3-D US Electoral Map (Image by: Alexander O'Neill)

Article By Guest Contributor: Lynann Butkiewicz

As Congress convenes in the weeks before the mid-term elections, there is likely to be one final push for a comprehensive energy bill, although the chances of it passing are slim. Congress will be looking to pass top priority legislation addressing the key issues concerning the American public including job growth and an increase in credit for small businesses. Politicians will shy away from highly politicized issues, such as climate change, and vote for legislation that will rally the base.

Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he would like to push for the new energy bill vote in the Senate before the elections, but he also told reporters he would allow a vote on blocking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from curbing carbon emissions sometime after the elections this year.

Environmentalists had hoped that if the energy bill does not pass in Congress then the EPA could be a last resort in order to cut back on carbon emissions. An expected Republican majority in Congress after the elections would not only vote down the energy bill but also likely pass the vote on limiting the EPA. A Wonk Room survey reported this week that only one of the 37 Republican candidates up for Senate seats this year believe that climate change is manmade. With winds shifting the nation toward a Republican majority, the prospect of passing comprehensive climate legislation is doubtful.

The proposed Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act is significantly different to the last failed energy bill. In the 2009 bill, that was passed in the House of Representatives and killed in the Senate, there was a measure to price carbon, indicating the potential for a US national carbon market. The 2009 legislation barely passed, including 44 Democrats rejecting the bill.

This new proposed bill does not address pricing carbon, leaving open the question of if and when cap and trade will become a reality in the US and whether this energy bill will make a significant impact on climate change regulation in the lead-up to the negotiations in Cancun in November. If Democrats cannot pass comprehensive climate legislation with a majority in Congress before the elections, then the chances of having a national carbon market and clear carbon mitigation target are doubtful for the next several years.

Instead, this bill includes a Home Star rebate system in order to encourage consumers to purchase energy efficient upgrades, similar to the debated Cash for Clunkers scheme introduced in 2009. It also includes a measure for BP to pay for the damages caused by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The recession has put the brakes on carbon trading expansion worldwide, and the US is no exception. Opponents claim that new energy taxes will stifle job growth in the private sector and force the US to rely more on foreign oil, exactly the type of legislation the Democratic Congress is looking to avoid in an election year.

As former Bill Clinton strategist James Carville said in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

If the Democratic-majority Congress wants to succeed in passing climate legislation before the anticipated Republican majority takes over, it needs to be framed toward economic recovery.

The very title of the “Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act,” indicates that the bill will stimulate job growth and add accountability for BP’s role in the Gulf oil spill. Democrats will try to highlight this when lobbying for support of the bill before the elections, but Republicans are not looking for votes that will frame Congress as making progress. Instead, a tactic could be to make the Democratic-majority Congress look as if it is not getting legislation passed, encouraging voters to make a change in the establishment at the polls.

The Republican strategy up until the elections seems to be based on passing legislation in the House of Representatives and then killing it in the Senate, which was the fate of the last climate bill. If this continues to happen through to November, and Republicans sweep Congress, then climate legislation may not only be impossible for 2010, but also for the next several years.

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