Missed Opportunities: What Congress Did and Didn't Do for America's Energy Future

Congress finally wrapped up its business last week. It was a challenging session filled with terrible economic news, soaring energy prices, and a great deal of election-year political theater. Now that the dust has settled, we can take a look at what Congress actually did to address America's energy future.

On the Bright Side: CAFE, Biofuels, and Renewables

NRDC and our partners put five big asks before the Congress at the beginning of this session, and three of them got enacted. Congress managed to:

  1. Raise the average fuel economy standards for America's fleet of cars and light trucks to 35 miles per gallon.
  2. Strengthen environmental safeguards for biofuels by favoring advanced cellulosic fuels, limiting the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of biofuels, and guarding against the conversion of fragile forests and prairies into croplands. 
  3. Extend the renewable energy and efficiency tax incentives that jumpstart investment in clean energy technologies and create green collar jobs. We had to fight for these extensions for months. After much torment, they got stuck onto the Bailout Bill. (Listen to my colleague Jim Presswood discuss the value of these incentives here.)

On the Dark Side: Climate and Renewable Standard

Our biggest priority for this legislative session was for Congress to create a cap and trade program to limit global warming pollution. Back in June, for the first time in history, climate change became the business of the Senate for a week. 

Fifty-four senators stood up and committed to putting the United States on the right path to reduce our global warming pollution, but political shenanigans got the best of the debate, and the bill crashed.

Congress has ended this session without taking firm action on the biggest economic and energy challenge of our time. We now have to wait for the new administration to draft its own bill.

Our final goal--establishing a national renewable energy standard--died on the vine. This standard would have required that a certain percentage of the nation's electricity be generated using renewable sources such as wind and solar power.

Twenty-five states have standards like this in place, and they have proven to spur investment in and drive down the cost of clean power. A national standard would have expanded those benefits to all of us no matter where we live.

A Fossil Fuel Wish List

Even without the renewable energy standard, I might have called this session a step in the right direction if Congress hadn't pivoted back to business-as-usual.

Both the House and the Senate padded their bills with taxpayer subsidies to costly, polluting fuels like tar sands and oil shale--fuels that triple and quadruple our global warming pollution respectively.

These handouts read like a 1980s fossil-fuel-industry wish list instead of the 21st century plan to help revive America's economy we so desperately need. Worse, they came on the heels of Congress lifting the moratoria for offshore drilling and for leasing public land to oil shale companies.

These dirty subsidies got through Congress because the oil industry and its allies sold the American public a vial of snake oil: the false notion that drilling would drive down gas prices. The reality is that more drilling won't bring oil to market for a good 10 years. That won't help Americans at the gas pump today, tomorrow, or even when babies born last year enter middle school.

The Path Not Yet Taken

It is common for Congress to leave town with a mixed bag of accomplishments. But these are not common times. These are times when the economy is sinking, global warming is looming, and our oil addiction is undermining national security.

Rather than piece together a patchwork of good and bad laws, we need our leaders to propel America into a safer, cleaner, more sustainable energy future. Congress hasn't yet set that in motion. Hopefully, the next president will.

My colleagues at NRDC are laying out an energy and climate agenda for the next administration, and we are mobilizing everyone from clean-tech venture capitalists to green collar workers to demand that our leaders take our energy future seriously.