The Skywriter

The year in climate: Washington's missed opportunities


The year in climate: Washington's missed opportunities


As the year kicked off, climate change and clean energy advocates were teased with the prospects of another jobs bill centered on clean energy provisions and the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate bill. The jobs bill was rumored to include the HomeStar program, which would fund a massive energy efficiency retrofit program (the best bang for the buck in reducing emissions), while the climate bill was rumored to include a full carbon cap. Senator Graham at the time was heard to have said: "If the approach is to try to pass some half-assed energy bill and say that’s moving the ball down the road, forget it with me."

During the same time period, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), was wasting no time in attempting to gut the Clean Air Act’s requirements on polluters. In fact, during much of this year, her attacks on the Clean Air Act continued, along with Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV).

In March, President Obama hosted a number of key senators at the White House to discuss priorities for climate change legislation. Most senators had positive statements from that meeting, noting that a comprehensive bill was needed to address climate change and energy.

In April, almost immediately after the Obama Administration announced that it would allow new offshore drilling, BP stole our attention when its Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, opening a gusher of an oil spill a mile below the sea surface and causing what is widely considered to be the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. If you were living under a rock or in a coma for most of the year, the spill was estimated to be leaking 200,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean for 3 months before it was finally capped. The incident led to the resignation of BP CEO Tony Hayward (a terrible loss, to be sure), and BP’s bumbling public relations campaign resulted in widespread mockery. Rather than recap (no pun intended) BP’s attempts to stop the spill, I suggest you watch this surprisingly accurate re-enactment by the Underground Citizen’s Brigade:

Congress-side, the oil spill resulted in debate over the liability limit for oil spills and the continuation of offshore drilling. After a few false starts, the Obama Administration was able to implement a short-term moratorium on offshore drilling, but raising the financial liability of the companies involved remained out of reach, even as layers of oil began showing up on sandy beaches in the Gulf.

In the midst of all of the oil spill insanity, Senators Kerry (D-MA) and Lieberman (I-CT) released the draft of their climate bill, the American Power Act (APA), after Senator Graham (R-SC) dropped out of the process. The bill gained some praise, as well as serious criticism, but quickly died.

Toward the end of the summer election season was in full swing. With the prospects for significant losses of key supporters in the House and Senate, the prospects for comprehensive climate change began to dim. Out in California, the oil companies were funding regressive ballot initiatives to cripple the state’s landmark climate change legislation, AB 32. Though the most direct and significant threats were defeated, Proposition 26 passed, which has potential to impact AB 32’s implementation. To see more information on the flow of money in this election, visit

After the election (we all know what happened there), we have seen suggestions that cap and trade proposals are now dead. Talk arose of the potential for an energy bill in the lame duck session of Congress, though action remains unlikely. In the same time period, COP16 took place in Cancun, Mexico, with delegations from 193 nations coming to agreement on a modest text. The agreement is not bold action, and the United States played far too much of an obstructionist role, but it is a step forward.

Looking at 2011, prospects for a climate bill look dim given the congressional makeup. Regardless, we need to protect Clean Air Act requirements on polluters and the few avenues of action that remain for now at the federal level.

Nick Santos is a former 1Sky policy fellow and now works with The Environmental Consumer in California. The author's opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the 1Sky campaign.
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