Clean energy cuts delayed, not avoided, by supercommittee’s collapse

Source: Evan Lehmann • E&E  • Posted: Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The congressional “supercommittee” might be dead, but that won’t rescue energy spending from deep cuts that loom in the future. It only provides a temporary reprieve, according to observers.

Key incentives for renewable energy, cleaner technologies and fossil fuels could be the subject of rugged debates as Congress recalibrates for the panel’s failure. It could push forward with a much smaller legislative package to extend payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits before they expire in five weeks.”What’s going to be on that train?” a former energy aide to the Senate Democratic leadership said of that potential package. He wondered if it would include bipartisan proposals for energy efficiency or tax credits for wind power.It is unclear what will emerge in a Congress that has been distracted by the supercommittee since spring. Republican lawmakers had urged the 12-member panel to use its catchall legislation to cut Department of Energy budgets for renewable energy, loan guarantees and the search for breakthrough innovations.

All of those areas and more are likely to be downsized as the automatic triggers devised to reduce the national debt by $1.2 trillion over 10 years go into effect in January 2013. About $109 billion is scheduled to be cut annually through 2021, with half each coming from defense and civilian accounts. Because the rules established under the debt ceiling negotiation prohibit large cuts to Social Security and Medicare, domestic programs like energy are expected to carry a painful burden.

“I think the failure of the supercommittee just pushes back the day of reckoning that’s coming,” said Roger Ballentine, former chairman of the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton. “Because there’s no question it’s coming.”

There is one upside to the panel’s collapse, he said: The delay in cuts gives President Obama and his supporters time to convince Congress that clean energy is good for the economy. But even that is a stretch, Ballentine suggested.

“That’s going to be very difficult to do, because there’s no single clean energy lobby,” he said. “The wind guys are going to push for their thing, the solar guys are going to push for their thing, the biofuel guys will push for their thing.”

“Those dynamics are the same whether it’s in a 12-member committee or whether it’s in the larger Congress.”

Energy efficiency bill could survive

In the wake of the panel’s failure, Congress might resume consideration of legislation that has stalled for months. Optimists point to the a bipartisan energy efficiency bill introduced by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) as a package that might escape partisan feuding. It would provide loans and grants for retrofits in industrial and commercial buildings, among other things.

“There are a lot of members that are on committees who have been putting off things to do,” the former Senate aide said. “This is high on Portman’s list, but he’s on the supercommittee.”

A Portman spokeswoman, Christine Mangi, said the Senate has enough “bandwidth” to work simultaneously on debt reduction and energy legislation. She said Portman’s bill has more momentum than other measures to emerge from the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources this year.

“If anything energy-related were to move on the floor, we are confident that the bill would be at the base of that proposal,” she said.

There are other candidates, as well, like the Clean Energy Development Administration (CEDA), a quasi-public “green bank” that could provide loans and other financing programs to new projects. It is supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but the measure has not cleared committee in this Congress.

“There’s clearly still desire among both members of Congress and the public to develop bipartisan energy policy approaches,” said Paul Bledsoe of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “And to the extent that the supercommittee failed, it presents political opportunity for those who want to demonstrate that they can actually get something done here.”

“My sense is that after the finger-pointing finishes, there will be a variety of renewed efforts to develop policy approaches that can gain some bipartisan support,” he added.

But others wonder whether the supercommittee was the best chance to bridge a bitter partisan divide that promises to only get deeper closer to next year’s elections. If an agreement could not be negotiated when the world was waiting for Congress to set politics aside for the sake of economic stability, can even a small one be struck as both parties strive to control the White House?

“If ever there was a place for bipartisanship to prove its mettle, it was in the supercommittee process,” said Manik Roy, vice president for strategic outreach at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.