Don't feel bad if you're confused about the merits of the comprehensive climate bill reported out yesterday evening by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The array of reactions from environmental leaders and organizations is not the usual one: Some (such as NRDC and Environmental Defense Fund) have hailed it, while others (Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth) have opposed it. (The Sierra Club's reaction was "Bill Moves Us One Step Closer to Clean Energy Future; Key Elements Must Be Strengthened As Plan Moves Forward."
Let's look a little closer at its strengths (and weaknesses).
First, the bill establishes a strong long-term goal -- an 80 percent reduction in carbon pollution by 2050. It contains the strongest energy-efficiency language ever to emerge from a Congressional committee. It makes a huge commitment to protect tropical forests. And it puts the down payment on a number of other critically important initiatives: financing energy efficiency, protecting low-income consumers from energy-price spikes, helping developing countries and U.S. communities protect themselves from natural disasters resulting from climate change, and helping buffer America's wild heritage from the impacts of climate change.
But in its present form it, it won't do all that's needed. The oil, coal, and dirty-utility interests that have a huge block of seats on the Commerce Committee were able to prevent enactment of President Obama's much bolder vision. The bill does almost nothing for renewable electricity generation, gives about 85 percent of the revenues it generates to maintaining the status quo, and weakens the EPA's authority to clean up coal-fired power plants.
But even with those faults, it was a historic victory. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to its principal authors, Henry Waxman and Ed Markey. How can all of these seemingly contradictory things be true? Legislation, it has famously been said, is like sausage -- you don't want to watch it being made. And the House Energy and Commerce Committee is, for environmentalists, the ugliest part of the sausage-making process. Since 1980, no major piece of environmental legislation has emerged intact from this committee -- each has had to be repaired and mended either on the House floor, in the Senate, or in conference. Climate legislation will be no different.
Coal and oil will not quietly give up their monopoly power over our economy, their subsidies from the Treasury, or the loopholes that protect them from being held accountable for the damage they do to our health and environment. Their allies among the retrograde power companies, led by the Southern Company, aren't about to let clean energy compete with their current reliance on dirty power. The lust to siphon off billions of dollars in public revenues for a bailout of Big Carbon will be fierce. In fact, coal's field generals in the House have already pledged to knock down the already modest 2020 carbon target and make other additional weakening changes.
Yes, they will try to kill the green-jobs recovery in its cradle, and yes, they will try to block our clean-energy future. This contest is not for the faint of heart. We need to take the foundation that Waxman and Markey have given us, and build on it -- but we need to insist that America ends up with a secure future. This bill needs to be like a house with a roof on it -- not the half-finished shell that Exxon-Mobil and Peabody Coal would like to place on President Obama's desk.