When a story on the new climate bill starts like this, you know you're in trouble.
The good news for environmentalists: Three of the country’s big five oil companies have agreed to support the bill, as has the Edison Electric Institute, the leading utility industry group.
Really, that's supposed to be the good news. Why would the oil companies -- plump with cash from high oil prices and already cuddling the gift of drll, baby, drill in their arms -- be supporting this legislation? Hey, what's not to like?
o The bill would remove the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act, and the states’ authority to set tougher emissions standards than the federal government.
o There will be no fee—or “gas tax”—on transportation fuels. Instead, oil companies would also be required to obtain pollution permits but will not trade them on the market like other polluters. How this would work is not yet clear.
o The bill would place an upper and lower limit on the price of pollution permits, known as a hard price collar. Businesses like this idea because it ensures a stable price on carbon. Environmental advocates don’t like the idea because if the ceiling is set too low, industry will have no financial incentive to move to cleaner forms of energy.
o The energy bill passed by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year will be adopted in full. This measure has sparked concerns among environmentalists for its handouts to nuclear and fossil fuel interests.
That first bullet point, that one about removing the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouses gases? That one is enough to know that this bill is an absolute gift for fossil fuels. The second part of that same bullet point, the part about "the states’ authority," turns this bill into ChristmaBirthdayNewYears -- an event that would leave Champagne suppliers across Houston tired but happy.
When the Clean Air Act was passed, California already had standards on emissions. California lawmakers signed onto the bill under an agreement that gave California "primacy" -- the ability to set their own regulations on emissions, so long as those regulations were as least as tough as the federal regulations. Other states then had the right to chose the federal rules, or to go with the California rules.
Again and again, it's been California that moved the ball down the field. On numerous occasions, California has voted in tighter regulations, other states have followed, and those regulations have eventually put pressure on the federal government to adopt tougher guidelines. It's safe to say that we would not even be having this conversation, there would not even be such a bill before Congress, if California did not have the ability to point the way and if other states did not have the ability to follow.
And the oil companies know that very, very well.
When you look at the rest of the bill -- a promise of no tax on oil products, arbitrary limits on the CO2 certificates (prices on SO2 certificates already sold under the Clean Air Act have never come close to the predicted prices), and billions more for investments in fossil fuel technologies than for investments in sustainable energy -- it's little wonder oil companies are breaking out the cigars. They're trading actual pressures on their behavior that have actually resulted in change many times in the past, for the smoke and mirrors of an artificial marketplace they are sure to manipulate.
Weak as the reforms are in the new fiscal regulations, Wall Street still has their lobbyists screaming in opposition. When the good news on any bill is that they lobbyists for the industry it's supposed to regulate are cheering for the bill, it doesn't exactly lead you to believe the word "tough" is going to be an apt description. It's not.
If the description of the bill is even close to correct, you're going to see a number of environmental groups standing in opposition to this bill. Still...
Is this enough for some liberal groups to withhold their support? Probably — although the mainstream of the environmental movement is likely to bite the bullet and throw its weight behind the country’s best chance to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
This had better not be our best chance. Just the loss of California's ability to kick-start slow federal action on pollution is a power so valuable it shouldn't be surrendered for anything less than enormous progress and regulations with diamond-hard teeth.
Passing the flawed health care bill was a compromise and a first step. As it now stands, this bill is a surrender and a giant step backwards.