Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) knows the bill he introduced on Thursday to transition the United States to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 probably won’t become law anytime soon.
But, as one of the Senate’s most hawkish environmentalists, this is his moonshot.
“It’s the equivalent of Kennedy saying ‘we’re going to put an American on the moon, and we’re going to do it by the end of the decade,’” Merkley told HuffPost by phone on Friday, referring to former President John F. Kennedy’s historic May 1961 speech. “When Kennedy said that, we didn’t have the technology, we didn’t have it figured out but we knew what we wanted.”
Eight years later, astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped off Apollo 11 and onto the surface of the moon. Thirty-three years from now, Merkley hopes every car, power plant and factory is powered by zero-emissions energy.
“We may not be able to get a hearing on it at this point. We may not be able to get it in the Oval Office, but we can engage people in discussions that will become not whether to do it, but how,” Merkley said. “What this bill does is say we have to take on every sector of the energy economy.”
Called “the 100 by ‘50 Act,” the bill ― co-sponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) ― is more of a rallying cry than a viable policy proposal, as HuffPost first reported earlier this month. The Republican-dominated Congress is unlikely to even give the bill a hearing, let alone advance it to the desk of President Donald Trump, a staunch fossil fuel advocate whose administration appears to spend more time antagonizing environmentalists than listening to them.
“It’s a values statement that says we stand by the principle, the vision, of eliminating the fossil fuel energy economy,” said Merkley, who rated 100 percent last year on the nonpartisan League of Conservation Voters’ scorecard, which ranks lawmakers based on how they vote on environmental legislation. “We can emblazon the phrase ‘100 by ‘50’ into people’s minds so that vision statement becomes clear.”
The bill outlines a timeline for converting the U.S. vehicle fleet to electric, shuttering coal- and gas-burning power plants and making energy efficiency policies more widespread. It lays out plans to retrain workers in dirty energy sectors, such as oil drillers, for new jobs, and support low-income communities of color who have suffered disproportionately from the effects of pollution.
The political climate may not be conducive to turning the bill into law, but the economics are increasingly in its favor. Over the last year, the average cost of generated solar energy dropped by 17 percent, onshore wind fell by 18 percent and offshore wind turbine power plummeted by 28 percent, according to a new report from the United Nations and Bloomberg New Energy Finance. And with battery storage ― considered by many the missing piece of the renewable energy equation ― set to expand rapidly this year, it’s easy to see why renewable energy investors remain optimistic even in the Trump era.
“Instead of making changes around the margins, this bill would finally commit America to the wholesale energy transformation that technology has made possible and affordable, and that an eroding climate makes utterly essential,” Bill McKibben, 350.org co-founder, said in a statement. “This bill won’t pass Congress immediately―the fossil fuel industry will see to that―but it will change the debate in fundamental ways.”
The bill also establishes a clear policy position around which Democrats can court a grassroots base alienated by Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential run. Those voters later criticized party elites for electing former Labor Secretary Tom Perez as chairman of the Democratic National Committee over Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who had won support from both Sanders and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer.
In March, Sanders announced plans to introduce a single-payer health care bill after the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act crumbled. Though similarly doomed to gather dust, “the 100 by ‘50 Act” articulates a vision around which Democratic lawmakers can organize their base.
“You’re not fighting if you don’t put forward a bill,” Merkley said. “We’re preparing for the moment when we have an opportunity to enact that road.”