February 3, 2016

Time to Wake Up: Energy Bill, Take Two

Mr. President, the Senate is still at work crafting a package of energy legislation that can earn the support of a broad majority and potentially become this body’s first comprehensive energy efficiency legislation since 2007.

This is my 126th weekly call to arms to wake us up to the duty we owe our constituents and future generations of Americans, not only to unleash the clean energy solutions that will propel our economy forward but also to stave off the devastating effects of carbon pollution.

I commend Energy Committee Chairman Murkowski and her ranking member Senator Cantwell for bringing us a bipartisan bill that builds upon some of the best ideas of the energy efficiency legislation championed not long ago by Senators Shaheen and Portman. According to a report assessing the emissions reductions related to Shaheen-Portman done by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, the cumulative net savings of these provisions would reach around $100 billion over the years 2014 to 2030, along with a reduction of about 650 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over that 15-year period.

While these are welcomed reductions, they are a fraction of what we expect just from the clean energy tax credit extensions that were included in the end-of-year omnibus. Those 5-year incentives for wind and solar will yield cumulative emissions reductions of over 1 billion metric tons of CO2

And even then, we are still far from what we need to do to stem our flood of carbon pollution into the atmosphere and oceans.

Last year, the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senator Cantwell, offered an ambitious legislative vision for growing our clean energy economy while tackling the growing climate crisis. Her Energy bill outlines achievable reductions in carbon pollution. It would repeal oil subsidies and level the playing field for clean energy. Estimated carbon reductions under her plan would be 34 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, which would help us achieve our international climate commitment. Our goals in the legislation now before us should be just as ambitious.

Of course, the big polluters always shout that any steps to reduce emissions will invariably hobble the economy. They have the nerve to say this while they are sitting on an effective subsidy every year, just in the United States, of $700 billion, according to the International Monetary Fund. It really takes nerve to complain while sitting on that big of a public subsidy.

In the bill before us, I was glad to add an amendment with my colleague from Idaho, Senator Crapo, with the bipartisan support of Senators Risch, Booker, Hatch, Kirk, and Durbin, to strengthen the development of advanced nuclear energy technologies in partnerships between the government and our national labs and the private sector. The Holy Grail here is advanced reactors that could actually consume spent fuel from conventional reactors and help us draw down our nuclear waste stockpile.

I know that many of my Republican friends have supported commonsense climate action in the past. Senator McCain ran for President on a strong climate change platform. Senator Collins coauthored an important cap-and-dividend bill with Senator Cantwell. Senator Kirk voted for the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill in the House. Senator Flake has written an article in support of a carbon tax that reduces income taxes. And there are more. So I hold out some hope, but it is hard.

There is a whole climate denial apparatus that helps manufacture doubt and delay action. The fossil fuel industry players controlling this machinery of denial use a well-worn playbook–the same tactics employed by the tobacco industry and the lead industry: Deny the scientific findings about the dangers their product causes, question the motives of the scientists they oppose, and exaggerate the costs of taking action. They tend to look only at the costs to them of having to clean up their act. They tend never to look at the cost to the public of the harm from their product. If accountants looked at only one side of the ledger like that, they would go to jail.

In each case, tobacco, lead, climate change, and other sophisticated campaigns of misinformation were used to mislead the public. So this is why I have submitted an amendment declaring the sense of the Senate disapproving corporations and the front organizations they fund to obscure their role that deliberately cast doubt on science in order to protect their own financial interests and urging the fossil fuel companies to cooperate with investigations that are now ongoing into what they knew about climate change and when they knew it.

I have also pressed to have the political contributions of these same polluters made transparent to the American people. The Supreme Court’s awful Citizens United decision flung open the floodgates of corporate spending in our elections, giving wealthy corporate interests the ability to clobber, and perhaps even more important, to threaten to clobber politicians who don’t toe their line.

My Republican colleagues have refused to shine the light on this spending, so since the amendment failed, Americans will remain in the dark about who was trying to influence their elections and how.

The Koch brothers-backed political juggernaut, Americans for Prosperity, has openly promised to punish candidates who support curbs on carbon pollution. The group’s President said if Republicans support a carbon tax or climate regulations, they would “be at a severe disadvantage in the Republican nomination process.… We would absolutely make that a crucial issue.” The threat is not subtle: Step out of line and here come the attack ads and the primary challengers, all funded by the deep pockets of the fossil fuel industry, powered up by Citizens United.

Unfortunately, a large portion of the funding behind this special interest apparatus is simply not traceable. Money is funneled through organizations that exist just to conceal the donor’s identity. The biggest identity-laundering shops are Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund. Indeed, these are by far the biggest sources of funding in the network or web of climate-denial front groups. These twin entities reported giving a combined $78 million to climate-denier groups between 2003 and 2010. Dr. Robert Brulle of Drexel University, who studies this network of fossil fuel-backed climate-denial fronts, reports that the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund operations are the “central component” and “predominant funder” of the denier apparatus, and at the same time, they are what he calls the “black box that conceals the identity of contributors.”

The denial apparatus runs a complex scheme to delegitimize the honest, university-based science that supports curbing carbon emissions and to intimidate officials who would dare cross this industry. And, regrettably, it is working.

Since Citizens United let loose the threat of limitless dark money into our elections, a shadow has fallen over the Republican side of this Chamber. There is no longer any honest bipartisan debate on climate change, nor is there a single serious effort on the Republican side of the Presidential race.

So, anyway, I have submitted the amendment to require companies with $1 million or more in revenues from fossil fuel activities to disclose their hidden spending on electioneering communications, to bring them out of the dark. The amendment is cosponsored by Senators Markey, Durbin, Sanders, Shaheen, Baldwin, Leahy, Murphy, Blumenthal, and Menendez.

Corporate and dark money, and particularly fossil fuel money, is now washing through our elections in what one newspaper memorably called a “tsunami of slime.” All my amendment would have done is show the American people who is trying to sway their votes from behind the dark money screen. It is a pretty simple idea. It is, in fact, precisely the solution prescribed by the Supreme Court Justices in the Citizens United decision. Moreover, it is an idea the Republicans have over and over again supported in the past. But now that dark money has become the Republican Party’s life support system, all the opinions have changed.

Well, I believe fossil fuel money is polluting our democracy, just as their carbon emissions are polluting our atmosphere and oceans. It ought to be time to shine a light on that dark money. In a nutshell, we have been had by the fossil fuel industry, and it is time to wake up.