A Bump in the Road -- or a Detour?

It's scary how difficult it is proving for this Congress to embrace a new energy future. In the Senate, Energy Chair Jeff Bingaman is talking about passing a renewable-energy standard that would barely nudge the status quo -- only 12 percent renewables by 2019, and up only to 15 percent for the next two decades.  And even so, Indiana senator Evan Bayh is refusing to commit to support the proposal.

In the House, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman is having an extraordinarily difficult time getting a strong renewable standard out of his committee -- even as he is being forced to water down the initially ambitious goals he set for his climate bill. At this point, no one on Capitol Hill is moving legislation that would achieve President Obama's goal of doubling renewable-energy generation. No one is moving legislation that meets the president's goals of 100 percent auction of carbon permits, either. Indeed, Waxman is considering giving more than half of the permits away to the industries that are major carbon polluters -- not because he wants to, but because otherwise he can't move a bill at all.

What's going on here? Part of the problem is business as usual. Part is that while Congress understands health care is a national issue, it still sees energy a regional issue, one on which each member is entitled to be as parochial as he or she desires. But part of it is a failure on the part of advocates, the media, and the political leadership to understand that America's energy problems are rooted in a market that is fundamentally broken and that cannot be fixed by a single silver bullet such as cap and trade or a carbon tax.

Here's why: In the energy sector, the consumers who pay the bill for more expensive gasoline (or electricity or coal or natural gas) don't always get to decide how much they need. Someone else makes the decisions -- someone who doesn't pay the bills.  A plumber who needs to drive a pickup truck 100,000 miles a year for work can't stop working just because gasoline gets more expensive -- he needs a more-efficient truck. Detroit doesn't make one. A renter who has an old, inefficient furnace can't make the landlord replace it with a modern one -- the tenant has no choice but to pay the bill if the price of home-heating oil soars through the roof. A business that uses a lot of electricity can't force its local utility to buy cheaper (and cleaner) wind or natural-gas kilowatt hours if the utility makes more money by over-billing for electrons from an old, dirty, and more-expensive coal plant that it owns.

Trying to transition to a clean-energy economy by putting a price on carbon is a little like trying to improve the diet of students at a boarding school by giving them nutrition classes -- it's a necessary step, but not a sufficient one if the school keeps serving them junk food.

Too many of America's utilities are determined to keep serving Americans dirty electricity from coal. The auto industry is determined to feed us a diet of inefficient, gasoline-powered vehicles. They've figured out that the Obama administration and the Congressional leadership badly want to pass a cap and trade bill to send a strong signal before the Copenhagen climate conference in December. And they are determined to highjack this urgent moment. Their strategy is clear: Block any real reform of energy markets. Block any real commitment to reduce our dependence on oil and coal. Drag their feet to see if they can kill energy legislation altogether. If that fails, then they'll force the Administration to accept a symbolic "cap and trade" bill that they know they can unravel later. And there's a real danger that, with the pressure of December's United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen bearing down, the Administration and the Congressional leadership might be tempted to accept nutrition classes instead of changing the energy diet offered to the American people by coal, oil, autos, and utilities.

What's the solution? We need to tell our leaders that we won't let coal and oil steal our clean energy future.  We want Congress to enact not the shadow but the substance of the president's energy platform -- doubling renewable energy, cutting carbon pollution by 80 percent by 2050, and making sure that those who emit carbon pollution pay the bill.