Sen. Harry Reid in charge of the U.S. Senate, and now embroiled in a competitive re-election campaign, Nevada’s voice is speaking louder than ever. Last year, the White House eliminated funding to develop the Yucca Mountain facility. And state political pressures led to Reid’s announcement last week that the Senate will undertake an immigration overhaul before parsing climate legislation.

In response, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) threatened to pull out of intense, months-long work on climate policy with colleagues Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Reports up to last weekend had cast the trio as upbeat, with momentum, as they negotiated with business and advocacy groups to support their effort.

Things fell apart Saturday when Graham released a blistering public letter on the matter, charging that the Democratic leadership put the immigration issue forward in “a hurried, panicked manner”:

This has destroyed my confidence that there will be a serious commitment and focus to move energy legislation this year. All of the key players, particularly leadership, have to want this debate as much as we do. This is clearly not the case. I am very disappointed with this turn of events and believe their decision flies in the face of commitments made weeks ago to Senators Kerry, Lieberman and me. I deeply regret that election year politics will impede, if not derail, our efforts to make our nation energy independent.

Graham pulled out of a Monday press conference when he would have released the bill he co-wrote with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Strike That. Reverse It: Reid reversed himself on Wednesday, pointing out that it makes sense to pursue climate legislation first since there’s already a bill. That’s not the case for immigration, which exploded onto the scene after a new Arizona law empowered police to ask anyone for U.S. residency documents.

Despite the potentially mortal political damage inflicted on their effort, the three senators have released a description of their bill to the Environmental Protection Agency, where researchers will perform economic analysis on it in the next several weeks. The Los Angeles Times’ Jim Tankersley sees two implications for this move: It will provide useful input for senators, who need such an assessment before considering the bill; and it suggests that, in the absence of any other signals, it’s theoretically possible for the legislators to resolve their differences and get back to work. An energy-industry funded think tank, the Institute for Energy Research, has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the bill from EPA, since it has not been released publicly.

Getting Down to Business (or at Least Trying): The legislative stasis frustrates new markets and companies deciding whether they should or must participate in said markets. Some investors have been hoping a federal bill will define a voluntary market for carbon credits. It works like this: There would be many opportunities for emission reductions beyond mandatory efforts. Voluntary actions would generate carbon credits that large industrial companies can buy to offset their emissions (hence the name “offsets”).

With the climate bill comatose, high-profile news media are beginning to, uh, focus in depth on what the policy actually is and how long it has been around (NYT, NPR).

A World of Indecision: Clearly, the U.S. Senate is currently having trouble introducing legislation, to say nothing of passing it. And enacting legislation may not be the only hurdle, if California is an example. A ballot initiative would, if passed, suspend the bill until unemployment, currently 12 percent, falls below 5.5 percent and stays there for a year. The leading gubernatorial candidate, Republican Meg Whitman, has said she would put central elements of the state’s 2006 climate law on hold for a year. (Democrat Jerry Brown would let it be.)

International negotiations look no more productive. Officials from the BASIC countries–Brazil, South Africa, India, China–met in Cape Town this week. They called for the completion of a legally binding global climate treaty by this year’s 16th Conference of Parties (COP) meeting in Cancun, Mexico, or at the latest COP-17 in Cape Town. The German news magazine Der Spiegel reported this week that “Chancellor Angela Merkel is quietly moving away from her goal of a binding agreement on limiting climate change to 2 degrees Celsius.” Climate Post doesn’t like to make predictions, but will offer the observation that the COP-16 website is still under construction.

Anyone looking for a sign of tranquility this week in the energy and climate space might have to look up the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The oversight agency identified more than half a dozen kinds of contracts that deserve additional regulatory scrutiny–but the Chicago Climate Exchange’s contract for carbon credits wasn’t one of them.

American Companies Offshoring Jobs: Nine years after it was first proposed, Cape Wind Associates has won federal approval to build 130 wind turbines about five miles off the coast of Cape Cod. The fight pitted seaside private landowners and Indian tribes against developers and environmental activists. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the project will usher in wind power development all along the East Coast.

The specter of windmills rising in Nantucket Sound offers an alternative image to those of an oil rig collapsing into the Gulf of Mexico. Federal and BP company officials upped their estimate of the oil leaking from the wreck, from 1,000 barrels a day to as much as 5,000 barrels. Satellites have captured dramatic images of the spill heading toward the ecologically delicate Mississippi Delta.

Dept. of Bad Timing: The Minerals Management Service, an office in the Interior Department, postponed its 2010 Offshore Industry Safety Awards event, planned for next week.

Breakthrough in Commuter Transportation Policy?: Big legislative initiatives mean one thing to Hill staffers and the armies of lobbyists, journalists, and other observers peeking over their shoulders: Togetherness. No one wants to miss anything important. Reporters can be particularly conscientious, like Darren Samelsohn of Greenwire, who is as close as any journalist to ticking climate-related events in the Capitol.  Wednesday John Kerry posted to his Twitter stream: “Maybe Darren Samuelsohn and I should start carpooling, he’s my shadow in capitol [sic].”

Climate Post Readers, Meet Climate Desk Readers…: Several weeks ago, a consortium of publications launched the Climate Desk, a collaborative exploration of “the impact–human, environmental, economic, and political–of a changing climate.” The project brings together journalists from the Atlantic, Wired, Slate, Grist, Mother Jones, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and PBS’s Need to Know. Climate Desk will now also pick up Climate Post when it publishes “Thursdays at three.”

Climate Post (about), just shy of its first birthday, began as an attempt to reconcile two realities: People like to be informed but have very little time, and climate change is a monstrously vast sea of complexity involving many overlapping, interlocking scientific disciplines, technologies, economics, human behaviors and social systems, diplomacy, and heaven knows, politics. We try to be one-stop shopping for all you interested-but-busy people.

We’re a project of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. Click for more on Climate Post, the Nicholas Institute, and Duke University.

Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Institute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. Prologue available at Grist. Chapter about Ginkgo biloba and climate change available at Conservation.