CSI: DC -- Investigating the Grisly Murder of a Climate Bill Gone Wrong

08/03/2010 12:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mike Sandler Political economist, climate change professional and sustainability advocate

This is the story of the death of a bill that was meant to address the greatest moral issue of our time: climate change. Compromised and unrecognizable at its time of death, the bill was a hideous deformation of its former self. When the bill died, a moment of possibility (59 Democratic Senators, plus Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine)) faded, leaving those who care about the future feeling like at the end of Empire Strikes Back. Luke's hand is chopped off, and Han Solo is frozen. We know the war to save the planet must go on, but who will lead us? How did this happen? We are left to analyze the remains of the dead. Perhaps sifting through the bones and the autopsy report will yield some clues, and perhaps save the life of the next climate bill that crosses our path.

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the unfortunate death of the climate bill in the Senate, the news shocked some people, others not so much. The bill had fallen in with the wrong crowd (coal-burning utilities and Gulf-of-Mexico-polluting oil companies). It's so-called "friends" (Senator Lindsay Graham) ditched it when it needed help the most. The popular kids (President Obama, Rahm Emanuel, and David Axlerod) were too busy to be bothered with the problems of yet another lost cause. And the two guys left standing by it at the end were real losers (See Lieberman 2000; Kerry 2004).

Each of the 100 Senators was partly responsible for the death of the bill. They all had the same alibi: "There are not 60 votes." But the two groups who were there at the scene of the crime were the coal-(producing-and consuming)-state Democrats and the vote-no-on-everything Republicans.

As a youth, the bill started out with a nice idea. A ton of carbon dioxide emitted anywhere is equal to a ton reduced or sequestered anywhere. This became the basis for the bill's famous (later infamous) "Cap and Trade" approach. If we are going to reduce it, let's reduce the cheapest (and easiest) tons first. Let's create a market mechanism that encourages those with the money to pay those with the ability to innovate.

But soon after its conception, things began to go wrong for the bill. A benign-sounding group of businesses and environmental groups called the United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), led by strange bedfellows Jim Rogers of Duke Energy and Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense Fund, adopted the bill as their own. The bill was kept away from others with strange ideas like "carbon tax" or "cap and dividend." USCAP led the bill to Congress, where it was passed around the room. Everyone got what they wanted from the bill. The valuable permits under the cap, which represent the atmospheric Commons we all share, were given away to USCAP's friends for free. The lobbyists larded the bill down with subsidies and stall tactics. Billions of offsets were injected into the bill, bloating it up to over 1,400 pages. Despite its terrible shape, the bill managed to sneak out of the House last summer. But by the time it arrived in the Senate, word had gotten out. The bill was pronounced dead on arrival.

USCAP and others began to get worried. Sure, they knew the bill was loaded with giveaways for their friends, but they saw that as a benefit, not a detriment. Even so, they could not be bothered with other approaches. A bipartisan effort from Senators Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Collins (R-Maine), the Carbon Limits and Energy for American Renewal (CLEAR) Act, was never really allowed to mingle with the bill, even though the CLEAR Act would have sent dividend checks to every American. That's right. Congress could have passed a law that sent money to every American, similar to how every family in Alaska, including the Palins, receive annual checks in the mail from the Alaska Permanent Fund paid for by polluting oil companies. The timing would have been excellent. We start using less oil and coal, and BP writes everyone a check. Instead, Congress decided that they would rather give billions in subsidies to companies whose coal mines were blowing up, and whose oil wells continued to gush into fisheries and wetlands for weeks on end. You can see where this is headed. Just before the bill passed away, 12 U.S. Senators called for "returning a majority of the revenue generated from pricing carbon directly to American households." President Obama had campaigned on such a policy back in 2008. But the bill was too far gone. Lacking the popular support of a Cap and Dividend approach, the bill's fate was sealed.

The forensics aren't pretty. Let's hope the next one can avoid this grisly fate.