This summer, US politicians gave up. Faced with backroom roadblocks and scattered priorities, Democratic leaders announced in July that they were abandoning attempts to pass a comprehensive energy and climate-change bill. Instead, they decided to shoot for narrower legislation that would eliminate limits on oil-spill liabilities and create incentives for natural-gas vehicles. Good pieces of policy, to be sure, but hardly the sweeping vision that environmentalists, green-economists, and the American public want and need.
The biggest stumbling block was the debate over a cap-and-trade program that would set limits and taxes on greenhouse-gas emissions, allowing businesses to buy and sell restricted rights to pollute. The US House passed a cap-and-trade bill in 2009, but the Senate was a harder sell. Opponents say cap-and-trade efforts raise prices and endanger jobs by requiring plants and factories to invest in expensive infrastructure.
That's where the Blue Green Alliance, a Minnesota-based organization that bridges the labor and environmental movements, comes in.
"Those who say [cap-and-trade legislation] is a job-killer . . . couldn't be more wrong," says David Foster, BGA's executive director. "It's not a question of good jobs or a clean environment."
Rather, it's a matter of combining the two, Foster says. Cultivating the "green economy" (which includes everything from making pieces of wind turbines to energy-efficient air conditioners to greening up computer technology) will maintain and actually create manufacturing jobs — he points out that the average wind turbine has 250 tons of steel.
In fact, the BGA — whose nationwide bus tour made a stop in Portland on Tuesday evening — says that clean-energy legislation is the only way to save the US economy.
"The companies that are thriving . . . are based on clean energy," Foster says. "It's the strongest long-term way to make jobs in America."
The BGA is calling for US senators to pass the type of broad bill that died this summer — but that goal is unlikely to be reached at least until next year, after the November elections. Maine senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins were two of a handful of Republicans willing to consider variations on capping and trading. Both expressed disappointment when the climate-change bill fell through (though both blamed the Democratic leadership for its demise).
"This legislation could actually save our industry," says Lindsay Patterson, who serves as president of the United Steelworkers Local 404 in Philadelphia and is traveling on the BGA tour. Local United Steelworkers representatives were at the Portland stop, along with big-wigs from state and local chapters of the AFL-CIO, IBEW, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and the Maine Center for Economic Policy.
It's not that the country lacks awareness, ideas, or even motivation in this sector. As Michael Grunwald pointed out in last week's Time magazine, "the Recovery Act is the most ambitious energy legislation in history, converting the Energy Department into the world's largest venture-capital fund. It's pouring $90 billion into clean energy, including unprecedented investments in a smart grid; energy efficiency; electric cars; renewable power from the sun, wind and earth; cleaner coal; advanced biofuels; and factories to manufacture green stuff in the U.S."
But perhaps it's safe to say we lack vision. The fact that a stand-alone, wide-ranging energy bill failed to pass the US Senate before its August recess — even as Americans saw the devastating impact of a carbon-spewing world through oil-spill eyes — indicates something insidious: fear? stagnation? narrow-mindedness?
Business-as-usual hasn't worked for the environment or the economy. As Foster says: "It's only by making big investments in the clean-energy sector that we'll put Americans back to work."
Deirdre Fulton can be reached atdfulton[a]phx.com.