As House Democrats reworked their energy and global-warming bill this week, consensus was building that the way the nation fuels itself must be reformed. But creating a new energy policy that the majority can agree upon is a process as complex as nuclear fusion. And changing the system doesn't necessarily ensure a more sustainable energy future.
"We run the risk of becoming just as dependent on Chinese batteries as we are on Mideast oil," said Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington at the NEWSWEEK/Shell Executive Forum, held Monday at the National Press Club in Washington.
Cantwell said her techie constituency is prepared to suffer the costs of a new policy and investment in new technologies—if it results in green jobs and economic opportunity in the $6 trillion energy market.
"Now everybody can be in the energy business, even in your own home," she said. "You can put power back onto the grid and greatly reduce your own energy costs. If we would invest in things like smart grid technology, not only would the United States be a leader in energy technology, we'd have the opportunity to affect what's going on in the rest of the world."
For all the talk about alternative energy, Robert Pease, president and CEO of Motiva Enterprises, said that coal, oil, and gas will still make up a larger part of America's energy portfolio in 2050 than they do today. "Fossil fuels have a major role to play for many decades to come," said Pease, whose company is an oil-refining and marketing venture partially owned by Shell, which sponsored the event. "But green has got to be part of the answer."
As Washington debates energy reform, Cantwell sees some potential pitfalls. Pollution-credit trading, a key component of the Waxman-Markey bill, is already being manipulated in Europe along the line of the credit default swaps that helped collapse the real-estate market, she said.
Rep. G. K. Butterfield, vice chairman of the subcommittee on energy and environment, represents the fourth-poorest constituency in the U.S., North Carolina's First District. He worked to put provisions in the Waxman-Markey bill to protect the poorest American families from the price of weaning the nation off fossil fuels. On Monday the Congressional Budget Office reported that the legislation would cost the average American household $175 a year by 2020 and that poor households would actually receive a $40-per-year benefit, indicating that Butterfield may have succeeded in his effort. If the prediction is accurate, those costs are far less than critics of the bill expect.
Butterfield is confident that Congress will pass an energy bill this year, but he worries that not everyone in America is as ready for reform as Cantwell's constituents are. "The problem is that the American people have yet to really get their heads around the problem," he said.
But NEWSWEEK'S Eleanor Clift said most Americans now recognize the environmental problems at the root of the reform movement. "It's not that long ago that if you mentioned the words 'global warming,' you would be booed or ridiculed," she said. "Now most people accept that climate change is real, that it is threatening, and that it is largely man-made."
Of course, that doesn't guarantee action. "In Washington … energy does not rise to the level of health care," she said.
Pease and Clift pointed to a Shell report that distilled energy policy into two scenarios: "scrambles," to respond to crises, and "blueprints," in which policymakers and industries cooperate to take early action. Everyone on Monday's panel agreed that blueprints were preferable to scrambles but admitted they are exceedingly difficult to draft.