How to Make the Senate Energy and Emissions Legislation Work

Otto von Bismarck once said that “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see either of them being made.” You’re on your own with the sausage, but we need to pay attention to the energy and emissions legislation being worked right now in the Senate. There, in another incidence of minority rule, Senators are mulling over energy and emissions legislation that will cover only power plants.

Now, power plants account for about 33% of our total emissions, and are by far the largest single source. But leaving out oil refineries, concrete plants and other major industrial emissions generators (which account for 16% of our emissions) makes it impossible to reach even the modest goal of 17 % reduction by 2020. But worse, it allows our industries to delay making the investments that will make them competitive in a carbon-constrained world. We have some historical analogies to work from here.

After WW II, the Russians basically carted off as much of Germany’s industrial infrastructure as they could – steel mills, railroad equipment, assembly lines, all kinds of things. The result? Russia was saddled with obsolete technology for decades. And Germany? Germany had to start over again with new, more productive equipment.

Or, more recently, the emerging Asian economies are routinely ranked higher than the US for their network infrastructure. Why? Because they had little such infrastructure to begin with, and they started building in an age of wireless broadband. In the US we had vested interests in various cable-based connections that resisted wireless broadband.

Brazil has a cell phone network that is the envy of the world. Why? Because, again, they never totally committed to a landline system, and so had little resistance when the more efficient cell phone technology came along.

This is all to say that serious energy and emissions legislation will keep US industry competitive in the long run despite the shortsighted industry resistance we see now. Our vested interest is the fossil fuel industry and the States that profit by it. We need to get around them.

So, how do we do this?

Well, first of all, the fossil fuel industry is NOT monolithic. It is coal and oil and natural gas. And these divisions represent different blocks of States. Coal is Kentucky, West Virginia, Utah, and a couple of others. Oil is Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alaska, and a little Colorado. Natural gas is Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas. As a “fossil fuel” block, these States represent an insurmountable obstacle in our minority ruled Senate. But what if their interests diverged? What if our energy and emissions legislation not only set up our (aggressive) long-term goal, but partly mapped out a transition plan that culminates in a clean energy economy, and forces these vested interests apart?

For example, we could have legislation that mandates a move from gasoline-powered autos to natural gas powered autos. Natural gas has lower emissions, so it is progress in that department. But more importantly, the natural gas industry States now have motivation to make this happen. The legislation could also target industries that can switch from coal to diesel (or diesel to natural gas) and drive them to do so by making them responsible for their emissions.

The goal here is to not only get us on a path to a clean economy and to maintain our industry’s global competitiveness, but to develop a path that in the near term divides the ‘fossil fuel’ block of States and gets us moving.

This is sausage, pure and simple. But our future is in the balance, and if we have to make sausage to get there we should at least get the right ingredients.

Paul Birkeland lives in Seattle, WA, US, and develops Strategic Energy Management Systems for government, commercial, and industrial organizations through Integrated Renewable Energy.

Photo by Spigoo via flickr