Analysis: Running Out of Energy

Last week saw some extraordinary scenes in the Senate as this year's energy bill died, only for last year's bill to rise, vampire-like, from its grave to be passed again by the Senate 84-14. With both parties claiming victory, it is worth looking at how this strange affair came about, what the prospects are for the bill in conference with the House, and what it means for American energy provision and consumption.This year's bill, S.14, had seen only stuttering progress since its introduction. Drafted by Sen. Pete Domenici (R.-N.M.), it had drawn strong criticism from environmental groups and their allies in both parties. It failed to contain any mention of climate change, for instance, which is relevant to energy because of the prevailing theory linking greenhouse gas emissions, which are generated during the production of energy from coal or oil, to global warming. As a result of these perceived omissions, the bill drew literally hundreds of proposed amendments. Many were simply “markers” from Senators concerned that the issues be debated, but there were plenty of substantive proposals. There were, for example, three separate proposals for caps on greenhouse gas emissions, most notably the Climate Stewardship Act sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman (D.-Conn.) and John McCain (R.-Ariz.).With Senators wishing to debate such a wide variety of issues under the energy umbrella, progress was always going to be slow. It was not helped by continual pre-emption by what were seen as more important issues, such as prescription drug benefits or judicial nominations. Each side contributed to the slow progress, and the bill began to run out of time. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) initially suggested that the Senate would remain in session until the debate was finished, but as last week went on the prospect of an end to debate ever being reached receded. He eventually decided to move for a vote for “cloture” to end the debate prematurely, but even this plan was to fail.On the Democrat side, Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D.-S.D.) realized the game was up. He had fought manfully against opposition both from Republicans and more liberal Democrats to insert a provision in the bill mandating that a certain amount of ethanol be added to gasoline in the future. With the prospect of the bill dying, he had written to the White House suggesting a stand-alone bill on ethanol. This was too much for both the White House and the Republican leadership, who wanted to see some form of energy bill passed. It was at this point that Daschle and Frist worked out the remarkable compromise of bringing back the Democrat-drafted bill that had died in conference last year.Democrats such as Max Baucus (D.-Mont.) are happy with the outcome because it reflects their priorities far more than S.14, while many Republicans are happy because of the boost it gives to the energy industry at a time of rising prices. Cato Institute analyst Jerry Taylor calls the revivified bill “5 parts corporate welfare to 1 part Soviet-style central planning,” but the chances of it passing without major amendment are slim. The Republicans control the conference with the House, as Sen. Domenici gleefully pointed out, and the House Republicans are probably more hard-line than their Senatorial colleagues. The revived bill contains three titles on climate change, for example, that are unlikely to make it through conference, as well as a provision mandating energy companies supply ten percent of their energy from “renewable” sources such as wind or solar power. Daschle's beloved ethanol provision will probably make it through as the price for allowing the President to sign an energy bill.Yet there is one unresolved issue. As part of the deal required to get unanimous consent to reintroduce a previous bill, the Senate leadership agreed that Sens. McCain and Lieberman would be allowed to bring their Climate Stewardship Act to the floor of the Senate for an up or down vote. Assuming that this actually happens (Senate promises are often not worth the paper they're not written on), this will be the first time the Senate has actually taken a substantive position on climate change. The last time it looked at the issue it passed a sense of the Senate proposal warning President Clinton against submitting the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Kyoto protocols for ratification, by the stunning margin of 95-0. Lieberman-McCain, however, does not go as far as Kyoto, but would still cost the American economy over $500 billion by 2025, according to the Energy Information Administration.Lieberman-McCain is unlikely to pass, but interested parties want to see who would put environmental fears first and who would put the interests of the American economy first. There are a lot of Senators trying to ride both horses. With the main Energy Bill out of the way, however, environmental issues will have no convenient peg to hang on and will have to fight for Senate time with other issue areas. Lieberman-McCain may be the last opportunity environmentalists have to see their issues debated in the Senate for quite some time.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />