Sen. Kerry makes his case for an energy bill

The Senate energy bill to cap carbon emissions is flawed and in trouble, but Kerry makes some important points about the bill he coauthored with Sen. Joe Lieberman.

With all the nervousness about possible conflict on the Korean Peninsula, one might have expected Sen. John Kerry to zero in on this topic at a Monitor breakfast with reporters this week. After all, he’s the DemocratsMr. Foreign Policy and he chairs the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Nope. It was energy, energy, energy for most of the eggs and bacon discussion. That’s because the Democrat from Massachusetts is also co-writer of the energy bill, the American Power Act. The bill that he and Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman crafted would cap carbon emissions and invest in alternatives to oil and coal, but it’s in deep trouble.

For starters, it appears to be sinking in the oily waters of the Gulf. Instead of the BP spill spurring on the bill’s push for alternative fuels, it’s slowing down progress because of the legislation’s provision to expand offshore oil drilling – a deal made to secure backing from the oil industry.

Meanwhile, the legislation lost its main Republican supporter, Sen. Lindsey Graham, when the Democratic leadership decided to put immigration reform ahead of landmark energy legislation. Immigration will be much harder to pass than the Kerry-Lieberman bill, if not impossible. But that issue is all about the November elections and securing the Hispanic vote.

Senator Kerry made three basic arguments for the bill, and they deserve to be heard.

The first is jobs and the economy. He says the bill will create 200,000 jobs annually over 10 years, and return America to leadership in the “mother of all markets.” The technology boom of the 1990s was a $1 trillion market with 1 billion users, he said; the market for energy is $6 trillion, with 6 billion users.

Not one American business is among the world’s top 10 solar producers, he laments. Meanwhile, China is investing $400 billion in alternative and renewable energy.

Second, national security. The bill will lead to a 40 percent to 50 percent drop in dependence on OPEC, he claims. “We send $100 million a day to [oil-producing] Iran. Does that make sense?”

Third, health and environmental reasons: melting glaciers, “climate refugees” of displaced people around the world, diminished wildlife habitat from a warming planet.

Interestingly, he put these reasons last. It’s at the core of climate change legislation, but as even Al Gore found out, the environment doesn’t poll among voters the way the economy does.

Kerry didn’t talk about the bill’s downsides. It is distressingly flawed. It relies on a system of tradable emissions permits instead of a direct carbon tax, which is the simplest and most sure-fire way to reduce carbon emissions. He didn’t talk about jobs lost to higher energy prices, though he went out of his way to name all the different energy sectors backing the bill.

Despite the bill’s flaws, the Senate should move forward on the Kerry-Lieberman bill.

It’s much more pressing than the immigration issues (the most urgent of which President Obama has just dealt with by dispatching the National Guard to the border).

Passing a bill in an election year that raises energy prices for consumers will not be popular, but higher prices are needed to reduce reliance on oil and coal.

And Washington cannot continue to generate uncertainty over its plans. This bill, at least, provides price certainty that industry can rely on.

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