Expectations were low going in to Congress’ brief preelection session, and on Tuesday, Congress lived down to them in high style: Republicans in the Senate blocked a defense spending bill containing amendments that would have given undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children a pathway to citizenship (the DREAM Act) and repealed the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay service members. Yet even as the fondest hopes of progressives were going down in flames, a bipartisan group of senators rose to promote an initiative long cherished by environmentalists.
Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) introduced a bill that would impose for the first time a national renewable energy standard: By 2021, the nation’s utilities would have to get 15% of their power from renewable sources such as the sun and wind. GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and John Ensign of Nevada are listed as cosponsors; what’s more, fellow Republicans Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine have backed renewable standards in the past. Could the wall of Republican opposition to environmental measures be cracking, and might Congress make some progress on clean energy in 2010? We hope so, but we’re not holding our breath. Because this time, it’s Democrats who are standing in the way.
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, the alleged Democrat from Louisiana, was quick to announce that she couldn’t support the bill unless the moratorium on offshore oil drilling were lifted. We can understand the pressure Landrieu must be feeling from constituents whose oil industry jobs are under threat, but that’s no excuse for holding hostage a clean-energy bill that has nothing to do with drilling. Other Democrats whose support is considered doubtful include Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and there are probably more.
Frankly, the Bingaman standard is so weak that some environmental groups have been debating whether to bother backing it. The 15% floor is a bit misleading — utilities really have to get only 11% of their power from renewable sources, as long as they get the remaining 4% via energy-efficiency improvements. Because 29 states already have renewable energy standards or nonbinding goals, most of them tougher than the proposed federal rules, it’s not clear whether the country would end up with much more renewable power under the bill than it would without it. But a federal standard would send a very important signal to power investors and developers. Maybe more important, it would set a foundation that could be built on in the future.
Now if only something could be done about obstructionist Democrats standing in the way of progressive Republican reformers.