Carbon victory, Senate failure

Posted by Tyler Reny

Common logic would dictate that the Deep Water Horizon oil spill, the worst in U.S. history, would have offered politicians, environmentalists and the public the impetus to pass climate change legislation. In reality, the spill, in addition to poor political decisions by Barack Obama and Harry Reid, nailed the coffin shut on the most serious Senate effort to control U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The New Yorker recently published an article with an amazingly detailed description of the political maneuvering and missteps that led to the tragic death of the "Cap and Trade" bill drafted by liberal, centrist and conservative senators: Kerry, Lieberman and Graham. The "Cap and Trade" proposal would have placed overall caps on emissions while offering flexible options for polluters to comply. The author of the article, Ryan Lizza, investigated exactly why the bill failed.

Before the tragic oil spill, a perfect storm of factors had steadily chipped away at the legislation. Republicans were already jumping ship. McCain, who had offered Lieberman his vote, had pulled out. He was facing a rare primary challenge from the ultra-conservative J.D. Hayworth in Arizona and he would have to moderate his views to appease the party's base. Throughout the spring, the conservative talking heads had won the framing war by branding the Cap and Trade bill as a "Cap-and-Tax." Trying to justify a new tax to reduce levels of carbon dioxide is a tough sell to voters.

The triumvirate's key political strategy to win back some republican and moderate democratic support for the Cap and Trade legislation was to offer expanded offshore oil drilling in return for a vote. After the "drill, baby drill" demonstrations at GOP conventions, it was clear that the republican base supported the expansion.

But that is where Obama screwed up. On March 31, without conversing with the senators, he announced that the administration was opening up large tracts of U.S. waters to oil drilling. The bargaining chip was off the table. The senators now had nothing to offer to conservatives and moderate democrats for their support. Graham's other possible strategy, offering new large loans to build new nuclear plants in return for votes, had already been destroyed when Obama's budget proposal was released with $54.5 billion for that exact purpose. Obama handed the opposition exactly what they wanted without asking for anything in return.

Then on April 15, the White House drove Graham away from the bargaining table. Somebody in the Obama administration had told a Fox News reporter that the White House was not going to support Graham's proposal in the bill to raise gas taxes to pay for the Cap and Trade bill. This was a blatant lie. Graham had never proposed such a raise. The news quickly spread around the airwaves and Graham's phones rang off the hook with angry calls. The tea-party conservatives were livid that one of their own would propose an increase in taxes. Graham felt the pressure from his home state, lost his temper and walked out on the talks for good.

To make things worst, the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stunned his colleagues when he announced that the Senate would tackle immigration reform before climate change. Immigration was rising to the forefront of the debate in his home state of Nevada and, facing a tough reelection campaign, Reid felt he needed to mollify his home state voters. But it was all a political ploy. The Cap and Trade bill was almost ready for public release and Reid should have thrown all of his support behind it. The Senate Majority leader revealed that he wasn't at all serious about the legislation.

The fate of Cap and Trade was sealed on Earth Day, ironically, when the Deep Water Horizon rig sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and 62,000 barrels of oil a day began mixing with the warm ocean waters. The bill, which would have drastically expanded such drilling, was drowning under media coverage of dead sea birds and oil slicks the size of Rhode Island. With such a disaster on their hands, no senators would ever have supported it. Seven months of negotiations were destroyed. The bill was tossed.

Republicans are poised to take back the House in November and greatly diminish the democratic majority in the Senate. The GOP's "Pledge to America" specifically mentions its opposition to any future Cap-and-Trade bill and the future Speaker of the House John Boehner is unlikely to support any type of climate change legislation.

So, we sit back and watch as dysfunctional Washington continues its partisan sniping and carbon continues to spew into the atmosphere. Perhaps when we reach the peak in global oil production (by conservative estimates in the next 20 or 30 years) and prices begin to spike will our government finally get its act together. In the meantime, however, I suggest looking into purchasing land in Greenland. By the time we retire and the ice recedes, its coasts might offer prime beachfront real estate.

Tyler Reny is a senior government major who enjoys good food, politics and jazz.

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