The Merkley Climate Bill and the Climate Movement

US Senator Jeff Merkley, with co-sponsorship from Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker and Ed Markey, has introduced a major piece of climate legislation, the “100 by ‘50 Act.” The primary objective of the bill is “to transition away from fossil fuel sources of energy to 100% clean and renewable energy by 2050.”

I started hearing about this a couple of weeks before the Peoples Climate March on April 29th, and the first things I heard about it were critical. One criticism was that it was weak on new oil and gas infrastructure buildout, allowing it to continue until 2021. The other main criticism was that it was too moderate and weak as far as its objective, that the rapidly deepening climate crisis called for a much more rapid shift to 100% renewable energy, that we just don’t have the time for it to take place incrementally over the next 33 years.

On April 27th the legislation was publicly announced and released. I’ve read through its 319 pages, and in general I found a lot to like. Some examples:

-It aims to shift not just to 100% renewables-generated electricity by 2050, but to 100% of all new car sales in 2050 being electric cars, and “residential and commercial heating systems that eliminate fossil fuel emissions by 2050.”

-“Beginning on January 1, 2021, there shall be a moratorium on Federal permit approval for 1) any new electric generating facility that generates fossil fuel energy through the combustion of any fossil fuel resource; 2) any new gathering line or interstate pipeline for the transport of any fossil fuel resource that a) crosses Federal land or navigable water; or b) requires the use of eminent domain on private property…4) any new import or export terminal for fossil fuel resources…”

-It has language about eminent domain that strengthens the moratorium above: “Any application, permit, or right-of-way granted or issued for any facility described [above] that, on or after February 8, 2017, triggers the use of eminent domain shall be null and void.”

-It allocates $30 billion/year for zero emissions public transportation vehicles.

-It allocates $10 billion/year for programs to bring solar energy to “low-income households and households in disadvantaged communities while providing job training or community engagement opportunities.”

-It allocates $10 billion/year to “make energy efficiency retrofits affordable and accessible to low-income and disadvantaged families.”

-It allocates $24 billion/year for electricity subsidies to low-income and disadvantaged families.

-It allocates $2 billion/year for community groups to support energy efficiency and renewables programs.

-It has an extensive set of Just Transition programs for workers in the coal industry and other affected industries, including financial adjustment assistance and other funds to help workers in the fossil fuel industry who lose their jobs. It also provides for “community need-based economic transition assistance” for counties and tribes adversely affected.

-It provides for a “carbon fee for commercial aviation, maritime transportation and rail. The amount of the carbon fee shall be not less than the social cost of carbon, as determined by the Administrator.”

-It ends or reduces fossil fuel subsidies from the federal government in a number of areas.

-It prohibits the use of any US funds for “the World Bank or any other international financial institution. . . to carry out any project that facilitates additional consumption or production of fossil-fuel based energy,” though there are some exceptions.

-It says that “all laborers and mechanics” employed on projects funded by this legislation “shall be paid wages at rates not less than those prevailing on projects of a similar character in the locality.”

-It provides for a Climate Justice Resiliency Project to “mitigate climate impacts on a climate resiliency hotspot community, and it establishes a Climate Justice Resiliency Grant Program to provide block grants to promote climate justice.” $2 billion would be allocated the first year and $10 billion each year after that.

These are all good things, no question about it. Putting all of these positive initiatives together, as well as others I haven’t listed, into this one piece of legislation is helpful in setting out a marker for the kind of direction the country needs to go when it comes to climate action and justice action.

But there are other aspects that are problematic or questionable.

-One, a very big one, is the issue of whether this legislation, if passed, would actually make the transition fast enough to avoid worldwide climate catastrophe. My personal view is that, by itself, it wouldn’t.

The Climate Mobilization, a group which is calling for a World War II kind of mobilization to achieve 100% renewable energy within a decade, criticized the legislation in a Common Dreams op-ed by Policy Director Ezra Silk. He wrote, “If the bill stands little chance of passage and is meant as a rallying cry for the climate movement, why not go big and try to actually solve the climate crisis? We don’t have 33 years to abandon fossil fuels.”

Silk went on to say, “Gradualist timelines and targets will exact a brutal toll on the world’s poorest, and recklessly endanger the future of our species.”

As one example, the legislation projects a reduction of fossil fuel energy sales by retail electric companies of 2.5% a year, starting in 2022.

Some climate scientists, not all and not a majority, have said that they believe the world needs to be reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by about 6% a year starting now if we are to have a decent chance of avoiding catastrophe. Whether or not they are right, there is little doubt, given the accelerating rise in parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, extreme weather events and ice melt at both poles, that the call for a World War II type of mobilization is sound and timely.

-Another problem is the support for biofuels, ethanol and biodiesel, at several places.

-A primary source of funding for all of the various positive programs in the legislation would be through the issuance of “climate bonds in an amount not to exceed $150,000,000,000 on the credit of the United States, the proceeds of which shall be deposited in the Climate Fund.”

Why not fund these programs primarily through a steadily-rising fee on fossil fuel companies? Among other things, this would accelerate the transition.

-A very big issue with this legislation is the creation of cap-and-trade markets and the “issuance” of annually-declining “climate credits” to “retail electric suppliers” and “vehicle manufacturers.” Each year the electricity and vehicle sellers need to turn in enough credits to demonstrate that they are shifting from fossil fuel-based electricity and gas-powered vehicles on the 2.5%-a-year schedule of the legislation.

The bill explicitly authorizes the creation of a secondary trading market: “the Administrator may delegate to an appropriate market-making entity the administration of a national tradeable fossil fuel energy credit market for purposes of creating a transparent national market for the sale or trade of fossil fuel energy credits.”

Why does it have to be done this way? Why not enact a fee—as is done with commercial aviation, maritime transportation and rail? What is the justification for this way of doing things for sellers of electricity and vehicles?

In 2009, after the Democrats won big in the November, 2008 elections, Henry Waxman and Ed Markey put forward an American Clean Energy and Security Act. It was a bill which had as a central feature a cap-and-trade system for fossil fuel companies. It ended up passing, very narrowly, in the House of Representatives, but it never moved forward in the Senate. Problems with the cap-and-trade system of the bill were one of the main reasons. That approach was criticized by some climate groups and, for partisan reasons, by Republicans. And in the fall of 2010, the Democrats lost big. The Republicans gained 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate.

The passage of Obamacare was seen by many analysts as the primary reason for that huge Democratic defeat, but Republican attacks on cap-and-trade were also part of their messaging.

Not all Democrats in the Senate and House supported the Waxman-Markey bill approach, and not all Republicans were climate deniers. At the end of 2009 Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell and Republican Senator Susan Collins introduced a climate bill, the CLEAR Act, that used a cap-and-dividend approach. A main aspect of this approach was a steadily-declining, overall number of permits-to-pollute that fossil fuel companies were required to buy at auction. 75% of the revenue raised from this sale of permits would be used to send an equal share of that money to every US resident with a social security card, and 25% of it would be used for the kind of programs found in the 100 by ’50 bill.

In 2015 Bernie Sanders introduced a fee-and-dividend piece of legislation, the Climate Protection and Justice Act, that had similarities and differences. As described in an article published by Common Dreams on December 10th, it “would cut total emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050; institute a carbon tax, the proceeds of which would go to the bottom 80% of households making less than $100,000/year; and establish a Climate Justice Resiliency Council that would provide grants to areas ‘disproportionately affected by climate impacts or other hazards that lead to negative public health effects, exposure, or environmental degradation.’”

The Merkley-initiated bill is the latest in a series of climate bills that have been introduced over the last decade or so, none of which have been enacted. We all know this bill is not going to pass as long as Donald Trump is in the White House and the Republicans control at least one house of Congress.

And given the reality of the Senate filibuster, it’s hard to see a bill like this passing unless the Democrats win 60 seats in the Senate. This is not a bill that Republicans are going to support.

Some Republicans, however, might support a bill like the one Susan Collins supported in 2009 and 2010, if the climate movement continues to build and there is a huge political shift to the Left that leads to Democrats (and some progressive Independents?) winning control of both houses of Congress in 2018 or 2020 and someone with Bernie Sanders’ politics winning the White House in 2020.

In the meantime, I would say, we need to be about stopping, or delaying, new oil and gas pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure, building the resistance movement to Republican and corporate attacks, winning people’s victories at local and state levels,  and being visible and active in the streets, including nonviolent direct action. Those are the main arenas of struggle right now in defense of the people and the planet.