Conventional wisdom among environmentalists today says it would be unwise to pass a major climate change bill too soon. As long as the Bush veto looms and Republicans retain the filibuster club in the Senate, any climate change bill that passes through that birth canal is likely to be a stunted, shriveled thing. Better to wait until a strong bill can be passed than to establish a weak policy now.

But energy is supposed to be different. President Bush has admitted that America is “addicted to oil,” and he is a big booster of technology as the solution to global warming. At his major-economies meeting on climate change in September, Bush called for an international fund to help developing nations finance clean-energy projects to stem climate change. But when he refused to offer a funding commitment or any other mechanism to implement the plan, international delegates turned up their noses and said they would wait till 2009 to engage the US on climate.

You might expect that Bush would be more willing to put his money where his mouth is where the US is concerned, but that does not seem to be the case.

Both houses of Congress passed energy bills last summer. The Senate, in particular, made a big effort to produce a bipartisan consensus. Environmentalists are calling the new energy bill “a down payment on efforts to combat global warming.” But President Bush has not come out in support of either the House or Senate version of the bill.

Meanwhile, getting both houses of Congress to sit down and reconcile two very different bills has been difficult. In early September, Democrats sent discouraging signals about any bill passing this session. Perhaps they heard from their constituents, because by the end of the month, Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, was promising to appoint conferees soon. It was to have been last week and has now been postponed until after the Senate gets back from its Columbus Day recess. On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with other Democrats to discuss bringing an energy bill directly to the floor.

There is no question that public support for clean, renewable energy is at an all-time high. This is showing up at the state level, where 31 states have passed some sort of mandate to produce energy from solar, wind and other renewable sources. The National Governors Association is proceeding to coordinate programs as best it can in the vacuum of federal energy policy. At an NGA forum on renewable energy, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty (a Republican) said, “Energy is the defining issue of our time. The public is way ahead of the politicians … there is enormous running room for policy makers to make significant advances … there’s an urgency to this issue, and none of us – Democrats, Republicans, politicians and the public – have acted as urgently as we need to.”

With such strong public support, why have the Democrats found it so difficult to produce an energy bill?

Cars, Coal and Nukes

One problem has been Michigan Representative John Dingell, who chairs the House Energy Committee. Backing the position of Detroit automakers, Dingell refused to allow any increase in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) fuel mileage standards.

And while the House bill has no CAFE increase, the Senate bill lacks a Renewable Energy Standard (RES). The House passed a RES requiring utilities to generate 15 percent of their power from renewable sources (mostly solar, wind and biomass) by 2020. The US is one of the few nations left that has not adopted such a standard, but Bill Wicker, on the staff of Senate Energy Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman, said the Republicans “blocked every effort” to include a national RES in the Senate energy bill.

Matt Letourneau, energy policy aide to Senator Pete Domenici, ranking member of the Senate energy committee, said a national RES would be unfair to some regions of the country that don’t have abundant renewable resources, particularly the Southeast. He said the standard is too high and it is “not possible” to get 15 percent of the region’s power from renewable energy.

But Scott Sklar, a solar energy lobbyist, said that there is plenty of renewable energy in the Southeast. “The Southeast is biomass rich and solar rich. Solar could provide 5-6 percent of the region’s power, wind 1-2 percent and biomass 10-15 percent. The waste biomass from Hurricane Katrina alone could provide power for 30 years.” Utilities can also substitute up to 4 percent of the target with increases in efficiency.

Lynn Hargis, a former attorney with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), who now works for Public Citizen monitoring energy regulation, said that the real problem is giant utility companies in the South, such as Duke, Entergy and Southern Company, which want to make huge profits selling cheap, coal-generated power in unregulated markets.

The Senate bill also includes loan guarantees of up to $50 billion for nuclear power. Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen calls that “an unprecedented financial obligation” and says that inclusion of those loan guarantees in a final bill would “overwhelm any benefits” from the other provisions.

Analysts say that loans to build nuclear plants are distinctively “sub-prime” with the risk of utilities defaulting running well over 50 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Taxpayer billions wasted on boondoggle nuke plants are taxpayer billions that can’t be spent putting solar panels on roofs or developing better batteries for electric cars.

Scott Sklar is less concerned about the loan guarantees. He says that any energy bill able to get past a Republican filibuster and a Bush veto will include loan guarantees for nuclear power, so there’s no point in fighting it. He predicts that the Democrats will pass an energy bill by January or they “won’t survive” the pressure from constituents, and that the bill will include lighter versions of the RES and CAFE standards, along with renewed production tax credits for solar and wind power.

But if the RES and CAFE provisions are watered down even more than the current versions, what will that do to our climate policy down payment?

A new analysis released by Environmental Defense shows that if we do nothing, US greenhouse gas emissions will rise 35 percent by 2030. If all of the best provisions from both House and Senate versions pass and are vigorously implemented, emissions would climb only 4 percent above today’s levels by 2030. But because many of the provisions allow flexibility, if they are not implemented aggressively, they will allow emissions to grow 22 percent by 2030.

Combine this flimsy “down payment” with the sub-prime nuke loans, and you don’t end up with much value. We need to do a lot better than this if we are going to prevent the worst ravages of global warming and hang on to our planetary home.

Scott Sklar says it is possible that Democrats could produce a final energy bill that is stronger than both current versions, but they would have to “ram” it through.

Democratic leaders could bypass a formal conference committee and strike a bicameral deal to put an energy bill directly on the floor in both houses at once. Nancy Pelosi indicated on Wednesday that she would pursue that option. A strongly progressive energy bill might not survive a Bush veto, but at least it would energize the progressive constituency that is ready for a real energy revolution.

Struggle Behind the Scenes

Meanwhile, a series of skirmishes is taking place over coal among utilities, politicians, agencies and environmental groups.

Two weeks ago, Representative Henry Waxman sent a letter to the US Environmental Protection Agency, objecting to its permitting of a coal-fired power plant in Deseret, Utah. Waxman said the recent Massachusetts v. EPA Supreme Court decision requires EPA to address the coal plant’s greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. The Sierra Club is following up with a lawsuit.

On September 14, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo subpoenaed five of the country’s largest energy companies, demanding that they disclose the financial risks of their greenhouse gas emissions to shareholders.

Some environmental groups are targeting banks that invest in coal power-plant construction. Rainforest Action Network is planning protests at Citigroup and Bank of America branch offices around the country on November 16. “We’re going upstream,” a RAN spokesperson said. “Without bank financing, utilities can’t actually build any of those plants.”

Peter Montague of Environmental Research Foundation reports that since the beginning of 2006 at least two dozen new coal-fired plants have been canceled. Montague says, “A small but effective citizens’ movement has managed to box in Big Coal.”

Politicians are starting to declare themselves against coal. Presidential candidate Barack Obama released his energy and global warming plan this week, saying he would oppose all new coal-fired generation that did not include carbon capture and storage technology.

Just last week, Tampa Electric Co., a Florida utility, announced it was canceling plans to build a coal plant with carbon capture and storage because of uncertainties around the technical feasibility. Florida is one state that has been very clear that it won’t allow any new coal-fired generation without carbon capture and storage. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that it will take ten years of testing for the technology to mature, if we start today. But today there is not even one demonstration plant anywhere in the world that incorporates the complete cycle of carbon capture and storage.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid also opposes new coal plants and has introduced a far-reaching bill (S. 2076 – the Clean Renewable Energy and Economic Development Act) that limits the federal financing of power transmission lines to those that carry at least 75 percent renewable energy. It applies the same standard to new power lines crossing federal land. This would keep Big Coal out of some of the new energy corridors that may be established under the Energy Policy Act (EPACT) of 2005.

But King Coal is hardly down for the count.

In early September, FERC designated a set of new national power corridors in the Northeast under the EPACT. State regulators and environmentalists are suspicious about the locations of the corridors, which seem designed to funnel cheap coal power from the Ohio Valley to the Northeast – where states have already committed to reducing greenhouse gasses, but power demand is high. Under the EPACT, federal regulators can override state concerns. Environmental Defense is considering a lawsuit.

Power to the People

Michael Peevey, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said in a recent opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle that the old energy paradigm – where large centralized generators convert fossil fuels to electricity which is sent over transmission lines to homes and businesses – is over. Solar, he says, is a “disruptive technology” that is changing everything. He says the California Solar Initiative passed last year is on track to power one million homes by 2017.

And in California, it is not just homes getting powered; it is also people who are getting empowered.

Van Jones, an environmental and social activist and cofounder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, California, was interviewed on the radio program Living on Earth last week about the impact of solar jobs on the American workforce:

“There’s a wonderful program, which I just can’t stop bragging on, called ‘Solar Richment,’ where they got a modest amount of money, got 20 guys – you know low-income African-American, Latino, Filipino, one African-American woman. For nine weeks these guys got up, this young woman got up, every morning. They had to be there at nine o’clock. They had to learn these skills. Nine weeks later they did their first installation. There were local TV cameras there, solar employers were there saying, ‘hey, we need workers.’ And you know, the look on these young people’s faces. Often these are the young men who are always seen as the villains and yet here they are, nine weeks later, African-American, Latino, with the baggy pants, the hair or whatever, but they’ve got their work boots on, they’ve got their orange jerseys on, and they’re doing this work. And they are the ecological heroes.”

One of the stupidest news stories on energy I’ve seen was a piece on CNN Money last week that said economists were “split” on whether renewable energy would create millions of new jobs. The article quoted experts at the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley, affirming that installing solar arrays, building wind farms and producing biomass would create at least a million new jobs, not vulnerable to offshore outsourcing. To counter them, the article quoted the chief economist at a Manhattan consultancy, who said it would be unrealistic to count on job gains in the solar sector since the technology hasn’t taken off yet and there is no way of knowing if it ever will. “You certainly don’t want to move all sorts of money into an area that’s not going to be viable,” he said.

Sadly, there are still too many people like this brain-dead economist running things in this country. And there are still too many unfortunates living in the past, such as the auto workers who have given up almost everything to hang on to production lines making Detroit Dinosaurs – those gas guzzlers no one will want in a few years’ time when oil supply peaks and gas prices shoot up to the moon.

The future belongs to “Solar Richment,” and all we are waiting for now is for those who think they are in charge to catch up with rest of us so we can build this beautiful new future together.

Kelpie Wilson is Truthout’s environment editor.