Weeks of deal making just paid off for the sponsors of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES). The climate bill squeaked through the U.S. House this evening, 219 votes to 212.
The list of 44 Democrats who sided with the opposition, despite pressure from the sponsors and the White House, largely reflected the long-running regional concerns about how the bill would affect agriculture and states across the South and Midwest that rely heavily on coal power.
Eight Republicans, primarily from coastal states, joined the Democratic majority to put the vote count over the top.
"With today's historic vote, Congress has taken the first step toward unleashing a true clean energy revolution," Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said. "This bill sets the stage for the dawn of the clean energy future. While imperfect, it sets forth a set of goals America must achieve – and exceed.
Congress is off next week for the July 4 holiday break, then the bill heads into the Senate, where environmental groups are urging lawmakers to strengthen it, but most aren't holding their breath.
An energy bill approved earlier this month by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee offered a window on what's likely to come: The Senate bill won outright applause from the oil industry because it would open Florida's Gulf Coast to offshore drilling and pour money into Alaska's pipeline project.
At this point, only President Obama finally investing his extraordinary political capitol can ensure a climate bill strong enough to allow the United States to take a leadership stand at Copenhagen, says Greenpeace Deputy Campaigns Director Carroll Muffett.
Today's floor debate was largely a rerun of the arguments we've been hearing all year: Republicans claiming the bill will kill jobs, send energy prices skyrocketing, and hurt the competitiveness of U.S. businesses; Democrats arguing that the bill will create millions of green jobs, wean the nation of foreign oil, and put U.S. businesses at the leading edge of a global clean energy technology revolution.
Behind the scenes, House offices were deluged with calls and emails as environmental groups urged their members to voice support and conservative talk radio rallied its listeners. 1Sky said its member sent more more than 18,000 faxes and made 1,600 phone calls urging Congress to strengthen and pass the bill. Daily Kos wrote:
Just got this email from a key Hill staffer: "I wanted to let you know that telephone calls into our office are skewed against the bill (and many are out of district), but emails are strongly skewed towards the bill. Seems like the new generation (those who know how to use the Internet, unlike Joe Barton) is pro-addressing global warming."
A few Democrats who had been on the fence came out in favor during the debate.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who had withheld his support, saying the bill was too weak, drew applause when he told the chamber that listening during the three-hour debate to the climate denialists, the"flat earth society" and "and some of the most inane arguments I've heard for refusing to act on this vital national security challenge" had pushed him into the support column.
Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who played a large role in weakening the ACES bill through his demands for coal-industry concessions, provided some vivid insight today into the depth of the deal-making as he to bragged to the House about how he had given coal a bright future:
"My focus in the shaping of the bill in the Energy and Commerce Committee was to keep electricity rates affordable and to enable utilities to continue using coal," Boucher said. "Both of these goals have been achieved.
"The Environmental Protection Agency projects that by 2020, coal usage in America under the terms of the bill will actually grow. ... The claims of opponents that the CO2 controls under the bill will force utilities to surrender coal use, causing an over-reliance on natural gas, with attendant broad economic harm to the nation, are also simply wrong."
Boucher went on to talk about another demand he had made, one that helped pushed Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to oppose the bill this week: a section that strips the EPA of its authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.
"Now, these are sound reasons to approve the bill, but for those who still harbor doubts, let me make a more practical argument to vote for passage. ... Federal regulation for greenhouse gases is now inevitable. It is not a question of whether we are going to have regulation, the only question is whether the regulation will be our carefully balanced, congressionally adopted, economically sustainable regulation, as contained within the bill before us today, or whether we will have EPA's regulation under the blunt instrument of the Clean Air Act, where economic considerations cannot be fully weighed," Boucher said.
"Given that choice, and the path this bill charts for affordable electricity, for increased coal use, and for new job creation, I would urge the members to make the reasonable decision to approve today the Clean Energy and Security Act."
Those and other potentially damaging elements of the bill haven't been lost on environmental groups. FOE President Brent Blackwelder said after the vote:
"It's a shame we can't celebrate the passage of the first-ever bill intended to reduce global warming pollution. Unfortunately, big oil, dirty coal, corporate agribusiness, and Wall Street lobbyists neutered this bill and it now fails to deliver the transformational change that is needed.
"This bill will produce nowhere near the emissions reductions that are needed to solve global warming. ... It will not put us on the path to a clean energy future, but it will lock us into a system that rewards polluters with massive giveaways and can be gamed by Wall Street; it is therefore likely to empower entrenched interests that stand in the way of progress."
"The sad reality is that the House of Representatives remains so corrupted by special interests and special interest cronies—like Reps. Rick Boucher and Collin Peterson—that it is thwarting the will of the American people."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md) spoke to the bill's potential, saying it was an important first step in the right direction (see video). Global warming is the defining challenge of our time, he told the House.
"America voted for a change we could believe in – that's what this bill represents," Hoyer said. "This bill is about making sure that foreign interests cannot raise the expenses of our families. This bill is about making sure that we in America provide our energy, efficient energy, clean energy, energy that will not bring our globe to a heating process that will drown the seashores. ... This bill is a true turning point."
"We are all paying the cost of carbon emissions already. The longer we wait, the more we will pay year after year after year."