03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Good, Bad, and Ugly: A Look Back at the Drama Over the EPW Bill

This morning brings good news on the climate change front: In spite of the ongoing Republican boycott of the hearings, Senate Democrats in the Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) passed the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act of 2009 out of committee by a vote of 10-1, with 8 votes not reported. The lone holdout was Senator Max Baucus of Montana, who argued that the 20 percent target for carbon emission cuts by 2020 was too high. Two key provisions that the 1Sky network has lobbied to keep -- 20 percent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and keeping Clean Air Act responsibility for shutting down dirty coal plants -- remain in the bill, which is a major victory for everyone who wants to see real action against climate change and the creation of millions of career-track clean energy jobs.

In the past week, a drama unfolded around the Senate EPW Committee hearings for the new Senate bill on climate and clean energy jobs. Declarations! Boycott threats! Power plays! It's left a lot of people in the climate movement perplexed, frustrated, and even more committed to push for a strong and comprehensive bill now.

You'd hope that passing a strong climate bill through Senate committees would have been easier, especially coming off what has to be among the most inspirational days the climate movement has ever experienced -- the Oct 24 International Day of action coordinated by Hundreds of thousands of people gathered at more than 5,000 events in 180 countries worldwide to tell the world that climate change must be addressed now. 1Sky coordinated more than 220 events in 47 states nationwide here in the U.S.

You'd hope that our global show of force would have kick started the EPW hearings and helped lawmakers understand what's at stake, with the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (S1733) (PDF) and Copenhagen on the horizon; the world is watching to see what the United States will do.

And as they watched, the EPW Committee chair Senator Barbara Boxer got the cold shoulder from a few Republicans and dirty energy special interests that wanted to stall the bill and boycotted her hearings.

But, there were some bright moments along this route to passing the bill out of committee --from the stronger than expected initial draft introduced by Kerry and Boxer to the bi-partisan New York Times op-ed from Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) that called for a real carbon cuts in a Senate bill (though it admittedly had some very worrying nods toward nuclear power and offshore drilling) to comments made in hearings last week by strong climate champions like Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

So, some quick takes on the good, bad, and ugly from the last week in Congress:

The Good: Real Champions

The EPW Committee hearings featured a few inspirational moments from champions who provided the urgency and leadership needed to push this bill over the finish line. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said a 20% cut in CO2 by 2020 is not "an overly aggressive goal" and that in fact, "this bill is not moving fast enough." Senator Whitehouse called out the dirty energy lobby, stating: "Corporate lobbyists have won against our children's lungs, and I for one am fed up with it!" Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) cried, "Wake up America - your kids are in danger!" These were more than sound bites; They were rallying cries to deliver the strongest bill possible in the face of a looming planetary crisis and the economic opportunity of a clean energy future.

Additionally, climate champ Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) composed an open letter for sign on by his colleagues that asks Majority Leader Reid to keep Clean Air Act authority in the bill. The Clean Air Act is a key tool for regulating dirty coal plants that use outdated technology and spew global warming pollution into our environment. 1Sky is working with many allies nationwide including the Sierra Club, Environment America and MoveOn in urging our supporters to press their senators to sign the Menendez letter.

Looking ahead, 1Sky is rallying our base to reach President Obama and Senate leaders with a call-in campaign to senators, a petition and art creation drive for delivery to President Obama in early December of the eve of the Copenhagen debates. 1Sky activists throughout the country will gather to create art that depicts how urgent the threat from climate change is and why we need bold action now.

The Bad: Big Oil and Dirty Coal's Talking Points

The movement must continue to press on senators and the administration to keep what's strong in this bill and to use the billions of dollars generated by a cap on carbon for public benefit: to maximize the investments in clean energy jobs, worker training, international adaptation, and clean energy technology partnerships. We must also fight against giveaways to dirty coal plants and oil companies who have been reaping record profits in recent years.

These special interests are working hard to gut the bill on many fronts, including notably reducing targets from 20% by 2020 and stripping the Clean Air Act of its authority to regulate dirty coal plants.

Worse, several key swing senators began mimicking these talking points in their comments. Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) was one such senator who spoke out against these two bill provisions. The Committee needs to hear from clean energy champions in the Senate and from grasstops and grassroots groups to keep these two provisions strong (i.e. the Menendez letter is one example of a show of strength).

The Ugly: Stalling/Trying to Postpone the Markup

Bipartisanship must also not come at the cost of appeasing the Republicans in the EPW committee who behaved like spoiled children in boycotting committee hearings to move the bill forward.

Last week, Chairman Barbara Boxer held three days of hearings on her revised version of the bill. She told the Republicans on her Committee that she would not begin hearings until there was an EPA economic analysis of the legislation. She fulfilled this pledge when the EPA released a 38-page economic analysis of the draft. This analysis said that this bill was so similar to the Waxman-Markey bill that they didn't feel the need to do a lengthy analysis of the bill.

So, the threat of a markup boycott by a few Republican senators (now moot) was appeased and Majority Leader Reid has announced that he will ask the EPA to complete a full, five-week analysis of the bill when his version is ready for floor consideration.

Next month, I'll be in Copenhagen along with many U.S. and international groups urging global leaders to commit to a fair, ambitious and binding global treaty to tackle climate change. We had hoped for a bill in hand to show our country's commitment to a global deal. Now, we have to push for a promissory note for passage of a bill that is routinely bombarded with boycott threats and special interest meddling.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking not only for a strong Senate bill or a global accord on climate change, but to turn back the damage we've done and chart a new future for our economic recovery, our health, our national security, our planet, and our people, before its too late.