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Americans Have Spoken: We Want Clean Energy

So why are the Republicans threatening to filibuster the best chance we have?
 
 
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Last Thursday, the US House of Representatives passed, by a 235-181 vote, the Energy Independence and Security Act. This new energy bill includes measures that would increase car fuel mileage, restore taxes on Big Oil to pay for investments in solar, wind and energy efficiency, and mandate that electric utilities generate 15 percent of their power using renewable energy.

On Friday, the same bill passed the Senate by 53 votes in favor to 42 opposed. Republicans then threatened to filibuster, raising the bar for passage to 60 votes. The Senate will work on revisions and is expected to bring a modified bill to the floor sometime this week, but giant corporations are working overtime to trash as much of the renewable energy substance as they can.

The renewable electricity mandate and the oil tax package are the two provisions attracting the most opposition, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell calling them "twin millstones ... around its neck."

According to a Bloomberg report, Rudy Giuliani's lobbying firm has taken a leading role in trying to "strangle" the bill on behalf of the utility and oil industries.

Despite the blockage in the Senate, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was widely praised for passing the renewable energy and efficiency provisions, and Democrats are touting the achievement as an illustration of what they would accomplish on climate change and energy independence if given control of government in 2008.

Following the Senate vote, Senator John Kerry flew to Bali to discuss climate policy with world leaders and to let them know he is convinced that "the politics of 2009 in the United States are going to be just night and day, different from where we have been before." Commenting on the Senate vote, Kerry said, "The energy vote today -- and the message the Roadblock Republicans risk sending far and wide across the globe -- is a gigantic reminder why we're still one election away from bringing the biggest and boldest change to Washington."

Proponents of the House-passed energy bill have called it a "down payment" on a climate change strategy. With the "down payment" now in jeopardy, climate activists organized by the US Climate Emergency Council (USCEC) planned to conduct a sit-in today inside the office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The activists will demand that McConnell meet with them to discuss retaining strong support for renewable energy in the revised Senate energy bill.

A recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) confirms that the House bill would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The study found that the legislation would prevent over 190 million metric tons of global warming pollution in 2020 -- equivalent to taking 28 million of today's average cars and trucks off the road in that year.

The UCS study also shows the bill to be effective at reducing America's dependence on foreign oil, finding that full implementation of the measures will save about 1.1 million barrels of oil per day in 2020 - half of what the United States currently imports from the Persian Gulf. Even after paying for the necessary fuel economy technology, the study finds, in 2020 American consumers will save $22 billion in energy costs.

And then there are the jobs. While no one is predicting the exact number of jobs this energy bill would create, Democrats are saying that major investments in renewable energy could create three million green jobs over 10 years. With its renewable electricity mandate and expanded production tax credits for wind and solar energy, the House-passed energy bill would almost certainly spark such major investment. The package also creates a program to train a quality workforce for "green" collar jobs such as solar panel manufacturing and installation.

On the other side of the energy divide, a report released by the American Petroleum Institute (API) in November says that energy bill provisions would destroy five million jobs by 2030.

Pete Morton, a senior resource economist for the Wilderness Society, called it "a biased study that only looks at the costs but not the benefits of the proposed legislation."

The API study claims that closing tax loopholes for Big Oil will cause an increase in energy prices that will slow economic growth, leading to the job losses. But the bipartisan Congressional Joint Economic Committee found that closing the $13.5 billion in tax loopholes would have no effect on oil production decisions and, consequently, no effect on consumer prices for gasoline and natural gas.

Big Oil and its friends claim that restoring the oil industry's tax burden will leave the industry short of funds needed to develop new oil and gas resources. But Daniel J. Weiss of American Progress says, "This ignores the over half a trillion dollars in combined profits earned by the big five oil companies since 2001... The $13.5 billion in tax breaks, collected over a decade, is less than three percent of these companies' total profits over the last seven years. BP, Chevron, Shell and ExxonMobil each had more than $13.5 billion in profits during the first three quarters of 2007. The closed loopholes are a drop in the barrel compared with big oil profits."

Weiss also points out that for the most part, Big Oil is using its profits not to invest in clean, renewable energy or even to explore for new oil and gas. Instead, these companies are using a large portion of their profits to buy back their own stock. "This does nothing to add to the US supply of either new, clean energy, or oil and gas," Weiss said.

With global supplies of conventional oil at or near their peak, the failure of oil companies to invest in renewable alternatives has to be one of the greatest market failures of all time. But this is something that Big Oil supporters refuse to see. Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Texas said, "We are moving from a market-based energy policy, which has served this country well for 150 years, to a government-mandated energy policy."

What Barton cannot see, along with the American Enterprise Institute, the Club for Growth and other blindly pro-growth capitalists, is that endless growth on a finite planet is plain impossible. Markets can still work, but all markets have rules, and the rules have to recognize the reality that oil and gas are starting to run out and we cannot rely on coal and dirty fuels such as tar sands and oil shale because they will kill us with global warming and toxic pollution.

Another reality that the Joe Bartons of the world will shortly recognize is that renewable energy will not only be mandated by government but demanded by the people. A recent Zogby Poll found that 77 percent of Republicans, 85 percent of independents and 92 percent of Democrats agree that utilities should be required to produce some of their energy from clean sources such as wind and solar.

The giant utility, Southern Company, which has spent $7.26 million this year on lobbying by Guliani's firm and others, has not convinced many people even in its own backyard. An editorial in The Tampa Tribune on the renewable electricity standard said: "That standard for renewables would be difficult in states like Florida now heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Yet Republican Gov. Charlie Crist wants the state to be 20 percent renewable by 2020, and if Florida can achieve that, the 15 percent standard is reasonable elsewhere."

While climate protesters occupy McConnell's office, others will be making calls to their senators. Ted Glick, coordinator of the Climate Emergency Council, urged citizens to flood Senate offices with phone calls to "demand that the Senate include both the 15 percent by 2020 Renewable Electricity Standard for utility companies and a Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit in the energy bill." Activists from the Youth Climate Movement identified a list of key senators who could be persuaded to keep strong support for renewables in the bill: Norm Coleman (R-Minnesota), Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), Larry Craig (R-Idaho), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), John Ensign (R-Nevada), Judd Greg (R-New Hampshire), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Carl Levin (D-Michigan), Richard G. Lugar (R-Indiana), Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), John McCain (R-Arizona), Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), John E. Sununu (R-New Hampshire), and John Thune (R-South Dakota).

Marianne Lavelle, a columnist at US News and World Report, had a different idea and a different target list. She suggested in her December 10 column: "If the goal was scaled back from 15 percent to 10 percent ... would that make a difference? It still would be a huge gain, especially over 13 years, when wind, solar, and geothermal now total less than 3 percent of generation. And since utilities could meet a portion of their 'renewable' percentage with badly needed energy efficiency improvements, would that really be an unachievable goal - even for the coal-dependent South (which has argued that it lacks resources for wind power)?"

Lavelle named six target senators who voted in favor of a renewable electricity amendment to the 2005 energy bill: "Democrats Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Republicans Charles Grassley of Iowa, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and John Ensign of Nevada (Ensign was recorded as not voting on the energy bill last week)."

Another senator who failed to show up for last week's vote was presidential candidate and erstwhile climate change fixer John McCain. Hillary Clinton was not present for the vote, but she gave her proxy to Barbara Boxer.

Al Gore said on Monday that he believes the presidential candidates are spending too little time discussing climate change and the environment. It would certainly help voters to know where more of them stand on the growing energy divide.

Kelpie Wilson is Truthout's environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry.