A Wind-Powered Town, an Energy Bill and a Lot of Hot Air

By Dana Milbank
Friday, June 15, 2007

There's a certain irony in Washington's failure to devise a modern energy policy. This is, after all, the one place on earth that is powered almost entirely by wind.

Lawmakers are growing further apart on energy legislation, as Democrats demand alternative fuels and Republicans insist on more drilling. But for both sides, the ability to talk about energy is both plentiful and renewable.

While the Senate held its fourth day of debate on an energy bill, three congressional committees held hearings on the subject yesterday, and the House and Senate Renewable Energy Caucuses held an all-day "expo and forum" in the Cannon Caucus Room. Democratic senators held two news conferences on the subject, Republican senators held a third, and bipartisan groups of lawmakers contributed a fourth and fifth.

Not to be left out, the National Association for Business Economics, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, the Electric Power Supply Association, the Nuclear Energy Institute, and a coalition of environmentalists all hosted energy events of their own.

Talk about a large carbon footprint. The amount of CO2 emitted from the mouths of all these lawmakers, lobbyists and activists was enough to cause part of Greenland to melt into the sea.

"This bill's going to have a tough time," said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), demonstrating his mastery of the obvious at one of yesterday's many news conferences. "My guess is there are many hours of lengthy debate ahead." That's a safe guess, given that the Senate plans for about eight days of debate on the bill -- and Republicans such as Craig are hinting at a filibuster that could derail the whole thing.

"I don't think it's ever going to become law," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) forecast after his own news conference, staged in front of two plug-in hybrid cars. "It's lamebrained." The courtly senator reconsidered. "I shouldn't call it lamebrained," he revised. "But that's how I feel."

Lamebrained or not, the Senate energy legislation is fairly modest. It stays away from radical policies, such as a carbon tax or a cap on carbon emissions. Its toughest provision, a plan to increase fuel-efficiency standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, is under siege by a bipartisan group of lawmakers from car-manufacturing states.

"The Senate energy bill started out fairly weak, and we don't see the debate getting any better," complained Eric Pica, who represented Friends of the Earth at a protest by environmentalists on the Senate grounds yesterday.

The coalition of conservation groups had planned to dump a ton of coal on Senate parkland -- they had hauled the anthracite from Baltimore in a rented cargo van (12 miles per gallon). But Capitol Police objected, and the environmentalists had to settle for 20 small buckets of the stuff. "We're going to blacken our hands with the coal," one of the organizers offered the disappointed camera crews.

Minutes later, Republican lawmakers assembled in the Senate television gallery to voice similarly bitter objections to the bill -- for completely opposite reasons. "It doesn't do anything to lower the price of gasoline," argued Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the Senate Republican leader.

Next, Craig lamented a plan to produce 15 percent of the nation's electricity with renewable sources by 2020. The proposal "skews dramatically the reality of what a country can or cannot do," he said. "In the Southeastern states, this is a very big tax because they don't have wind."

It's unclear why the calm winds of the southeast would trouble a man from Idaho, but he warned that Republicans are "very concerned."

Did that message get out? Not without some difficulty. The Republican event was squeezed in between a Senate hearing on "the impact of rising gas prices," and a pair of House committee sessions on biofuels and "climate change mitigation." Within minutes of the GOP's departure from the television studio, Democrats walked in with a rebuttal.

"We do not believe in the president's theory, the Republicans' theory: Drill, drill, drill, more of the same," Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, taunted. "It reminds me of Iraq."

The senators displayed a chart contrasting two families: The energy-efficient "Baileys," who spend $1,600 a year less than the inefficient "Martins." "You notice it's not just any old chart," said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). "There are families mentioned on that chart."

His colleagues had forgotten to tell Casey that the Martins and the Baileys were fictitious.

The subject had been pretty much exhausted, but Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) wanted to add an anecdote about her own "Energy Star" light bulbs. "My husband first bought the wrong ones and so all of our hallways were blue," she said, "and my daughter said it looked like we were living in a bowling alley."

That line would have brought down the house over in the Cannon Caucus Room, where the renewable energy caucus was caucusing among displays of pea pellets, switch grass and filament-free light bulbs. Exhibitors were on hand to talk about landfill gas and to hand out lollipops and bumper stickers saying "I {heart} Wind Energy."

It was a festive gathering, but Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), a champion of renewable energy, delivered a somber message about progress in the capital. "We've been crawling at a snail's pace," he said. "We've been doing little more than nibbling at the edges."

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