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Weekly Mulch: Why the senate climate bill is doomed

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Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), though down one man, finally released their stab at climate legislation this week. One of the most crucial sections in the bill covers off-shore oil drilling, an issue that was supposed to help solve the tricky math of reaching 60 votes. But since the Deepwater Horizon rig sank in the Gulf of Mexico, drilling has become a wedge issue.

Just a few weeks ago, off-shore drilling could have been a point of compromise around which Senators could rally votes to pass the climate bill; now the bill had to strike a new balance to mollify both potential allies who oppose drilling, like Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and those who support drilling, like Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA). The draft that Sen. Kerry and Sen. Lieberman released this week allows for expanded drilling but gives states veto power over new projects.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who worked on the bill, said that he had not seen the changes his two colleagues had made since he dropped out of the drafting process—but he looked forward to reviewing their work. Although Sen. Kerry says he thinks the bill can pass,  without support from Sen. Graham or another Republican, chances are slim.

Next steps

Now that the two Senators have released the bill, the only work that remains is to pass it.

“I think climate change legislation is dead,” writes Kevin Drum at Mother Jones. His explanation:

“There’s not enough time for a bill to go through the committee process, get passed by the Senate, sent to conference, amended, and then passed by the full Congress before the midterms, and after the midterms Democrats will probably be reduced to 53 or 54 members in the Senate.”

Not everyone agrees that the bill’s chance are so dire, though.

“I think the chances are roughly as good as they’ve ever been in the Senate: low but non-trivial,” says Grist’s David Roberts.

Kerry’s argument

But should green-minded politicos root for the bill’s passage at all? Sen. Kerry and Sen. Lieberman worked closely with energy companies while drafting the bill, and the resulting legislation balances the need to reduce carbon emissions with the interests of prime polluters. The bill includes incentives for old energy industries like coal and natural gas, for instance, and exempts farmers from carbon caps.

On Wednesday, Sen. Kerry made his case to left-leaning environmentalists. “A comprehensive climate bill written purely for you and me — true believers — can’t pass the Senate no matter how hard or passionate I fight on it,” he wrote for Grist. The bill they have, he wrote, can pass, and that victory outweighs the compromises in the legislation.

Responses from the left

On Democracy Now!, Phil Radford, the executive director of GreenPeace USA, said that most environmental groups have given the bill little more than a “tepid endorsement.” Radford squared off on the show with Joseph Romm of the Center for American Progress, who supports the bill.

“This will be the first bill ever passed by the Senate, if it were to pass, that would put us on a path to get off of fossil fuels,” Romm said.

The two men were also divided over issues like the impact the climate bill could have on international negotiations.

They agreed, though, there is room for improvement; the only question is whether the politics of climate change will allow for the passage of a stronger bill any times soon. As Kevin Drum wrote, “If you think this year’s bills are watered down, just wait until you see what a Congress with a hair-thin Democratic majority produces.”

Coal and natural gas

Tripping up environmentalists now, though, are the hand-outs to dirty energy industries. The coal and natural gas industry could both benefit from the provisions of the Senate bill, for instance.

On GritTV, Jeff Biggers, a writer and educator who covers the coal industry, explained his frustration:

“The climate bill is a nice first step and a very well meaning effort for someone like Sen. Kerry who’s been working on this issue for 20 years. But at the same time, because of the massive big coal lobby that has poured millions of dollars into lobbying congress on this climate legislation…there are all sorts of little panders and loopholes and exemptions.”

“What we see in this bill is that Sen. Kerry and Lieberman want to ensure coal’s future,” he said.

The booming natural gas industry also had a hand in shaping the bill and benefited from it. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club favor natural gas as an energy source over coal, and as Kari Lydersen reports in Working In These Times, the industry is driving job growth at a time when the economy needs a boost.

But as Alex Halperin reported last month for The American Prospect, in the places where drilling is occurring, like Ithaca, NY, activists are arguing that the environmental risks could outweigh those economic benefits.

Drill or be drilled

That devil’s bargain—risking natural resources for jobs in the energy industry—went the wrong way for the Gulf Coast, and states like Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida are paying the price even before the oil hits shore.

As I report in AlterNet, the Gulf’s economy could lose billions of dollars and is suffering already from the misconception that its beaches are tarred with oil. With this catastrophe still fresh in voters’ minds, the Senate climate bill proposes pushing new drilling initiatives 75 miles offshore and giving affected states veto power over these projects.

Depending on how long the memory of the Deepwater Horizon spill lasts, politicians could have a good reason to veto drilling. Public News Service reports that 55% of Floridians now oppose off-shore drilling, “almost a complete reversal from one year ago.”

Blame game

Certainly no one is stepping up to take responsibility for the explosion off the coast of Louisiana, as the Washington Independent reports. At a hearing this week, officials from British Petroleum, which was operating the well, Transocean, which owns it, and Halliburton, which was doing contract work that may have caused the problem, all denied wrongdoing and pressed the blame on each other.

It’s starting to look Halliburton played a key part. “The focus is increasingly shifting to the role of Halliburton, which poured the cement for the rig, as well as for another operation that spilled oil off the coast of Australia last August,” writes Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones. The company apparently did not place a cement plug that would have kept gas in the well before emptying it of the mud that was holding in the flammable gas.

Anyone living in a state that could have new drilling off their coast should keep this catastrophe in mind if their politicians are given the option of vetoing new projects.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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