Several months after it died, it’s still a messy process to piece together just who killed the prospect of climate-change and energy legislation that was up for debate in the Senate this summer. Democrats reflexively say it was Republicans and their Big Oil friends, whose businesses would take serious hits with substantial cuts of greenhouse gases or the federal mandate of a renewable-energy standard. Republicans, meanwhile, point to a series of different factors, including Dems being too ambitious and going too far from what the country could handle. Senate energy-committee spokesman Robert Dillon, who’s an aide to ranking member Sen. Lisa Murkowski, tells me:
Moderates who have supported climate legislation in the past have not supported the climate bills this year because they are deeply flawed. The Democratic leadership and the environmental community have refused to compromise and so there's been no opportunity for bipartisanship. I'm not saying Republicans don't share in the blame, but no one seems willing to consider the possibility that the Dems overreached with legislation that went far beyond capping carbon and would have restructured the entire economy. Other ideas have been simply ignored.
Now, it’s important not to conflate climate with energy, even though the two are inextricably linked. Cap-and-trade might have always been a nonstarter—an overly ambitious plan to remake the economy. But an agreeable energy bill wasn’t too far from reality. In fact, at one point in May, the Senate energy committee passed the American Clean Energy Leadership Act, which set a renewable-energy standard and mandated efficiency retrofitting. There would have been ripple effects on greenhouse-gas emissions, too, but they would have been negligible. It's highly possible that ACELA, if Harry Reid brought it to the floor, would have passed. But much of the Democratic caucus, and certainly the environmental community, cried foul, arguing it wasn’t nearly strong enough. It was, to invert an old John Boehner quote, like trying to kill a nuclear weapon with some ant spray.
Most of the post mortem is inside baseball, relevant only to those Beltway types. But there is a relevant lingering question here. Considering that a deal on energy (and most definitely climate) will take cooperation from both parties, and since a bipartisan environment after November seems about as likely as the Nationals winning the World Series, where does energy go from here? The answer might be to the White House, which has stayed mum on much of the talk about energy and climate—despite both topics being large parts of Candidate Obama’s campaign. The president might be the only person at this point to revive the talks. But it’s also possible that, along with Social Security and Medicare, climate change and vigorous energy reform might have recently become a new political third rail.