The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved its version of a clean energy bill today with a 15-8 vote built on trade-offs – a renewable electricity standard in exchange for expanded off-shore drilling and a welcome mat rolled out for the tar sands.
The head of the American Petroleum Institute was clearly pleased with the outcome:
"The committee took a positive step forward by passing this bill which recognizes the importance of additional offshore oil and natural gas development and Canadian oil to our nation's energy and economic security," API President Jack Gerard said.
The API, the oil and gas industry's trade association, praised the committee for its efforts to expand drilling to within 45 miles of Florida's Gulf Coast and for including an amendment to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, "which, as originally written, could have precluded federal agencies from using transportation fuels derived from Canadian oil sands."
Four Republicans, including Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, joined all but two of the committee's Democrats in recommending the legislation to the full Senate.
The Sierra Club, which supports the House's American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill, gave voice to the dismay among environmental groups at how the Senate's bill had been compromised.
"Numerous changes to this bill during consideration by the committee have significantly undermined its integrity and ability to build the clean energy economy," Sierra Club Director Carl Pope wrote in opposing the Senate's American Clean Energy Leadership bill.
"While it makes positive strides in setting new energy efficiency standards for our buildings and appliances, it falls far short of what President Obama has called for in order to repower America with renewable energy, create millions of new clean energy jobs, and fight global warming.
"It needs to be significantly strengthened as it moves to the Senate floor, where we believe there is majority support for considerably stronger clean energy policies."
The final version of the Senate bill shrunk the renewable electricity target to 15 percent by 2021 and applied it only to large utilities selling over 4 million megawatt-hours per year. That's even lower than the 20 percent Renewable Energy Standard in the weakened ACES bill that could reach the House floor as early as next week. Obama initially called for utilities to provide 25 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025.
In practice, the Senate bill would come close to simply the status quo on renewable energy, Pope wrote. Plus, it skews the concept of clean energy in ways that could allow support for coal and municipal solid waste incineration.
The bill would provide a boost to clean energy projects by creating a green bank called the Clean Energy Deployment Administration (CEDA) to help fund them. Alaska's pipeline project would also get additional federal funding.
In addition, the bill would tighten energy efficiency standards for appliances and sets goals for improving the nation's energy efficiency by at least 2.5% annually by 2012. It would task FERC with planning an electricity grid expansion and give it eminent domain powers. And it would authorize a leasing program for wind or solar energy on public lands, among other things.
The tar sands and off-shore drilling amendments have drawn the most attention, however, particularly from environmental groups.
"We are also very dismayed that restrictions passed by Congress just two years ago in order to prevent taxpayer dollars from being used to purchase dirty, dangerous, destructive, and expensive liquid coal and tar sands fuels are partially repealed by this bill," Pope wrote.
"Tar sands oil is the dirtiest oil on earth. Liquid coal is twice as polluting as standard fuels. They have no place in America's new clean energy economy, and they certainly have no place in any serious clean energy legislation."
The drilling plan, he said, "will put our coasts at risk, feed our addiction to oil, and do nothing to help build the clean energy economy – all while benefiting Big Oil."
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who fought for the provision that now keeps oil rigs at least 125 miles from most of the Florida coast, has also vowed to fight the drilling proposal on the Senate floor.
The energy bill will likely be combined with a climate bill that Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) plans to have her Environment and Public Works Committee mark it up before Congress's August recesses. Boxer said last week that the climate legislation will closely echo the House version, and be a bit stronger in some areas.
Neither the House nor Senate version is assured passage in either chamber. Farm state Democrats have been threatening to hold up the House version to force changes, including shifting oversight from the EPA to the Department of Agriculture, and the farm lobby is strong in the Senate as well.