Center for American Progress

The Final Act for Clean Energy in the 111th Congress

The Final Act for Clean Energy in the 111th Congress

Natural Gas and Electric Vehicles Bill Still Possible

This Congress has one more shot at passing clean energy legislation that reduces our dependence on foreign oil and creates jobs, writes Daniel J. Weiss.

A man in Murray, Utah, puts the pump handle back after filling his truck up at a compressed natural gas station. (AP/Douglas C. Pizac)
A man in Murray, Utah, puts the pump handle back after filling his truck up at a compressed natural gas station. (AP/Douglas C. Pizac)

The Senate has one last chance to pass clean energy measures before the 111th Congress adjourns for the year. Many other clean energy and climate measures were blocked in this Congress, but there’s hope for a better ending to this clean energy legislative tragedy: The pending bill currently is composed of proposals with bipartisan authors.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) canceled a cloture vote that would have allowed passage of his Promoting Natural Gas and Electric Vehicles Act, S. 3815. Instead, he is reportedly conducting talks with one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), to see if a bipartisan agreement over the bill’s passage is possible. It is a modest proposal that would increase incentives for natural gas trucks, create a pilot program for electric vehicle recharging infrastructure, and raise the oil spill liability fee from 8 cents to 21 cents per barrel.

Sen. Reid’s bill is based on several bipartisan proposals. Its natural gas vehicles provisions are drawn from the NAT GAS Act, S. 1408. It would provide money for rebates to purchase natural gas cars and trucks. CAP estimates that the conversion of trucks to natural gas could save 1.2 million barrels of oil per day by 2035. The Senate Democratic Policy Committee notes that, “The natural gas industry … estimated that this program will create more than 100,000 direct manufacturing and labor jobs and more than 450,000 indirect jobs.” Its cosponsors include conservative Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), George LeMieux (R-FL), and Hatch.

The electric vehicle provisions in S. 3815 are based on The Electric Vehicle Deployment Act, S. 3442. It would speed the transition to electric vehicles by creating a pilot program to help some communities create electric vehicle recharging infrastructure for plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf. Its cosponsors include Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Susan Collins (R-ME), and LeMieux.

The cost of these programs would be offset by a fairly small increase in the oil spill liability fee from 8 cents to 21 cents per barrel. This would lead to an increase in gasoline prices of no more than one-thirteenth of a cent per gallon. In other words, it would boost the price of seven and a half gallons of gasoline by a single penny. To put this in perspective, gasoline prices rose 7 cents per gallon over the past month.

Big Oil companies oppose this because it would reduce oil use and increase their oil spill liability fee by a pittance. Nonetheless, Big Oil’s opposition to this tiny fee hike could be enough to convince senators to vote against this very modest bill. The negotiations over the legislation are focusing on whether to levy this small fee increase or use some other mechanism to offset its cost.

Republican senators face pressure from their leaders to oppose the bill to deny President Barack Obama even a small victory in addition to demands from Big Oil. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made it clear that politics trumps progress when he said that, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” It is easy to imagine GOP Senate leaders following this dictum by strong-arming their caucus to vote against ending debate and passing this bill.

Republican senators who supported the NAT Gas Act and Electric Vehicle Development Act should also support S. 3815 if there is an agreement between Sens. Reid and Hatch. The bill would then pass. If past is prologue, though, enough of these senators could follow Big Oil and their Senate leadership to kill this common sense, low-cost legislation that would reduce our dependence on foreign oil. It would join comprehensive global warming and clean energy legislation along with other essential clean energy jobs proposals on the scrap heap of bills Big Oil and Senate Republican leaders opposed.

Let’s hope such a sad fate for clean energy can be avoided in this Congress.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress.

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Daniel J. Weiss

Senior Fellow