Washington’s New Eco-Agenda

Yahoo reports that “EcoGeeks get all the girls.” And from Clinton to Kennedy, Condit to Livingston, Tobias to Foley, (and who can forget Larry Craig?) there’s no doubt that nobody does sex quite like Washington. Which is probably why they are finally starting to take environmental issues seriously, with three major pieces of eco-legislation on the agenda.

The first two bills approaching Congress deal with the issuance of tax credits and federal subsidies designed to encourage production and distribution of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal. These two bills are H.R. 6049: Energy and Tax Extenders Act of 2008; and H.R. 5351: Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Tax Act of 2008. H.R. 6049 would extend current tax breaks on companies producing renewable energy sources through 2009, while H.R. 5351 evidently creates them. Both of these have passed the House of Representatives. H.R. 5351 was added to the new housing bill, H.R. 3221, as an amendment by the Senate, and this bill was passed by both the House and the Senate. The two chambers’ differences have yet to be resolved, but the primary difference between the bill passed by the House and the amendment added to the housing bill in the Senate is whether $18 billion in tax breaks aimed at oil companies would be eliminated to pay for the tax relief for renewable energy.

The Energy and Tax Extenders Act of 2008 is a $54 billion package which extends current tax breaks for wind energy until the end of 2009, solar energy through the end of 2014, and biomass, geothermal, landfill gas, and other technologies through the end of 2011. These tax breaks are essential to secure our energy independence and ensure a sustainable ecology for the long-term health of humanity. It also has a significant economic impact; elimination of these tax breaks could cause a $20 billion cut in energy research and development, costing over 116,000 American jobs. These jobs are not only important now, but are a precursor for permanent infrastructure employment opportunities, improving the standard of living within the United States by simultaneously strengthening our economy and lowering the cost of living.

As with most pro-environment policies, this bill will not only increase the “green” on the land, but also the green in your pocket.

This is an extremely important bill to pass Congress for a variety of reasons. As time is allowed to drag before we take alternative forms of energy seriously, we will only weaken our power and influence in the world while raising energy costs at home. I urge you to contact your Senator to ask him to pass this legislation. You may find your Senator’s contact information here. There are many people in Congress who may be tempted to vote against this bill for strictly political reasons. It is important to remember that this time of the political calendar is one which a constituent has the most power. Congressmen do not want to upset the people who they are asking to vote them back into office, and many feel it is too close to Election Day for people to forget it.

If you wish, you may also sign the We Campaign’s online petition. Normally I do not sign such petitions, as they are usually about meaningless. However, the We Campaign is made up of a wide range of political activists – they are responsible for the commercials with Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson – so it does hold more weight then most other websites with similar petitions. However, I feel obligated to warn you that signing the petition will put you on the We Campaign’s mailing list. This is not like being on a typical campaign’s mailing list where you get three emails every day with “important” information you don’t care about. I am a member and I can assure you that the emails are few. It is a good way to stay abreast with current environmental issues, if that sort of thing sounds appeasing. So I do recommend signing the petition and receiving their emails and don’t want to scare anybody away from it, but I also want to be upfront and let you know there’s no way of signing it without signing up for the list. (Of course, you could always sign it and then send them an email requesting to be removed from the list . . . )

The third bill approaching Congress is the long-awaited debate on providing federal standards to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. This is in the form of S. 2191: America’s Climate Security Act of 2007, announced by Senators Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) and John Warner (R-Virginia). This bill is getting a lot of heat (no pun intended) from both sides of the issue because one side thinks it’s too expensive and the other thinks it doesn’t go far enough.

The crux of the bill is to cap greenhouse emissions at 2005 levels, and then start reducing gasses by 2% annually begining in 2012, creating a 20% reduction by 2020 and 70% reduction by 2050. This sounds very good. I like this. Could do better and I would prefer faster cuts, but I understand that industry has a legitimate gripe about cutting things too fast and some compromise is necessary.

The bill would also provide “transition assistance” to help deal with raising costs as a result of the expenses necessary to accomplish these cuts. This assistance would come in two forms: $350 billion to aide lower- and middle-income consumers and $500 billion to help offset the costs for companies and industries of modernizing their facilities to comply with the legislation.

This bill would also, by definition, increase the use of renewable and emission-friendly energy sources such as solar, wind, and nuclear.

However, the brunt of these cuts would come in the form of a cap-and-trade policy designed to encourage industry and private power plants to decrease their emissions. I have written about the positives of cap-and-trade before, so I won’t dive into too much detail about their relative merits. Suffice to say, these policies can be enacted and enforced responsibly and be very effective, though they can just as easily be meaningless, particularly if not enforced. If operated according to plan, this cap-and-trade system could move $5 trillion into federal coffers to help accomplish the reduction goals. This will undoubtedly raise many eyebrows amongst the “small government” crowd; even the New York Times is calling it “one of the biggest programs of redistribution of American wealth in history.” There are people who will claim this is just another reason to take the power away from the individual and place it in the hands of “big brother,” and any corrective actions should and must be conducted solely by and within the marketplace.

The truth is that if the market place was inclined to act responsibly to fix the global warming issue then it would have been done a long, long time ago. Some might argue that the market would prefer to act in a way which would be more environmentally friendly, but are unable to do so due to the financial burdens. Fine. But then the government needs to act to allow the market to become more environmentally friendly.

Either way, the health of our environment, the conditions which we leave our only habitat to our children, and the long-term economic and military stability of our nation are far too important to sacrifice in some theoretical discussion with Adam Smith. Our country’s greatest environmental accomplishments happened in the 1970’s, when the Environmental Protection Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Community Right-to-Know Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund) were all passed . . . and we had a Republican President in office. This is not and should not be a partisan issue. This is an issue which demands respect from all sides, as well as compromise. It’s far too important to be lost in the idealistic bickering of extremist thought; whether the arguments rendered be of market corrections or humanity’s ability to influence global climate change.

To that end, while it may appear difficult to impossible for this bill to pass, there are several indicators that such a bill will be passed in the near future. First, despite heavy complaints from some industry, many in the market actually want the federal government to pass greenhouse emission legislation. This is not so much a result of some moral prerogative as much as one of financial necessity. Many in industry fear that if the federal government does not pass emission standards quickly, state governments will become more likely to do so. This sets up several dilemmas. First, it is more efficient for a company to deal with a single standard then to adjust business practices for the differing standards in place in several states. Secondly, there is a fear that states will enact more stringent legislation than the federal government would be willing to, causing an increase cost burden on the industry. Third, states are not likely to provide such large relief plans to the industries affected by the legislation. And fourth (though probably not finally), many in industry are concerned that a state will place unduly high air quality standards and then penalize a company for operating a facility in a neighboring state for pollutants crossing state lines, setting up long and expensive legal battles.

I’m sure that many who control industry would prefer such a law for the law’s sake. However, absent that I really don’t care what the motivations for support of such a law are – the bill will have the same effect regardless of whether it’s approved for economic or altruistic purposes.

Another reason to be hopeful of such a bill forthcoming shortly is the policy of both Presidential candidates. Obama and McCain have both stated they will place an emphasis on creating some environmental controls to decrease global warming and increase energy independence in their next terms. Further, both have expressed an approval of cap-and-trade policy to accomplish reduction in greenhouse gasses. While neither seem as reliable on the subject as, say, Al Gore, they both seem much more sincere about their efforts than George Bush (or John Kerry for that matter). And as “green-living” becomes more and more popular and visible, and as more people understand the economic, as well as the environmental, benefits of more eco-conscious policies and lifestyles, the public push for such legislation will only increase.

It would be great if this bill passed Congress without amendments diluting its ability to positively affect the environment, as well as our economy. If not, hopefully Congress will use the debate to formulate a bill which will pass without rendering it useless in our fight against climate change.


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One response to “Washington’s New Eco-Agenda

  1. Pingback: Todays Current Events in the Environment » Alert - environment effect

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