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  January/February 2003 Features:
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The Energy Bill that Wasn't
Unmasking Pretenders
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The Planet
The Energy Bill that Wasn't

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Bad congressional bills die in committee. Club prepares to play defense in 2003.

By Tom Valtin

A year ago, The Planet reported that one of the Sierra Club's top priorities in 2002 was to help craft a strong Senate energy bill that would ensure a safe, clean, and affordable energy future. Unfortunately, the bill that emerged from the Senate would have done the opposite. Fortunately, the bill died in conference-along with the House bill, which was even worse.

The Answer is Blowing in the Wind: Renewable energy sources, especially wind turbines, like the Ponnequin Wind Farm in Colorado shown above, have become increasingly competitive with fossil fuels in price, but the House and Senate energy bills focused instead on oil drilling on public lands and tax breaks for the fossil fuel and nuclear industries. In Florida, Broward Sierra Group Chair Ned Stone delivers a clear message for protecting wild places from oil drilling.

With the prospect of a 108th Congress more hostile to the environment than its predecessor, the challenge for the Sierra Club and allies will be to keep bad legislation from becoming law. Before we look ahead, however, let's look back.

In May 2001, the Bush administration released a national energy plan that Club leaders derided as a "drill, dig, and destroy" proposal. The president traveled to Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota to announce his plan in front of backdrops such as "fish-friendly" hydroelectric plants, "but it was a sham," says Debbie Boger, Club senior representative on energy issues. "That plan moved us backward."

In what Club National Field Director Bob Bingaman calls "an awesome display of the power of the Sierra Club," the Club mobilized hundreds of people to line the streets protesting the Bush plan at each of his three appearances and placed ads in major daily newspapers in advance of Bush's arrival, taking the president to task for misrepresenting his plan as environmentally sensitive.

In the summer, the Bush plan went to the House of Representatives, which passed a bill that forked over about $35 billion in tax breaks to the coal, oil, and nuclear industries, allowed oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, weakened fuel-economy standards for light trucks and SUVs, and almost wholly neglected energy conservation and renewables. "President Bush is trying to hang a thin veil of energy efficiency over a cesspool of polluter giveaways," said Club Executive Director Carl Pope at the time. "Big Oil called out its big guns and its big money on this vote." And so the focus shifted to the Senate.

In March 2002, then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) introduced a Senate energy bill that was far from perfect, but which would have protected the Arctic Refuge (and other special places), increased fuel-economy standards, and boosted our use of clean, renewable energy.

The bill's original language included a proposal from Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) that would have mandated a fuel-economy standard of 35 miles per gallon for America's automobile fleet by 2015, a move that would save the United States upward of a million barrels of oil per day. At the time, the Sierra Club praised the bill as a "strong framework."

But things began to unravel almost immediately. First came an amendment by Senators Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.) that greatly weakened the bill's language on fuel economy. Then the bill took another hit when an amendment by Senator Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), which called for 20 percent of America's electricity to be supplied by renewable sources by 2020, was rejected. Instead, the bill was weakened to require only about 4 to 5 percent from renewable sources by 2020. The current level is 2 percent.

The Sierra Club responded by reproving senators for "failing to loosen the grip oil-producing nations have on us" and for "caving in" to the energy industry and other special interests. "The Sierra Club walked a fine line with this bill," says Boger. "Even after being weakened on several fronts it was better than the House bill, but it still took us backward on fuel economy, it did almost nothing for renewable energy or energy efficiency, and it weakened consumer protections in the electricity sector. It would have done nothing to prevent further Enron debacles-and might have made them worse."

The Club's goal at this point was clear: persuade the Senate to vote down any provision allowing drilling in the Arctic Refuge. "Club field staff and volunteers did an unbelievable job," Boger says. "We got scores of calls in to target senators, many of whom reported that they'd been contacted by Club people. We sent out alerts twice a week and kept the pressure on senators. The Club machinery was in high gear."

The payoff came on April 18 when 54 senators voted against opening the Arctic Refuge for oil drilling-by far the largest number of senators ever to stand up for Arctic protection. (See "Senate Defeats Arctic Drilling, But..."

The celebration was short-lived, however. Shortly after the Arctic vote, the Senate passed a bill that was better than the House bill, but still, as Club Executive Director Pope said, "a truly scandalous, loathsome, shameful, disturbing piece of legislation."

While the Senate was wrangling with its bill, controversy was swirling about the exclusion of environmental groups from the drafting of the Bush administration's 2001 energy plan. The Sierra Club and other groups sued the administration (in three separate suits) to release information about who had advised it on its energy plan. In April 2002, a judge ordered the release of documents which showed that in the months leading up to the release of the Bush energy plan, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham met with 109 representatives of the energy industry and trade associations, but not a single individual from either environmental or consumer groups. The Club's suit is still pending.

During the summer, Congress began the process of reconciling the House and Senate bills. "At this stage," Boger observes, "it was harder to involve Club volunteers and activists because all the action was 'behind closed doors.'"

Meanwhile, in July the Club launched a national campaign to prod Ford Motor Company and other automakers to offer a "Freedom Option Package" of off-the-shelf technological options that would save three million barrels of oil per day (see www.sierraclub.org/freedompackage).

In addition to promoting the Freedom Option Package, the Club ran television and radio ads featuring former Senator Bob Kerrey and retired Vice Admiral Jack Shanahan, Military Advisory Committee Chairman of truemajority.com, urging automakers to do their part to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil by manufacturing more fuel-efficient vehicles.

"We ask our young men and women to sacrifice their safety and perhaps their lives to fight the war against terrorism," said Kerrey in the ad. "We all know that our dependence on imported oil is part of the problem and we know that increasing the fuel economy of the cars we drive is part of the solution."

The radio ads targeted Ford Chairman Bill Ford, who has publicly declared his commitment to improve his company's environmental performance.

By this time, the Club's primary goal had become killing the energy bill outright. To hasten the demise of the bill in conference, and to highlight the damage it would do to the environment, the Club released "The Bill That Industry Bought" in September, showing how much various energy companies paid Congress and what Congress was likely to give them in return. For example, in return for the $13.3 million that the top oil and gas industry players contributed to Congress, they stood to reap $14.8 billion from the House energy bill and $4.6 billion from the Senate bill. (See www.sierraclub.org/politics/lobbying.)

So, what did the Club get for all its time, money, grassroots pressure, and intensive lobbying? "These are difficult political times," says Dan Lavery, who works on public lands issues in the Club's Washington, D.C., office. "One of our top priorities is that bad bills don't get passed. We had three options staring us in the face: the House bill, the Senate bill, or no bill. We ended up with by far the best of the three. We stopped a bad bill from becoming law, and that's a big victory."

He pointed as well to the bipartisan majority that opposed Arctic drilling. "The fight is going to get harder now that Bush allies are in complete control of Congress, but our strategy isn't going to change. We have to stay disciplined, rebut the administration hype about the Arctic, and insist on increasing fuel efficiency and raising renewable portfolio standards."

Debbie Boger says the Club will probably put together its own energy plan to present to the next Congress, but she expects mostly to be playing defense at the federal level. "The House will almost certainly come up with a bill similar to the one they had last year, and the Senate will likely try again to open up the Arctic to drilling. We're going to have to fight to keep our 52 votes against Arctic drilling, and to stop any attempts to weaken fuel economy or ignore renewable energy.

"But we can make significant, important gains at the state and local level," she says. "Most elected officials ran on a pro-environment platform this election, so the work of Club volunteers and activists will be more important than ever. Our biggest job next year will be taking the truth to the public."


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