Why we can’t have nice things (like a national renewable energy mandate)


With great fanfare, last week five U.S. Senators introduced the latest attempt to implement some kind of national policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector, through a national clean energy standard.

The bill looks a lot like the policies that have been passed in six U.S. states, as well as Puerto Rico and Washington D.C., with a 50% renewable by 2035 target and a mandate for full decarbonization of the electricity sector by 2050.

All five of the Senators who have introduced the Renewable Electricity Standard Act of 2019 are Democrats or Independents. This is not an accident. No state where the Republican Party controls either chamber of the state’s legislature or the governor’s office has passed a 100% clean energy mandate.

And in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, this bill has about as much chance of making it to the finish line as a squirrel does crossing a 12-lane highway. It will be a cold day in Hell before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) allows a bill like this to pass, even if it can make it through Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

This is not for lack of trying. Many bills to establish a federal renewable portfolio standard have been introduced, some of them by Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the lead author of this bill. And while prior to 2010 such bills were often bipartisan, following the ascendency of the Tea Party in 2010, the Republican Party has become less amenable both to any sort of regulation of environmental issues and to compromise.


Other barriers

This is not to say that this bill would be anything more than jousting at windmills if Democrats controlled the U.S. Senate and were sending this bill to a Democratic president. The last time that Democrats controlled both houses of the U.S. congress and the presidency in 2009, they still couldn’t pass the Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill.

There is an obvious barrier to any significant climate and clean energy legislation being passed in the U.S. Senate in the person of Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), who now serves as ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. That means that even if the Democratic Party regains control of the U.S. Senate, any bill like this will still have to go through a committee chaired by a man who has strong ties to the coal industry and literally shot a gun at a climate bill in a campaign ad.

As we have stated before, until there is substantive change in the leadership of the Democratic Party, the best that renewable energy industries will be able to do are tweaks to clean energy tax policies that fall below the radar of fossil fuel-funded politicians like Murkowski and Manchin.

Other than that, what is left is symbolic acts. This includes a sort of ritual reintroduction of nearly the same legislation that has been shot down before, in what may be an attempt to wear through the barriers of the U.S. Congress, or at least expose its dysfunction.

So the roll is rolled up the hill again. For Senator Udall, this may be his last effort, as he announced this spring that he will not run for re-election in 2020.

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