05/13/2009 02:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Polluting The Debate

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Pat Garofalo

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Congress is struggling to answer President Obama's call for energy reform, even as our climate and economy continue to degrade. Deadly storms and floods have left Alaska, Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, Illinois, and Arkansas in states of emergency, as wildfires fueled by drought rage in California and Florida. Gasoline prices "jumped 12 cents, or 6 percent, last week, after several weeks of relative stability." And the Bureau of Labor Statistics has announced that there are "roughly 4.8 unemployed workers for every available job today," up 280 percent from 2007. To create millions of green jobs, end our dependence on coal and oil, and halt global warming, Obama has asked for comprehensive energy legislation like the American Clean Energy and Security Act, co-sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Ed Markey (D-MA), which would set federal standards for renewable energy, energy efficiency, and global warming pollution. The Waxman-Markey legislation, first released in draft form at the end of March, is under intense negotiation in the House energy committee. Last night, Waxman, the committee's chairman, announced "he will release the full text of his new bill Thursday and will hold the first drafting session Monday." Some corporations are embracing this moment, calling for "the federal government to quickly enact strong national legislation to require significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions." Yet the prospects for reform are fragile, under threat by polluting industries and their political allies.

Markey has explained that the bill can't move forward without the cooperation of fellow Democrats on the 58-member energy committee, many of whom are representing "the coal sector, with the steel, with the auto sector, with the refining sector." These sectors generate billions of tons of greenhouse gases each year through the burning of fossil fuels. A Progress Report analysis has found that the average committee member opposed to, or wavering on, the green economy legislation has received six times as much lifetime climate polluter cash as the average supporter. The Democrats supported by millions in pollution contributions have successfully negotiated concessions from Waxman and Markey, including "lower targets for renewable energy," "a smaller reduction by 2020 in the emissions blamed for global warming," and freely allocating "valuable permits to release pollution to electricity distribution companies and auto manufacturers." Ironically, these concessions threaten the future of these very industries because the nation needs to set strong clean-energy standards in order to compete in the 21st century economy and invest in green job recovery. The changes led Center for American Progress fellow Joseph Romm to downgrade the bill from a "B+" to "about a B or B-."

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), in a Senate hearing Tuesday, decried the extraordinary amount of spending by corporate global warming polluters to lobby Congress. Reading from an E&E News story on new lobbying disclosures, Whitehouse noted that carbon polluters such as electric utilities and oil and gas companies have spent nearly $80 million on lobbying just in the first quarter of 2009. "So if we wonder why the Senate is the last place in America that still doesn't get it that climate change is a real problem for people and that carbon pollution is something that people should pay for when they emit it -- big utilities, big industry -- gee, connect the dots," Whitehouse concluded. By comparison, environmental organizations have spent a combined $4.7 million and the entire renewable energy industry has spent $7.5 million, both less than the $9.3 million spent by Exxon Mobil alone. The lobbying to water down the bill has been effective, as many moderate Democrats in the Senate now question clean energy reform, repeating industry arguments. For example, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) is "against forcing petrochemical companies" to "bear the brunt of new costs." And Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) worries a cap on carbon pollution "could have a negative impact on our economy by raising utility rates on consumers."

POLLUTER FRONT GROUPS: At the same Senate hearing, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) waved a "smoking gun" document that he said showed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) finding that greenhouse gases are a danger to public welfare "was based more on political calculations than on scientific ones." The interagency review memo from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) argued that regulation would have "serious economic consequences for regulated entities throughout the US economy." "Obama Administration Memo Warns of Harm to Economy if Greenhouse Gases Regulated through Clean Air Act," wrote ABC News's Jake Tapper. As OMB director Peter Orszag explained, however, there was no real controversy: "[W]e simply receive comments from various agencies and pass them along to EPA for consideration, regardless of the substantive merit of those comments." The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder has revealed that the author of the comments was Joseph M. Johnson, a Bush administration holdover in the Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy. Johnson was previously a research fellow at the Mercatus Center, an anti-regulatory think tank founded by Koch Industries, the largest private company in the U.S. that is involved in practically every sector of global warming pollution. The billionaire Koch brothers have provided over $120 million in the past 20 years to the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity, the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society, the Mercatus Center, and dozens of other right-wing, anti-regulatory, and global warming-denial organizations. These organizations provide an intellectual veneer and grassroots feel to the decades-long effort by polluters like Koch and Exxon to prevent clean energy reform and preserve their dirty profits.