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Harry Reid

Environmentalists, Transpo Reformers Brace for Scaled-Back Energy Bill

12:18 PM PDT on July 27, 2010

"We know we don’t have the votes."

With those seven words last Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry
Reid dashed hopes for a comprehensive climate bill. Prospects also
dimmed for a transportation component in the final energy legislation
that emerges from the Senate. Reid is expected to announce that plan later today.

405.jpgHarry
Reid indicated last week that he won't address the nation's
oil-dependent transportation system in legislation expected to be
unveiled today. Photo: atwatervillage/Flickr

Up
until Reid's announcement, advocates for transportation reform had
reason to believe the Senate bill might include some form of action to
improve fuel
efficiency, increase transit options, and encourage more sustainable
land use patterns -- ideas drawn from the Oil Independence Bill
introduced by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley. The oil independence
legislation contained elements of Delaware Senator Tom Carper's "CLEAN-TEA" bill,
introduced in March 2009, which would have funded the planning and
implementation of green transportation projects with revenues from a
carbon emissions cap-and-trade system.

Instead, Reid indicated that his bill will likely contain language dealing only with the Gulf oil spill and some energy efficiency provisions.

"The package that Reid announced [Thursday] doesn’t address climate
change at all,” said Colin Peppard, deputy director of federal
transportation policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "What we were
hearing from staff on the Senate side is that basically up until pretty
close to Reid’s announcement, there was still consideration for pieces
of the Merkley bill."

Reid’s announcement “took the entire environmental community
off-guard,” said Stephanie Potts, a policy analyst with Smart Growth
America.

While the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe became an emblem of the
need to wean the nation off oil, it did not stiffen many spines in
Congress. In fact, said Potts, the Gulf spill may have worked against a
broader climate bill by narrowing the avenues for compromise and
horsetrading. Without expanded offshore drilling as a bargaining chit,
there were few lures to win the votes of some recalcitrant Senators, especially those from coastal states.

In the end, the globs of brown in the Gulf of Mexico didn't
overcome the absence of will to raise revenues. "The biggest obstacle is
lack of funding," said one source close to the legislation, who said
some transportation component may still surface in the final bill.
"[Reid's bill] has not been released. There are opportunities to effect
influence on that legislation, that bill, via amendments."

The source said that as a standalone measure, however, the Merkley bill is a “very difficult prospect.”

Some advocates also described the climate bill as a casualty of the
Obama administration's decision to focus first on health care
legislation and then the recently-passed financial reform bill. “I think
it’s been a timing issue in large part," said Matt Mayrl, policy
director for the California-based Apollo Alliance, which works toward “a
green energy revolution.” “In terms
of oxygen the Senate has to operate, the time is not there.”

There are still opportunities to reform U.S. transportation policy
this year. Potts pointed to a lame duck period in late fall and early
winter as the next best opportunity to push through another version of
Carper or Merkley’s bills. She also said it is important to continue to
explain the benefits of transportation reform.

“We’re trying to work with Congress to educate them on how smart
growth works around communities,” Potts said. “It’s not all transit...
it really works in communities of all sizes.”

And components of the Merkley bill will re-surface in the fight to
encourage alternative energy use and more transit options. “We think
that the Merkley bill is great place to start,” Peppard said. "We are
working with the House and Senate this year into next year and we are
making a big push to build support for those initiatives."

For now, all eyes are on the bill that Reid will introduce later
today. Despite the seeming finality of last week’s announcement, there
is still a chance some components of the Merkley bill will be included.
One source close to the legislation said simply, “All hope is not lost.”

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