The Whimper at the End of the Energy Debate

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(Washington, DC - Todd Zwillich, Transportation Nation) This is the way the summer ends: Not with a bang, but a whimper.

The U.S. Senate has hung up its energy policy ambitions for now, shelving any hope of even the narrowest drilling or green energy legislation before lawmakers head home for the August recess at the end of this week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced yesterday afternoon that he was canceling plans for a vote on a package of energy provisions after the bill, much of which was bipartisan, failed to attract a single Republican.

"Since Republicans refuse to move forward with any meaningful debate, we’ll postpone tomorrow’s vote on energy until after the recess,” Reid told reporters yesterday.

That comment was the death knell for a spring and summer of wrangling over energy legislation in the Senate.

It's been a year since the House passed a sweeping, economy-wide cap-and-trade bill aiming to drastically reduce carbon emissions over the next 50 years. It also contained broad new investments in public transit, cleaner-energy cars, and high-tech batteries.

But the Senate never found anything close to 60 votes for an economy-wide carbon pricing policy, and quickly sought less ambitious ways to pass a bill that could attract the votes needed to overcome a filibuster. But even efforts to confine carbon pricing to electric utilities fell flat in the last couple of weeks.

That left Reid to try a bill that seemingly should have been able to pass: a regulatory crackdown on villian-of-the-moment BP and other offshore drillers. But even that effort ran into roadblocks when Republicans and drilling-state Democrats raised concerts that eliminating liability caps put insurance costs out of reach for small and medium-sized drillers. By yesterday afternoon it appeared that Reid was close to winning over drilling state Democrats with a plan to pool insurance costs across the drilling industry as well as a plan to send a bigger chunk of federal drilling royalties to coastal states.

But no Republicans signed onto the formula, and Reid was quick to blame them when he pulled the plug on even the narrowest of energy legislation for this summer. Privately, Republican aides pointed out that Reid may not have actually had all of the Democrats on board, and wanted to avoid the potential embarrassment of Democratic disunity on a high-profile oil drilling vote so close to the November mid-term elections. Either way, Democrats lost the chance to back GOP senators into a corner, making them risk the appearance of standing on the side of BP and other oil companies.

But the death of the so-called "spill bill" dragged down a number of clean transportation provisions with it. Senators had reached bipartisan agreement on a package of incentives and grants for plug-in hybrids and electric cars, including the launch of several electric car charging infrastructure demonstration projects. The bill had new money for the development of electric car drive components, as well as incentives for high-capacity, long-drive battery development.

It also aimed to give credits for big companies who convert their truck fleets to cleaner-burning natural gas, a provision that attracted support from both parties and from senators where natural gas is drilled. No such luck.

Reid told reporters he would take another crack at energy legislation after the August recess, when the Senate regroups for one last short work period before breaking to campaign. At that point it will be even closer to the midterm elections, when the chances of bipartisan legislation are likely to be even more remote than they are now.