Friday, September 19, 2008

McCain Flip Flops as Dems Caught in Drilling Pickle

As usual, the Daily Show's John Stuart hits the nail on the head as he sums up the past week's political battle over drilling. From the halls of Congress to the Campaign stump, Stuart doesn't miss a beat. Enjoy...

(From the Sept 17th episode of the Daily Show).

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Political Earthquake: Pelosi's Democratic House Passes Pro-Drilling Bill

The energy battle unfolding in the halls of Congress carries one clear lesson: energy prices and economic insecurity present a profoundly more powerful political imperative than calls for environmental protection and climate action. Rising gas prices and plummeting stock prices have dramatically altered the political landscape around energy, creating a pivotal moment for clean energy and climate advocates.

Republicans successfully capitalized on the changing energy landscape to advance an expanded oil drilling agenda, pushing Democrats back with cries of "Drill Baby, Drill!" and seizing control of the energy debate for the first time since the 2006 election.

Democrats won a tactical victory yesterday, passing a true "all of the above" energy bill out of the House that authorizes expanded oil drilling and creates new renewable energy production requirements for electric utilities. Pelosi and the House Democrats forced all but 15 Republicans to vote No on a pro-drilling bill, calling their empty "we support an all of the above energy strategy" bluff.

But make no mistake: while this was a tactical win, when Nancy Pelosi's Democratic House passes a pro-drilling bill, you're looking at nothing less than a political earthquake. We're witnessing a fundamental realignment of the energy debate.

Energy policy is now about bread and butter issues: jobs, economic growth and energy prices. While climate change and clean energy were once the center of the Congressional energy agenda, they are quickly becoming sidebar issues, supplanted by concerns that are far more pressing to everyday Americans.

Does this mean hope is lost for clean energy and climate advocates? Certainly not. But it means we'll have to adapt, and quickly, if we want to proactively advance a clean energy agenda.

Democrats may have won a tactical victory today, but they are still on the defensive in an ongoing battle set on Republican's terms. If we want to see Democrats on the offensive, advancing a proactive energy agenda, clean energy and climate advocates need to develop new policies and a new political narrative about our issues that provides Democrats with an answer to their most pressing political problems (hint: it's not going to be saving Polar Bears anytime soon).

What Democrats need most is a set of credible new solutions to rising energy prices and a stagnating economy. Right now, Republicans are providing the only solutions with any traction: expand production of dirty old energy sources, cut taxes, and send out stimulus checks. Sure, any decent analysis would reveal the GOP "plan" for what it is: a recipe for economic and environmental disaster. But Republicans and their allies have spent years positioning their policy recommendations as "common-sense" solutions to economic issues, and Americans are buying it. Meanwhile, many of the Democrat's strongest progressive allies have spent most of their time developing solutions to climate change and ecological challenges. Clean, green, carbon-neutral, emissions reductions, ecological crisis, climate change -- this is the language that climate and clean energy advocates have been predominantly using, leaving Democrats grasping for credible answers when their constituents - prodded by the GOP and their allies - start shouting about jobs, recession, unemployment and gas prices.

It's not too late for clean energy advocates to develop the economic answers Democrats are looking for -- but only if stop thinking as much about shrinking ice caps and increasing carbon emissions and start thinking more about vanishing retirement funds and increasing unemployment. In short, to win the energy battle, we need to make our clean energy agenda a solution to today's pressing economic challenges, not tomorrow's environmental challenges.

Luckily, we have some strong cards to play. A series of strategic public investments in a new energy economy can make clean energy cheap and abundant; create millions of new jobs; spur innovation and economic competitiveness; reinvest in our communities; modernize our ailing infrastructure; and spark the creation of entire new industries. We've got a powerful story to tell, and it's all good news for American families hit by an ailing economy and increasingly expensive fossil fuel prices.

But we've got a lot of work to do. "Drill Here, Drill Now!" has a powerful intuitive appeal to most Americans. To knock that lose and replace it with something like "Make Clean Energy Cheap and Abundant!", or "Ignite a New Energy Economy," we need to get focused, start talking predominately in economic (not ecological) language, and develop a set of policy recommendations that match our narrative. Are we up for the challenge?

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Democrats: Party in Power or Powerful Party?

The House voted yesterday and passed the Comprehensive American Energy Security and Consumer Protection Act. The bill is truly an "all of the above" set of solutions, including:

  • Royalty reform to ensure that oil companies are paying for the land that they lease from the government

  • Tax subsidy repeals on the "big five" oil companies, along with closing other loopholes to make sure oil companies are paying their fair share

  • Releasing almost 10 percent of the strategic petroleum reserve to help drive down gas prices at the pump

  • Extended and expanded tax incentives for renewable electricity and energy generation, energy efficient homes, buildings and appliances, and incentives for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles

  • Taking royalties from decade old drilling leases and invest in clean energy and energy efficiency technologies

  • A mandate for utilities to be providing 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020

  • And, the kicker: expresses the sense of congress that the Renewable Fuel Standard should ensure that every region can be a producer of cellulosic biofuels from a vast array of feedstocks.

The bill passed 239-189, picking up just fifteen Republican votes while losing thirteen Democrats. However, the likelihood of this bill turning into law is slim, as it has to make it through the senate, which, with the threat of a Republican filibuster, looks almost impossible. The chances of a bill that shifts oil subsidies passing the senate without a filibuster-proof Democratic super-majority (ie 60 Democrats) is, by my rough estimate, a billion to one.

This is not to say that the passage of this bill was not a success in the eyes of House Democrats. After being hammered all summer over refusing to pass expanded drilling provisions of provide relief at the pump, the Democratic caucus in Congress can now say, with honesty, that they voted for an "all of the above" energy solution package, and that the Republicans were the party standing in the way on drilling.

This is actually a remarkable tactical victory for Democrats, who beat the Republicans at their own game. But it is just that: a tactical victory in a political battle in which the Republicans set all the conditions. Democrats have been in control of the House for two years, but they are still struggling for tactical victories and playing Republican games. If Democrats want to not only be the party in power but a powerful party, they need to shift the Congressional political landscape with not tactical, but strategic victories.

The Dems need to proactively choose the battles that they will fight with Republicans instead of constantly reacting to Republican power plays. They need to win a battle that they start, a battle that they choose--a battle in which they represent the will of the electorate. It is these sorts of political victories that will have Democrats building political capital instead of preserving it, setting and owning the agenda instead of reacting to it.

The best place for Democrats to take ownership of the political process is energy. Providing a real vision for new energy to power America will put the Democrats on the offensive, creating a narrative of proactive Democratic solutions to problems of economy and national security. The best way for the Democrats to establish credibility as leaders of the country and stewards of our economy would be a bold push for new American energy. And until the Democrats are setting the terms, they will continue to play catch-up with Republicans and to scramble for a tactical victory.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

All of the Above, But What Matters Above All

The Republicans have been pounding the Democrats on energy policy so far this summer, effectively adopting an “all of the above” approach (at least in terms of their messaging) to solving our energy price woes. The Democrats’ responses, on the other hand, have failed to frame the debate on their terms, instead offering scattered solutions and saying “no!” to the Republicans’ plans.

The Democrats, however, announced they plan to take back the debate as they return from recess next week and head into the fall. According to Congressman Markey (D-MA), they will deploy a counter-strategy capable of doing “a political reverse takedown on the Republicans.”

The Democrats will test the Republicans with an “All of the Above” strategy that will embrace offshore drilling as it calls for a renewable energy mandate, energy-efficiency measures for buildings, and oil industry tax provisions.

As the Republicans chew on that, I also have to wonder if the Democrats are really paying attention, once again, to what truly matters when it comes to energy policy in 2008.

The Democrats say their bill is a work in progress and offered few specifics besides the information above and their certainty that they will pigeonhole the Republicans with an offshore drilling provision.

House Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) continued that the inclusion of an offshore drilling provision proves that the Democrats are prepared to respond to the needs of some in their caucus and the concerns of the American people.

Democrats say that their message this fall will focus on alternative energy and achieving energy independence. But will their policy solutions match their message? Based on what we have gleaned so far, it is apparent that the Democrats are overlooking some critical details:

It is September. The crucial Production Tax Credits (PTC) and Investment Tax Credits (ITC) for the emerging renewable industries will expire at the end of 2008 if they are not renewed by Congress. If they expire, so will an estimated 116,000 jobs and billions of dollars lost in clean energy profits for homegrown American energy – all at a time when our economy is struggling to pick itself up amidst a slowdown. These tax breaks are absolutely critical to the continued growth of America’s alternative energy industries and their extension will only be good news for our economy.

Promoting a renewable energy mandate, a political nonstarter, when the PTC/ITC extensions are at stake intimates that the Democrats’ priorities are not set straight. The Democrats should drop the mandate and focus on what matters between now and 2009.

The Democrats have a ripe opportunity to get this right – they can win on message, and on policy – if they adopt policies that reflect what Americans’ true concerns are: our economy and energy security. The Democrats, too, need to walk the walk when it comes to an “All of the Above” strategy and include what matters above all else for energy policy in 2008.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Palin Pick Confirms McCain is No Green Candidate, Say Tom Friedman and Carl Pope

Thought the Republican's nomination of "Maverick" John McCain meant we'd finally see a showdown between two "green" candidates this November? Think again, say New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. College students in particular should pay attention, Friedman writes.

"With his choice of Sarah Palin — the Alaska governor who has advocated drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and does not believe mankind is playing any role in climate change — for vice president," Friedman writes in his latest column, "John McCain has completed his makeover from the greenest Republican to run for president to just another representative of big oil.

Friedman takes the gloves off and hits McCain hard for his increasingly terrible energy policy:

Given the fact that Senator McCain deliberately avoided voting on all eight attempts to pass a bill extending the vital tax credits and production subsidies to expand our wind and solar industries, and given his support for lowering the gasoline tax in a reckless giveaway that would only promote more gasoline consumption and intensify our addiction to oil, and given his desire to make more oil-drilling, not innovation around renewable energy, the centerpiece of his energy policy — in an effort to mislead voters that support for drilling today would translate into lower prices at the pump today — McCain has forfeited any claim to be a green candidate.

Well said, Mr. Friedman.

Addressing college students in particular, Friedman goes on to plead, "please, students, when McCain comes to your campus and flashes a few posters of wind turbines and solar panels, ask him why he has been AWOL when it came to Congress supporting these new technologies."

I don't think we'll have a problem with that!

The Sierra Club's Pope makes some colorful additions to the column, getting his licks in with these two choice quotes:

“Back in June, the Republican Party had a round-up,” said Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club. “One of the unbranded cattle — a wizened old maverick name John McCain — finally got roped. Then they branded him with a big ‘Lazy O’ — George Bush’s brand, where the O stands for oil. No more maverick.

"One of McCain’s last independent policies putting him at odds with Bush was his opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” added Pope, “yet he has now picked a running mate who has opposed holding big oil accountable and been dismissive of alternative energy while focusing her work on more oil drilling in a wildlife refuge and off of our coasts. While the northern edge of her state literally falls into the rising Arctic Ocean, Sarah Palin says, ‘The jury is still out on global warming.’ She’s the one hanging the jury — and John McCain is going to let her."

Friedman ends by again appealing to college students:

"So, college students, don’t let anyone tell you that on the issue of green, this election is not important. It is vitally important, and the alternatives could not be more black and white."

Again. Not a problem. With a million young voters joining in Power Vote by November 4th, we'll send a clear message to elected officials that the Millennial Generation understands just how important this election is and just how much we need a clean, just and prosperous energy future.

Honestly, for as much as Friedman keeps writing about clean energy and college students, you'd think he'd start reading this blog...

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