Four years, two failed conference attempts, and one filibuster after the Republican leadership first introduced the Bush-backed energy bill into Congress, the controversial legislation was signed into law Monday by the president, yielding a major victory for the White House -- and exposing the continued inability of Democrats to rally around a unified vision and stay on message.
When House and Senate negotiators met to hammer out a compromise version of the bill in conference committee last month, it was predictably stripped of nearly all its environmentally ambitious provisions, including one requiring utilities to generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. What's left is a dizzying $14.5 billion in energy-industry subsidies, only about 20 percent of which will go to renewable-energy development.
As expected, the legislation has been trounced as pork at its worst by everyone from enviros to fiscal conservatives, even as it's been hailed by most energy-industry players and Republicans as an unqualified triumph. Less predictably, the bill garnered votes and accolades from a number of Senate Democrats.
Senate Energy Committee ranking member Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., beamed that the post-conference bill has "many more bright spots than flaws and deserves passage by the Senate and signature by the president."
Harder for progressives and enviros to swallow was the support it got from Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who expressed disappointment that the bill wasn't more bold but still went so far as to call the legislation "a first step toward decreasing America's dependence on foreign oil." It could more credibly be described as yet another step toward subsidizing Illinois corn farmers for ethanol production that will be of dubious environmental benefit.
Bingaman and Obama were far from alone: Over half of the Democratic caucus in the Senate voted for the bill. Most of these yea votes came from senators whose states stood to benefit markedly from the subsidies, while most of the nay votes were cast by senators from non-energy-producing states.
Critics argue that this split among Dems wasn't just a practical failure that gave way to shoddy energy policy; it was also a symbolic failure for the Democratic Party at large.
"The final language in the bill fell considerably short of the standards [Minority Leader Harry] Reid, D-Nev., outlined as the Democratic plan for energy independence," said Ana Unruh Cohen, associate director for environmental policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.
In May, Reid released a statement challenging the White House to produce a forward-looking energy policy. "Democrats remain fully committed to working to pass an energy bill that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil," he stated, and went on to outline the eight priorities that Dems would stand by: a renewable-electricity portfolio standard; a reduction of oil consumption by at least 1.75 million barrels of oil per day by 2015; electricity reliability standards; "strong energy-efficiency standards" for buildings and appliances; a "significant increase in homegrown biofuels"; a "comprehensive" climate-change provision; production tax credits for geothermal, solar, wind and biomass; and complete protection of existing environmental laws and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"Of this list, the Senate Dems got some bio-fuel provisions, a significantly scaled-down version of their energy-efficiency and production tax-credit requests, and the electricity-reliability title. And they managed to fend off many of the encroachments on environmental laws," said Kevin Curtis, vice president of National Environmental Trust. "They lost everything else."
But even though Reid cast a nay vote, his objection to the legislation was voiced with a barely audible whimper. He issued a terse statement that read, in part, "House Republicans working on the final version of the bill rejected the provisions that would have led us toward energy independence, and I will not support this version of the bill."
According to insiders, Reid made little to no effort to sway the Democratic caucus, presumably because he knew a lot of Democrats believed they would benefit from the bill's passage and he assumed it would be futile to try to convince them otherwise. Repeated calls to Reid's office for comment were not returned.
But even if Reid had made a concerted effort to sway Dems, it probably wouldn't have changed the final outcome, according to Curtis. The removal of a provision that would have granted cleanup immunity to producers of the gasoline additive MTBE all but guaranteed the energy bill's passage, he contends. "The last time they tried to pass this bill the GOP had 58 votes for the energy conference package -- only two short to pass it," he said. "That version was way porkier in terms of subsidies and giveaways and it had the MTBE provision, which caused even Republicans to vote against it." Fast-forward to this go-round and there are four fewer Democrats in the Senate, less subsidy flab, and no controversial MTBE provision: "Any rational analysis tells you that sucker's going through," Curtis said.
Bill Wicker, minority spokesperson for the Senate Energy Committee, defended the Dems, pointing out that they successfully fought some of the bill's most environmentally damaging provisions: "We didn't just succeed in blocking the MTBE provision. We prevented their efforts to lift offshore drilling moratoriums. We pushed hard to keep [the Arctic Refuge] out of the legislation. And we stopped very aggressive efforts to significantly weaken NEPA."
Curtis agreed on that point, saying, "The Dems and Senate conferees overall did a really good job of getting rid of a lot of crap."
So enviros can bemoan the failure of Democrats to shift the direction of America's energy policy and demonstrate to the public that they stand for energy independence -- but, hey, at least they pulled off some damage control.
Wicker also stressed that the bill's passage into law does not, of course, signal the end of the energy debate or congressional initiatives on energy independence. After Congress resumes work in the fall, he expects to see the introduction of bills mandating tougher fuel-efficiency requirements, a renewable-energy standard, and action on climate change, including a revamped version of Bingaman's global-warming legislation that would require industries to slow the growth of their greenhouse-gas emissions through a market-based trading program.
But, for now, the energy bill's enactment simply spotlights the failure of leaders in D.C. to address the nation's most difficult energy problems. "On Monday the Bush administration will celebrate its victory," said Cohen of the Center for American Progress, "but on Tuesday, gas prices will still be over $2 a gallon, and there will still be 100,000 American troops in Iraq, and the planet will still be warming."