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Monday, October 06, 2008

Staying Alive: Critical Clean Energy Tax Credits Hitch Last Minute Ride on Bailout Bill

By Keith Brower Brown; Cross-posted from the Breakthrough Blog.

Last Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill left for dead just weeks ago, apparently deciding the country actually ought to keep its burgeoning clean energy industry. But they didn't really mean to...

The Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind, the biomass/solar/hydropower PTC, and solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) got their one-, two- and eight-year extensions, respectively. But they only got passed by being strapped to Friday's economic bailout bill, as a "sweetener" to aid its passage.

So how, exactly, does a key piece of federal policy supporting new energy become just another packet of Splenda slipped into a murky, half-caff bailout bill?

The lobbying efforts to pass this bill, from the American Wind Energy Association and Solar Energy Industries Association (AWEA and SEIA), and dozens of other industry and energy advocacy groups were impressive, and without them this bill wouldn't be passed.

But those efforts weren't enough to make it happen in time--after failing in the Senate eight times earlier this year, and finally passing that chamber on Sept. 23rd, it looked certain the House would let their session end before taking the measure for a vote. It was sheer legislative math that led Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to revive the credits by bundling them to the bailout--a "must-pass" for many legislators--as a sweetener for pro-clean energy Democrats who had opposed the bailout on Monday.

But the PTC and ITC are so much more than Splenda...

Now, let's be clear on how vital these credits are, and how they should be treated in Congress. The PTC, by the estimates of a 2005 Energy Information Report, will alone hextuple the growth of American renewable energy production in the next ten years, barring any other changes in energy policy. Yeah, and I mean hextuple. A study from Navigant Consulting, commissioned by the AWEA and the SEIA earlier this year, claimed that 116,000 energy jobs would be lost in 2009 by a failure to pass the credits.

It's time to end this perpetual peril of renewable energy producers, with a federal policy that treats them like the American pioneers and economic pillars they are. For a start, next year's likely big Democratic majorities need to pass Production Tax Credits lasting eight years each--just like the solar ITC. Federal policies supporting the fossil and nuclear industries don't have to come up every year or two for approval. So how dare a nation in "energy crisis" force AWEA and SEIA to have to constantly lobby for survival, treading water to stay afloat, instead of lobbying to make our country's renewable energy industry a world leader?

But we should do more, too, to stop the structural disadvantaging of renewable production. This takes an energy plan that nationalizes and digitizes the electrical grid, educates a new generation of energy engineers and technicians, and invests dramatically in the development and deployment of renewable tech.

The Clogged Legislative Pipe

Enough fantasizing, though. Fantasizing is fun, and I have done it actively for many years. But on energy and the economy, I don't want to just dream about what good policy looks like--I want to know I am doing everything possible to make it happen. And, I came to a big conclusion from the revival of the PTC/ITC today:

There is a major clog in the "legislative pipeline" from progressive lobbies to the Congressional floor.

All the petitions, the phone calls, the press releases, the legislators' meetings with advocates--all the standard paths of the progressive legislative pipeline--couldn't alone get this bill passed in time. But these are still the primary tools I see most every progressive non-profit and lobby using. These are still the only tools I have any idea how to access, to bring our think-tank policies onto the floor.

The PTC/ITC got passed by cold, hard legislative wheeling-dealing. So, the question is, how do we win in the daily give-and-take, in the procedural games on the legislative floor?

I see two options.

Option One: Energy and progressive lobbies need to learn from successful special interest groups of the past and learn from their success at funneling policy through legislature. In this option,the goal is to keep our bills from being singled out and shot down one-by-one, as happened to the PTC in the Senate, eight times this year. The abstinence-only education, Indian gaming , and agribusiness lobbies come to mind for me as groups which have done very well at consistently winning big victories, while avoiding a high profile or being forcibly singled out by legislators. But then again, a lot of their success comes from practiced and shady campaign contribution efforts. The next frontier for the renewable energy movement: bribery?

Option Two: We need to make a more compelling case about how renewable energy is not a special interest at all, but a mainstream economic issue. This will take time, though I think it's gradually happening. Thanks to the efforts of groups like Green For All, the Apollo Alliance, and yes, the Breakthrough Institute, I see a broad consensus building in the rhetoric of the American political center and center-left about the need for a new energy economy, to bring jobs and economic security to the country. But we have a long way to go before the rhetoric builds what we'd need; a concrete, forceful consensus and a "must-pass" bill.

I think we should work using both options, and see how far we can take them.

Let's come together, industry and non-profit and educators and researchers, and draft the "must pass" bill. Let's work on our legislative sleight-of-hand, and build a collective, aggressive lobby for the new energy economy . But I still want more answers and insights, so I'm throwing this out there; how else can we unclog the pipeline from the NGO to the roll-call?

Oh, and I can't forget: cheers to another year of clean, American-made energy, and huge thanks to everybody who helped get us here.

Image source: Washington Post

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