After Carbon Cap Funeral, Renewables Mandate Probably Dead in Senate, Too

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

With the cap-and-trade option for carbon reduction buried in the U.S. Senate at least until 2011, yesterday Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–NV) began to drive nails into the coffin for a national mandate on renewable energy, known as a Renewable Energy Standard (RES). A large coalition of environmental, labor, and business groups had pushed the Senate to include such a measure, known as an RES, in its so-called Spill Bill (pdf), a response to the Deepwater Horizon well blowout. But the version of the bill released this week omits the renewables mandate, and Reid said yesterday that he would seek to pass the Spill Bill on the Senate floor this week without amendments. (The House of Representatives is also developing oil-related measures to supplement the energy package it passed last summer.)

Now senators like Energy committee chair Jeff Bingaman (D–NM) are disappointed but resigned to the end of RES, Bingaman spokesperson Bill Wicker told ScienceInsider. "Reid has made his decision," said Wicker, adding that RES probably won't get added in conference between the Senate and House on the Spill bill, or get taken up in the fall.

"I don't believe there are enough days left to deal with this issue," he said, with the main roadblocks being the tight schedule and the need for filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate put through the oil bill as a whole: "It's unfortunate, but 60 is 60." With Reid blocking amendments, RES would have to be proposed as a stand-alone measure, or as an amendment to another bill. But Wicker wasn't optimistic that either could be done.

Left-leaning democrats in the Senate have been cheered by the support of Republicans like Senator Sam Brownback (R–KS) for RES. But they seem resigned to a modest oil-only approach. "I don't know if there's a lot of excitement about it," Senator Thomas Carper (D-DE) told The Hill newspaper yesterday in a story about the limited energy bill. "But at the end of the day, we need to be realists, and at the end of the day we have to decide it's better to get something done than nothing."

Reid's bill includes incentives for plug-in electric cars, natural gas fuels, and energy-efficiency incentives. But the death of RES is the latest in a series of setbacks that have watered down President Barack Obama goals this year to transform the U.S. energy system. After the House passed a tough cap-and-trade bill by a razor-thin vote last summer, the onus was on the Senate to step up. Advocates knew that, to obtain the needed 60 votes for the cap-and-trade bill, Senate leaders would likely make it weaker than the House version. But Reid gave up on any form of cap and trade, even one focused only on the energy sector. Advocates had hoped RES would be a good compromise. Now even that is fading.

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