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April 19, 2013

Congress, Don't Sink a Great Energy Efficiency Bill

Rob_Portman Jeanne_Shaheen

Yesterday, senators Jeanne Shaheen (NH), and Rob Portman (OH) introduced a bipartisan energy efficiency bill. While the bill is a good one, and should easily pass if Congress worked the way it should, I'm skeptical that it will. Here's why.

First, let me take a step back and walk you through the bill.

This bill sets out to save us energy by using low-cost technologies that are widely available today and can be adopted quickly. It reduces barriers to the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors. It addresses energy waste from the biggest energy user in the country, the federal government. It would create a program called "Supply Star" which would help industries green their supply chain. It would set up much-needed building training centers to train people to have these good, green jobs.

During the last Congress, senators Shaheen and Portman introduced a similar bill. It sailed through the Energy and Natural Resources Committee (common-sense things tend to) but then was stalled on the Senate floor. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) analyzed that version, and by their estimates, Shaheen-Portman version 1 could have produced 80,000 net jobs and saved consumers $4 billion on their energy bills in 2020.  In 2030, 159,000 net jobs would have been created and consumers would have saved $20 billion on their energy bills.

Version 1 would have also taken a small but useful bite out of our carbon emissions, the driver of climate disruption. It was projected to save us 29 million metric tons of carbon pollution by 2020, and up to 108 million metric tons by 2030. Annually.  If this newer version is even half as good as the first, then this is serious progress.

It's been endorsed by efficiency wonks like Alliance to Save Energy and ACEEE, trade unions like the National Association of Manufacturers, businesses like Dow Chemical Company, and environmental groups like the Sierra Club. Groups that rarely, if ever, see eye-to-eye have endorsed this bill. That is no small feat and deserves recognition.

It should be a no-brainer. Why, then, is the fate for Shaheen-Portman uncertain?

Because Senators like to put junk into random bills for no reason besides partisan politics.

This has been a reality for more than 4 years. At the beginning of President Obama's first term, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) promised to add poison pill amendments to anything and everything possible. To my knowledge, he's kept this promise. Amendments to approve Keystone XL, even though Congress doesn’t have the authority to do so, have been filed again and again. Amendments to gut the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to save lives under landmark bills like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act abound. Attempts have been made to steamroll over National Environmental Policy Act. And the list goes on and on.

The worst part is that these amendments rarely - if ever - have anything to do with the underlying bill. The abundance of poison pills makes our jobs as environmental advocates even harder, and it gives heartburn to environmental champions on the Hill who want to write good laws, but know that even if they can find that too rare sweet spot - when Republicans and Democrats agree on a piece of policy - they can count on opponents trying to lard on amendments that carry no such agreement.

Consequently, despite being able to identify an issue that would pull a clear bipartisan majority, it doesn't pass and nothing moves except the ever-falling public approval rating for Congress.  Think the debt ceiling, the transportation bill, the farm bill, etc.

The damage from such amendments is truly underrepresented. In the rare instance you have a bill that everyone seems to agree on, take Shaheen-Portman for example, one really bad amendment can make it impossible to get floor time and make even supporters want to kill it.

It is rare to see Senators these days so committed to writing good laws and reaching across the aisle. Senators Shaheen and Portman are one of those rare exceptions. They have done the hard work for their colleagues: They wrote a great bill that diverse  stakeholders agree will do a lot of good. Now we need them to relentlessly press their colleagues- on both sides of the aisle - to do their job and keep controversial amendments off this bill.

 -- Radha Adhar, Associate Washington Representative for the Sierra Club

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