Energy Bill: Can Senators Reach Agreement?

Former energy secretary doesn't see prospect of comprehensive legislation.

June 29, 2010, 2:52 PM

June 29, 2010— -- Even as the sense of urgency to address the energy issue grows, momentum on the energy and climate bill is still stalled. The idea of a cap on carbon has become a central point of contention between Democrats and Republicans.

The death of Sen. Robert Byrd, who, despite hailing from coal-producing West Virginia, became a proponent of fostering clean energy and passing a comprehensive bill, has also cast doubt on whether there will be enough Democratic votes to pass a partisan bill.

Spencer Abraham, former energy secretary under President George W. Bush and a senator from Michigan for six years, said the current divisions are consistent with the history of energy politics.

A similar outcry for energy reform erupted in 2003, when a power outage caused a massive blackout in the northeastern U.S. and parts of Canada, becoming, at the time, the second most widespread blackout in world history. But lawmakers still couldn't come together on energy legislation and even the "Energy Policy Act" that passed two years later was considerably watered down, said Abraham, whose new book "Lights Out!: Ten Myths about (And Real Solutions to) America's Energy Crisis" will be released next week.

"It's not going to be easy because even with the oil spill and the pressure that's created, it reminds me a lot of 2003 where even though there's desire to do something, there's still very sharp divisions about what that something ought to be," Abraham told ABC News.

President Obama, who has been mostly vague on specifically what he wants to see in a Senate energy bill, told Senators in a bipartisan meeting today that any energy bill should put a price on carbon pollution.

"When companies pollute, they should be responsible for the costs to the environment and their contribution to climate change," the White House said in a statement.

That, Republicans say, is not going to happen.

"A cap and trade proposal, a national energy tax will not sell in this country at this time," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said after the meeting today.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, urged the administration to "carefully weigh the costs of action versus inaction to avoid unintended consequences that cost us jobs."

"While there is consensus among us on energy, on the complex and difficult question of curbing greenhouse gas emissions, there is no consensus at this time," said Snowe, who has written several bipartisan proposals on energy and climate and is proposing to implement a carbon pricing program focused only on the power sector.

Democrats, however, are unwilling to back down from the issue. Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, whose proposed bill with Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Connecticut, revolves around "cap and trade," said today he's willing to strike a compromise with Republicans but that taking a carbon emission cap off of the table was not an option.

Even as the urgency from the BP oil spill continues to dominate discussions, lawmakers have yet to figure out how they can find middle ground.

"A bill with a price on carbon is still a very difficult thing to deliver," said Michael A. Levi, director of the program on energy security and climate change at Council on Foreign Relations. "On the other end of the spectrum, a bill that gently promotes alternative energy and reforms regulations for offshore drilling and liabilities is relatively easy. The question is what do you get in between."

A number of bills related to energy and climate have been proposed in the Senate.

The much-touted Kerry-Lieberman "American Power Act" seeks to cut carbon pollution by 17 percent in 2020 and by more than 80 percent by 2050, but it's seen as a non-starter by many. A bill by Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Indiana, calls for more fuel efficiency programs and energy efficiency but doesn't include any specifics on carbon caps and regulating greenhouse gases.

Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, introduced a bipartisan "cap and dividend" bill last December, under which polluters would pay to buy "carbon shares" in an auction, the money from which would go toward clean energy research and into Americans' pockets. Yet another handful of bills have been offered in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The final product is likely to be a combination of all the various proposals, crafted chiefly by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada.

But whether there will be enough support to pass it remains to be seen. Byrd's successor has yet to be announced, and given West Virginia's deep-rooted history as a coal mining state, any incoming senator will have to be convinced of the merits of an energy bill. At the same time, Democrats will need the support of at least a few Republicans, who have so far been hesitant to associate themselves with any carbon caps.

"One of the things that I learned is that you not only have normal partisan divisions, you also have regional divisions that are pretty strong, so energy-producing-state senators, for example, tend to be very similar in their views, and so that changes the normal dynamics," Abraham said.

Some senators are also concerned about putting too much on their plate in a contentious election year, when the Democratic agenda is likely to be put under increased scrutiny.

Abraham said given the politics of energy, it is unlikely that a comprehensive energy bill will pass Congress, especially in an election year in which many Democrats are wary about their reelection prospects.

"I think it will be hard to pass a bill the magnitude of the House bill," he said. "I think it's going to be an uphill fight because you have not just Republican Democrats disagreeing but you have the regional disagreements and you have the deep concerns about the economic consequences of passing a lot of regulatory implications."

Path Forward on Energy Bill Remains Unclear

The president continues to urge Senators to pass a bill -- he made that issue a central point of his first address from the Oval Office -- but the White House has offered limited guidance on what it would like to see in a bill, much to the chagrin of some Democratic senators.

Obama needs to be clear about the outcomes that the bill will need to produce, Levi said.

"Congress will insist that it wants a free hand in writing a bill, but we've seen in the past that if Congress does write a bill the president loses control of the message, loses control of what it is that he's selling," Levi said. "It makes it more difficult for him to sell it, we saw that in health care and I think the administration won't want to see that happen again."

Snowe today also urged the president to lay the groundwork.

"I urged the president to seize control of our own energy destiny and, for the first time, establish clearly defined national timetables for clean energy production, benchmarks for oil consumption reduction, and goals for game-changing research," she said in a statement.

Reid is planning to bring an energy and climate bill to the floor in July and the White House continues to say it wants to see a bill passed this year, even as its prospects look dim so far.

A sweeping legislation that would put caps on greenhouse gas emissions are expected to cost between $79 and $146 per year for each American household, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. An ABC News/Washington Post poll this month found that Americans were willing to pay the price, with 71 percent supporting the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

The United States and China are the largest polluters of carbon dioxide in the world, and the United States has often been chided internationally for not doing enough on the global scale to cap the problem.

Several efforts to enact comprehensive energy legislation that would promote clean energy, reduce the United States' dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil, and cut down greenhouse gas emissions have failed in the past, dating back to the Nixon administration.

ABC News' Sunlen Miller and Z. Byron Wolf contributed to this report.

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