THE BLOG
07/13/2013 12:04 pm ET Updated Sep 12, 2013

Cost Cutting in Congress Faces Fossil Fuel Obstructionism

Rarely does one turn to Congress for innovation. That is certainly the case with energy efficiency. Congress may be a go-to on oversight and accountability but not innovation. The Pentagon, in contrast, while not a leader in oversight and accountability (with no audit planned until 2017 and millions of taxpayer dollars wasted in Afghanistan and Iraq wars), is generally appreciated as an innovator. That is in large part because Congress gives America's largest employer so much money to innovate; they can afford the luxury of an innovative environment.

On energy, the Pentagon is mindful of the need for efficiency and renewability -- see their Energy Conversation series initiated years ago -- because they recognize that the Defense Department, the largest energy consumer of all cabinet-level departments, must go leaner and lighter as a security measure. Too many fuel tanks have been bombed. Too much money has been spent transporting and securitizing fuel-intensive equipment. They see it as a cost-cutting exercise primarily.

One wonders, then, why Republican leadership in the House would not see it similarly. One does not have to be a committed environmentalist to get behind energy efficiency efforts. The bipartisan energy efficiency legislation authored in the Senate by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rob Portman (R-OH), and in the House by Reps. David McKinley (R-WV) and Peter Welch (D-VT), should be a no-brainer for all members of both chambers. Furthermore, they should be inspired by the fact that a Republican from coal-rich West Virginia is so forward thinking on cost-cutting legislation.

Enacting basic energy efficiency measures to make this country greener is akin to passing background checks that keep this country safer; it's the lowest of low-hanging political fruit. The former is not what we ultimately need for the climate -- that would be a carbon tax - and the latter is not what we ultimately need for gun safety -- that would be a ban on assault weapons and a ban on high-capacity magazines. But it is something and it is a start.

Anyone obfuscating this common sense legislation, then, is preventing the return of American taxpayer dollars to American pocketbooks. Do not forget the McKinsey report on energy efficiency that found that the United States could "save $1.2 trillion through 2020, by investing in improvements like sealing leaky building ducts and replacing inefficient household appliances with new, energy-saving models."

Now that's a return on investment, and something that any "NO" vote on the House Welch-McKinley bill or the Senate Shaheen-Portman bill would refuse to realize, at the expense of American savings. That return on investment, incidentally, would also cut America's "projected energy use in 2020 by about 23 percent -- a savings that would be greater than the total of energy consumption of Canada."

So what is Washington waiting for? It is not clear. Perhaps it is waiting for the fossil fuel industry to stand down so that Congress can do what is right for the federal budget and federal efficiency. One would think that Members would be compelled more by a commitment to helping America run more effectively, and operate more efficiently, than by a commitment to campaign contributions by the fossil fuel industry.

That is the choice facing recalcitrant congresspersons. If it is about keeping coal workers employed then deal with that separately by retraining them under what my colleague, Hannah Solomon-Strauss, calls a "Tennessee Valley Authority-style rebuilding of the coal belt."

Congresspersons cannot continue to hide behind the fallacy of job creation when defending the fossil fuel industry (see the Keystone XL pipeline). Yes, we need to keep our workers employed, but we need to do it through energy industries that are renewable and sustainable. We must make that transition now.

These bipartisan bills in the House and the Senate are must-pass bills, if primarily for the return on investment. To fail this opportunity is to pass on serious financial returns and it is a pass on a healthier environment for the American people. We cannot fail. The time for bipartisanship is now.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.