First, the good news: Goofy global warming deniers like Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) have been thoroughly outed as cranks, and largely relegated to the ash bin of history. Today’s most potent climate bad guys are more subtle creatures—those who, usually to court favor with a home-state constituency, are holding back the growth of a clean-energy economy. Few do so outright. But when we survey the current U.S. Congress and the political landscape more generally, it’s clear that many individuals and organizations have helped preserve our moribund fossil-fuel-based energy system:
sen. pete domenici (R-N.M.) To transition into a postcarbon energy economy, Congress must pass a so-called “renewable portfolio standard” requiring power companies to derive some fraction of the electricity they sell from sources like solar or wind. During the debate over the 2007 energy bill (see “Pork Power”), Democrats sought to require companies to get 15 percent of their power from renewables by 2020. The rps survived the House intact but died a filibustery death in the Senate thanks to Republican opposition led by retiring Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member and nuclear power fan Domenici, who claimed such a measure would “burden consumers.” Domenici isn’t all bad on renewables—he supported a push to extend tax credits for them as part of the economic-stimulus drive—but his opposition to the rps outweighs any other good deeds.
the southern company Many Southern Republican senators marched to Domenici’s tune on the rps, and this Atlanta-based power company—which includes utilities in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida and whose profits totaled $1.73 billion in 2007—might know why. Southern spent a whopping $14.5 million on energy and environment lobbying in 2007, much of it to oppose an rps. All six senators representing Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi voted with Domenici—and Southern—on renewable energy. Since 1990, five of those six have each received more than $50,000 in campaign donations from Southern, with Alabama’s Jeff Sessions heading the list with $154,765.
sen. mary landrieu (D-La.) Landrieu is known for putting the interests of the climate second to those of Louisiana energy companies. In the 2007 energy bill, the Senate had to decide whether to repeal recently enacted tax breaks to Big Oil and extend incentives for renewables. A filibuster to prevent this priority realignment held by a one-vote margin. Landrieu, who’s thus far received $139,500 from oil and gas interests in the 2008 reelection cycle, was the only Democrat who voted with Republicans on the matter.
rep. joe barton (R-Texas) Perhaps most notorious for sending harassing letters to federally funded climate researchers when he was chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Barton led the unsuccessful House opposition to the “kamikaze energy bill,” especially its renewables mandate. In the process, Barton engaged in some creative redefinition of terms, arguing that companies should have the option of using power derived from “clean coal” and nuclear to meet any renewables standard, which…well, misses the point entirely. In the current election cycle Barton has received more than $100,000 from oil, gas, and electric utilities. He didn’t get the nickname “Smoky Joe” for nothing.
Greening the Pentagon Say what you will about Guantanamo Bay, but America’s gulag gets 30 percent of its power from on-site wind turbines. Surprising? Maybe not, considering the Pentagon, which uses 78 percent of the federal government’s power, is also vying to be the country’s largest consumer of earth-friendly energy, along with Intel and Pepsi. Nearly 12 percent of dod facilities’ electric consumption now comes from renewables. And the Air Force alone accounts for 40 percent of the entire federal government’s renewable energy usage, perhaps because it is trying to offset its profligate use of jet fuel.
sen. jim bunning (R-Ky.)/coal-state dems Clean coal is, in essence, an oxymoron, but that hasn’t stopped Kentucky senator and Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Bunning from various maneuvers to promote it—including trying to add a liquid coal amendment to the 2007 energy bill. One of Bunning’s top collaborators on the coal-to-liquid front was Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.)—although he jumped ship in 2007, right after it became a political liability. No worries, though; Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and the other coal-state Dems are still on board. (See “Scrubbing King Coal.”)
rep. john dingell (D-Mich.) Serving in the House since 1955, the “Dingellsaurus” is increasingly out of step with “damned environmentalists” and House leadership. Wielding his clout as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, he’s fought for massive subsidies for fossil fuels, and against the RPS, increased fuel-efficiency standards—and especially the separate “light truck” standard—and (winning him no love from Speaker Nancy Pelosi) California’s 38-year-old right to set its own emissions standards. Ostensibly he takes these positions to defend Detroit from pesky regulation, but history will likely judge him as crippling American automakers’ ability to compete with Toyota and Honda in the 21st century.
sen. lamar alexander (R-Tenn.) One of the most important renewable-energy industries that we must encourage is wind power. But Tennessee’s senior senator has taken precisely the opposite tack, tilting at wind and even claiming it produces “puny amounts of high-cost unreliable power.” Alexander has also introduced legislation that would remove tax credits for wind power, and in opposing the Senate rps, commented, “Forcing Tennesseans either to build 40-story wind turbines on our pristine mountaintops or to pay billions in penalty taxes to the federal government amounts to a judge giving a defendant the choice to be hanged or shot.”
sen. ted kennedy (D-Mass.) Not to be out-nimbyed by those across the aisle, Kennedy opposes the offshore Cape Wind project, whose proposed site is near his Hyannis Port home. Hypocrisy? Here are Kennedy’s own words: “I strongly support renewable energy, including wind energy, as a means of reducing our dependence on foreign oil and protecting the environment.” Just, um, not where he lives.
sen. john thune (R-S.D.) The conservative prairie senator likes wind power well enough—there’s plenty of it in his state. But as there’s also lots of corn around, Thune has been a leading promoter of corn-based ethanol and spearheaded recent mandates to dramatically ramp up its production. Alas, scientific research has increasingly exposed this allegedly “green fuel” as disastrous for the climate and responsible for higher food prices. Thune, though, says that’s “propaganda” that has been “engineered by the oil companies that hate ethanol.” He recently introduced legislation that would undermine the environmental safeguards for biofuels included in the 2007 energy bill.
sen. john mccain (R-Ariz.) The gop nominee isn’t generally known for an atrocious record on the environment—until recently. While McCain has pioneered greenhouse gas legislation, last year he received a stunning zero rating on the environment from the League of Conservation Voters. The goose egg came because McCain missed every single environmentally relevant vote—including one to break a filibuster over the inclusion of an rps in the 2007 energy bill. And this year, McCain was the only senator who failed to vote on a version of the economic-stimulus bill that included tax incentives for clean energy. The clean-energy bill failed to overcome a filibuster by just one vote. That could have been McCain’s.