08/23/2007 04:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Big Carbon's Summer of Discontent

San Francisco -- Congress is on its August recess, but the steadily rising tide of public and political demand for a new energy course keeps surging. The biggest news of the recess was Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid's announcement that he opposed all new coal-fired power plants, anywhere in the world, because all of them are dirty, they all threaten our ability to curb global warming, and we have, in renewables and efficiency, the alternatives we need to live without them.

At the Nevada Clean Energy Summit, in July, Reid made news when he came out against three proposed coal-fired power plants in his home state of Nevada, but by calling for a global end to new pulverized coal plants Reid put himself at the leading edge of political opinion.

Things didn't go much better for the carbon lobby next door in California. After the Republican Senate leadership tried to hold up the state's budget to prevent Attorney-General Jerry Brown from using lawsuits to help clean up global warming pollutants, the final deal which approved the budget allowed the most important of the lawsuits to continue. Political analysts said the effort to curb the state's ability to insist that land use and transportation planning take global warming into account had backfired, because the Democratic legislative leadership stood firm, and that the overall result meant that, "The Republican Party, as a whole, doesn't come out looking very good." Remember, this was a dispute about lawsuits, which have never been wildly popular with the public -- and the Democrats came out ahead by standing firm on global warming. One political analyst said, bluntly, that the Republicans had been "snookered."

Meanwhile, Brown showed that his lawsuits were not an empty threat. San Bernadino County, his first target, settled Brown's complaint by agreeing that the County, which expects to grow by one million people or 50% by 2030, would factor the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions into its land use planning. This is, as far as I know, the first time any jurisdiction has entered into a legally binding agreement to look at the overall impact of its planning on global warming -- and this is in one of California's most conservative and fastest growing counties. And listen to what the Vice-Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Gary Ovitt, said about the settlement: "We are confident that we can address climate issues in this manner while still supporting the county's efforts to create jobs, reduce traffic and gridlock, and improve our quality of life." Furthermore, Ovitt said the settlement would serve as a model for other counties.

And if you needed any more proof that the times they are indeed a-changin' -- yesterday, a federal judge ruled that the Bush Administration had unlawfully refused to release new data on the effects of global warming in violation of the Global Change Research Act of 1990. In Wyoming, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a hunting and fishing network which boasts of its largely Republican membership, sued the Bureau of Land Management for its proposal to lease 2,000 more oil and gas wells in the state in "reckless disregard" of the environmental consequences. (The Bush Administration kept judges busy this month, and not just on climate change. In Montana Federal Judge Donald Molloy threatened to throw Forest Service boss Mark Rey into jail for being in contempt of court for failing to provide an environmental assessment of the effects of dumping fire retardants into fish streams. If Rey doesn't back down, this Administration may be headed for a record number of contempt citations.)

But Big Carbon is fighting back -- with big money. The Federal Election Commission revealed that electric utilities, oil companies, automakers, and mining interests donated nearly $4 million during the first half of 2007 to lawmakers in the three House and Senate committees responsible for writing energy legislation. The main man for the old-line energy industry -- New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici -- raked in $185,000 from energy lobbies. But back home in New Mexico, as he prepares to run for a seventh term, local Sierra Club volunteers were taking Domenici on for his single-handed efforts to block passage of federal legislation to encourage renewable energy. The Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter announced a major citizen mobilization campaign to urge Domenici to line up with the voters of New Mexico, not his campaign contributors. Billboards saying, "Don't Dim our Future Domenici," and radio ads accompanied the grass-roots, door-to-door effort.

So, the money is still flowing, but the momentum this summer has clearly shifted. The big risk is that instead of letting the American people put our energy future on a new course, Washington will try to cut a deal to keep the people out of energy poltics and go back to backroom deals as usual. Yes, they will toss in a little bit of efficiency and renewables, and offer a jot of progress in kicking our oil addiction, but nothing close to what we need. And need quickly.