MEEA: The political landscape

EDITOR’S NOTE: Correspondent Brian Rogal is covering the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance conference in Chicago. Click here for a complete archive of his posts.

The first plenary session from 2:00 to 3:30 was meant to provide a very broad overview of where national energy policy stands, especially in the aftermath of the November elections.

The three panelists provided a load of info, perhaps too much to summarize in a single post, but all three addressed the same question: what will the new 112 members of Congress do? The truth seems to be that no one really knows.

During the question and answer session, Brad Penney from the Alliance to Save Energy admitted that Rep. Joe Barton’s bill to repeal part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which imposes efficiency requirements on light bulbs, caught them by surprise. That by itself is a little surprising, given the Alliance’s clout. If this group can be surprised by Barton and his many like-minded colleagues Republicans, then the political landscape may be even more uncertain than some have feared.

Katrina Pielli was the first speaker at this panel. Her background: she was with the EPA’s Climate Protection Partnership Division during the Bush Administration, and was a key staff member when the EPA collaborated with the U.S. Dept. of Energy to produce the 2008 National Action Plan for Energy Efficiency.

Pielli mentioned several times the importance of continuing to leverage the jobs and money already provided by the federal stimulus package, and not allowing the people helped by all those funds to slide back into unemployment. Obviously, this is going to require some cooperation from Republicans in Congress if the money is going to keep flowing.

Penney also responded to this during the subsequent question-and-answer session when he made a forceful request for data on job creation from the feds. The Alliance is going to be engaged in heavy lobbying all next year, he explains, and the one mantra they expect to hear is “how many jobs will this create?”

Christopher Guith, a vice president for policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, gave a sobering presentation.

Guith’s talk was not really focused on energy efficiency. But I thought it was filled with necessary reminders of just how monumental the tasks of improving energy efficiency and switching to cleaner fuel sources is going to be.

Decades from now, Guith says, we are still going to be relying on huge amounts of coal and other fossil fuels, while clean energy, even under optimistic scenarios, still won’t supply projected power needs. Furthermore, building new power sources such as nuclear power plants are expensive and risky, and many communities will resist accepting any type of power plant in their midst. Even wind farms are controversial. He got a laugh when he said the old NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) formula has been replaced by BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything).

Penney picked up on the point made by Guith that the 2010 elections represent the biggest congressional turnover we’ve ever seen, and all those new members need to be educated on energy efficiency issues. He chose to headline his brief recap of 2010 as “Demise of climate legislation” but added, with perhaps a little resignation, that there was no need to belabor that loss.

Overall, he thinks a lot can get done in that 6-8 month window before what he dubbed the “silly season” of presidential politics begins. A bipartisan group should be able to keep the money flowing to EE programs, as long as they can show that job data, and Congress may even establish a “Green Bank” to finance EE projects.

Still, he notes that the Alliance was lobbying all the way through Dec. 23, up to 7 p.m., to get a new set of efficiency standards on appliances through Congress, but it was blocked.

“I think we are going to be playing defense the next two years,” Penney concluded.

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