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What Happened to Democrats’ Energy, Climate Change Legislation Plans?

August 9, 2010 at 7:11 PM EDT
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With the Senate at home for the summer, a clean-energy and climate-change bill appears to be all but dead. For a closer look at what pulled the plug on the legislation, Margaret Warner is joined by environmental writers Darren Samuelsohn of Politico and Eric Pooley of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine.
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GWEN IFILL: The Senate has gone home for the summer with several new

laws on the books on economic stimulus, health reform, and financial regulation that are sure to draw praise and condemnation.

But one major Democratic priority, energy and climate change

legislation, was left by the wayside.

Margaret Warner looks at why that happened and what comes next.

MARGARET WARNER: A month into his term, President Obama urged the

country to embrace a comprehensive clean energy policy, a major theme of his campaign.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We need to ultimately

make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy.

So, I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-

based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America.

MARGARET WARNER: The first attempt was based on setting up a system

called cap-and-trade, imposing limits on greenhouse gas emissions, but letting companies buy and sell pollution credits on a market.

MAN: The bill is passed.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MARGARET WARNER: In June 2009, the House narrowly passed a broad energy bill with a cap-and-trade provision. It was a tough vote for many Democrats in the midst of a recession and Republican charges that the bill amounted to an energy tax.

HOUSE MINORITY LEADER REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): Well, I would say to

my colleagues, let’s not go down this path of increasing taxes on every single American. Let’s not go down the path of moving millions of jobs to China, India, and other countries around the world.

MARGARET WARNER: Soon after, a group of Democratic senators produced

the outline of their own bill, with changes to attract Republican support, like scaling back the cap-and-trade provisions to apply only to utilities and power plants.

But the effort stalled amid competing priorities, like health reform and financial regulation. Late last month, Majority Leader Harry Reid announced he didn’t have the votes to pass it. Instead, he offered a narrower bill to respond to the Gulf oil spill. It would raise liability limits on oil companies and offer modest incentives to boost natural gas production and household energy efficiency.

MAJORITY LEADER SEN. HARRY REID,(D-Nev.): Many of us want to do a

thorough, comprehensive bill that creates jobs, breaks our addiction to foreign oil, and curbs pollution. Unfortunately, at this time, we don’t have a single Republican to work with in achieving this goal.

MARGARET WARNER: But, last week, Reid indefinitely postponed that vote,

too. Now the administration’s push to regulate emissions falls to the

Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled the EPA had the authority to regulate

greenhouse gas emissions, like other pollutants, under the Clean Air Act. White House energy and climate czar Carol Browner made clear last week the administration will use that authority.

CAROL BROWNER, assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change: I’m quite confident that EPA will be working in partnership with all of the affected parties to figure out the most commonsense cost-effective ways to achieve very important reductions of the dangerous pollutants that contribute to climate change.

MARGARET WARNER: But some companies and lawmakers have vowed to stop

the EPA through Congress and the courts.

And for more on what brought an energy bill down and what might lie

ahead, we turn to two writers who have followed the story closely. Darren Samuelsohn reports on energy and climate issues for Politico. And Eric Pooley is a deputy editor at “Bloomberg BusinessWeek” magazine. He’s the author of a new book about the fight over legislation called “The Climate War.”

Welcome to you both.

Eric Pooley, how big a setback is this for the forces that have been

pushing for more than a decade to get some kind of national system that would curb these emissions?

ERIC POOLEY, author, “The Climate War”: It’s a big setback, Margaret.

You can’t deny that.

I mean, three years ago, when I started work on “The Climate War,” I

thought that there was a good chance that it would have a happy ending. I knew it would be a political thriller, but what I didn’t expect was that it would turn into a whodunit. And, in fact, it’s a lot like a murder mystery like Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” where there are a lot of people in on the killing.

It’s a big setback, because we have a midterm election coming. We’re

probably going to lose climate votes. And it may be a couple of years before the Senate gets back to a place where it can vote on another serious climate bill. This is causing the entire environmental community to do a real rethink on strategy.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Darren Samuelsohn, let’s do the whodunit?

I mean, the forces looked in alignment, Democrats in control of the

House, Senate and White House, the hottest summer in years, at least in major parts of the country, even the BP oil spill. What happened?

DARREN SAMUELSOHN, Politico: Well, all the stars would seem like they

were aligned for this bill.

But, ultimately, the politics of this just took over. And you need 60

votes in the Senate. And that was the key. And it was always going to be a tough climb to get to 60 votes. When health care and when the Wall Street bill and the economic stimulus took over, it kept pushing this back further and further along on the agenda. And, ultimately, here we are, and we’re just very close to the election. There’s very little time.

And, politically, you know, Harry Reid needed to pick up a good number

of Republicans, about four, or five or six Republicans. And they didn’t want to play ball, especially when they knew there were about 10 or 12 Democrats who were also pretty nervous about this, Democrats from the Midwest, Democrats from industrial states.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Eric Pooley, what is your theory about whodunit?

ERIC POOLEY: Well, when they finally went to a compromise just

recently, it was too late to get this done.

I think, if you want to look for the culprits, you have to go back to

last summer. After the Waxman-Markey bill passed the House of Representatives, the environmental community thought it was a big win. And it was. But it was really just the beginning.

And the reaction against that bill’s passage was virulent and intense.

It included a lot of money spent on advertising on television attacking people who had voted for the bill. And, frankly, it scared the pants off the Senate. And I believe it also took the president and the White House political strategists aback.

And everybody decided that maybe this was just a little bit too hard to

do. I think, if they had compromised then and scaled back the bill to just the utility sector, as they ended up doing eventually, they might have gotten it done. But they tried to get the whole enchilada, and they ended up with nothing.

MARGARET WARNER: And how, Darren, did the White House approach this,

the Obama White House? After all, this was one of his major campaign promises, pledges.

DARREN SAMUELSOHN: Yes, he talked about this at the inaugural address,

you know, two years ago almost. So, clearly, he wanted this early on. And it was one of the big items that he wanted.

However, he took a backseat approach and let Congress write this bill.

And that was something we saw very early on when he came into office. He left this to the House Democrats to write the bill over there. And, then, over in the Senate, he left it to John Kerry, he left it to Harry Reid to try and find the votes.

And, ultimately, no one really knew who was trying to get the votes and

no knew who really was in charge of that bill and the creation of that bill and getting the 60 votes on that bill. So, there was a lot of finger-pointing back and forth at everybody, saying, well, you’re responsible; no, you’re responsible.

And it was quite clear that everyone was just kind of shrugging their

shoulders and saying, well, I don’t know who is responsible. As for President Obama, I mean, he invited senators into the White House and he tried to figure out what they wanted and where the middle ground was. But he never really, you know, shrugged shoulders — or twisted arms and really tried to get the 60 votes that were needed to pass this bill.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Eric, you spent a lot of time reporting this.

How did you see the way the White House handled this?

ERIC POOLEY: Well, people in the White House told me early in the Obama administration that they were proceeding with what they called a stealth strategy, where they would work mostly behind the scenes. The president would talk about it, say, maybe on a Tuesday afternoon when he was visiting a solar plant.

But he didn’t do it in a really sustained way, on three levels. One is

the level of deep communication to the American people. Even in his prime-time address, after the BP oil spill, he didn’t come out specifically for a cap on carbon. That was a signal that he wasn’t going to fight for it.

And, in the end, he didn’t fight for it. The other two areas, of

course, deep engagement with policy — he never came out for a specific bill. And, lastly, as Darren mentioned, politics and arm-twisting, he didn’t try to get the votes in the Senate. He didn’t use his political capital. He decided it wasn’t the right time.

And I hope we get another chance.

MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think the Obama White House and the

president didn’t do more with this, particularly, let’s say, after health care passed, which, of course, wasn’t until early this year?

DARREN SAMUELSOHN: Well, there was a talk that success begets success.

And that was sort of what Rahm Emanuel was hoping to try and do here.

And also there was a major crisis, a major environmental crisis, with

the Gulf Coast oil spill. So, clearly, you would think that the connection would be made. In that Oval Office speech that everyone was waiting for and watching, he talked about the oval — he talked about the spill. He talked about the need for an energy policy, but he never quite made it clear that it was…

MARGARET WARNER: Why?

DARREN SAMUELSOHN: Well, the politics of it are difficult. It’s hard

to sell this on American — to the American public. The idea of a cap-and-trade, which is ultimately what is at the center of this, is very complicated and difficult to explain to Americans.

The Republicans have a pretty good talking point with, it’s a national

energy tax, that they swing back with. So for — the response from the Obama administration’s side and from the Democrats’ side is a little bit more longer, a little bit more — it goes on into national security issues. It goes into economic recovery, but it’s not a bumper-sticker slogan.

MARGARET WARNER: We could continue this game of “Clue” about whodunit,

but I want to get to where it’s going now.

And, Eric, back to you.

So, everyone says now it goes to the EPA. The EPA can use its

regulatory authority. What exactly is going to happen?

ERIC POOLEY: Well, the next front in the climate war, Margaret, is the

attempt to strip the EPA of its power to regulate CO2. And that will be happening in the next Senate, no matter what happens in the midterms.

They want to take that away. And — and so there are a couple of

ways…

MARGARET WARNER: But what is it that the EPA wants to do, first before

we talk about stripping…

ERIC POOLEY: Well, the EPA wants to — sure. It wants to regulate

stationary sources. That means power plants and large manufacturing facilities.

And it wants — and it’s — in this September time frame, it’s going to

be putting out exactly what it means by that. So, we’re all sort of waiting to see exactly what mechanism the EPA intends to use. But there are a lot of people that don’t want any kind of regulation from the EPA.

And this is unleashing what John Dingell memorably called the glorious

mess of regulation and litigation. We’re coming out of a period of attempted compromise in the legislature into a period of battle in the courts between corporate America and the environmental community and the EPA.

And this is exactly what cap-and-trade was designed as a compromise to

avoid. So, it’s a tragedy that we’re getting here, but that’s where we are.

MARGARET WARNER: And the EPA, it’s believed, is going to go, what, just case by case, right? So, you’re just going to have, what, hundreds of these cases?

DARREN SAMUELSOHN: Well, you are going to have power-plant-by-power-

plant decisions that EPA will be making starting in January. There are sort of the preliminary regulations that they have the write to explain who is going to be regulated. And then they’re going to go power plant by power plant, talking about what technologies are going to need to be put on these power plants to try and make them carbon-friendly or more energy-efficient.

And those are going to be all tied up in courts around — primarily here in the D.C. area, in terms of the underlying science of climate change will be debated. And, then, individually, we’re going to have a very big regulatory legal mess here ahead of us.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Eric, do you — this will also be controversial.

Is the White House fully behind this approach?

ERIC POOLEY: The White House says it’s behind it. And, in fact, Barack Obama has already engaged deeply in previous attempts to turn back EPA’s authority.

He is fighting for it. And although the environmental community is

disappointed with the president’s engagement on the cap, they’re happy with his work on EPA and his work in the Department of Energy. And he’s been fighting for this one. There’s no reason to think that he won’t continue.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, battles to come.

Eric Pooley and Darren Samuelsohn, thank you so much.

DARREN SAMUELSOHN: Thanks.