Mucking It Up: Offshore Drilling and Mixed Messages from the Democrats

Last week President Obama announced a proposal to authorize offshore oil drilling off the eastern coast of the U.S. His message was certainly a change from earlier statements. Here are a few snippets of the President’s multiple positions on this issue:

This apparent shift in policy elicited similar responses from the President’s allies and critics in Congress. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D, NJ) said “Drilling off the Virginia coast would endanger many of New Jersey’s beaches and vibrant coastal economies.” The junior senator from New Jersey, Robert Menendez (D, NJ), noted this proposal was a “non-starter.” Senators Ted Kaufman (D, Del.) and Barbara Mikulski (D, Md.) joined their New Jersey colleagues in opposing the plan by issuing the following statement:

“While I share the President’s commitment to taking our dependence on foreign oil head-on, I do not believe opening Delaware’s coasts to drilling is the way to meet that goal. It is a simple fact that the United States has only a tiny percentage of world oil reserves – 3 percent – while we consume 25 percent. We cannot achieve meaningful energy independence through our own oil reserves. We can and must focus on building an energy economy that relies on clean, renewable domestic sources.”

Further, Republicans also remain skeptical of this course of action. Senator James Inhofe (R, OK) noted this change in course reveals a contradiction in the President’s position on this issue. Namely that the President has on the one hand pushed forward with global warming centric-policies, which according to Senator Inhofe “make fossil fuels more expensive,” while on the other hand, the President has opened the door for drilling for more fossil fuels offshore. The skeptical Inhofe noted “how does the President square these two policies?”

Thus the confusion over this change in policy course has left both the President’s allies and critics perplexed. Perhaps there is an underlying motive to his current position: President Obama does not want to be perceived as inactive on energy policy, particularly when the price of oil is expected to jump again this summer which could hurt his party during the upcoming midterm elections. Perhaps I am being a little too cynical.

“Cap and Trade” or “Green Jobs”: Perhaps We Can Have Both?

To resuscitate climate change legislation in Congress, Climate bill backers have begun to add a job creation theme to how they frame the issue. What results from this push remains to be seen but from my perspective, it is not a bad strategy. Typically, the public is favorable to the idea of climate change legislation if the phrase “Cap and Trade” is not used in describing it and if the concept of job creation is coupled with this policy. We will have to wait and see how the public perceives this re-framing of the policy.

Environmental Outliers

Today’s Environmental Outliers:

  • Reuters discusses the likely policy alternatives for Congress in dealing with climate change legislation in 2010.
  • Environmental ministers from BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) countries met in India to discuss the post Copenhagen scenario on climate change.
  • Pew finds global warming ranks last in immediate priorities for the U.S. government to tackle.
  • The lead climate change negotiator from China notes he has an “open mind” on whether climate change is caused by humans .
  • Bill Gates discusses his concerns that funding for climate policies will come at the expense of health funding.
  • Amy Harder gives an assessment of President Obama’s efforts on energy and environmental policies.
  • The Wall Street journal opines on the continuing glacier-gate controversy

U.S. Senate and Carbon Emissions: A Disapproval Resolution

Efforts to codify carbon emissions reductions by the U.S. government continue to be stalled in Congress. Senator Murkowski (R, AK) has introduced a disapproval resolution in order to block the EPA from implementing regulatory measures to reduce carbon emissions. The resolution is a little-known procedural motion used by the senator as a means to block action by the EPA to set emission targets. The benefit of the move is that it allows for an expedited process in the U.S. Senate, limits debate on the issue, and restricts the amendment process.

But the problem for the GOP in using this strategy is there may not be enough senators to support this motion. The way the procedure works is the disapproval motion is referred to the committee of jurisdiction (Environment and Public Works Committee). The process ensures that if the EPW committee does not report the resolution within 20 calendar days, the resolution can be dislodged if 30 Senators sign a petition to have it discharged from the committee. If this is done, the resolution is brought to the Senate floor for consideration and is not subject to a cloture vote to proceed. Earlier headcounts of supporters of climate change legislation (currently at 42) indicate the resolution will likely fail. The likely vote on the resolution would be along party lines making it very difficult for the GOP to muster 51 votes (11 Democrats would be needed) to pass the measure. More to come…

Copenhagen Update: One Month to Go

Early signals from policymakers indicate it is unlikely the Copenhagen summit will yield a substantive agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. Recent comments made by political elites suggest that  political agreements will be the likely outcome of the conference rather than a full treaty on carbon emissions.

Why is this so? To start, a less ambitious agenda among international leaders is a result of a split between rich-poor nations over emissions targets. In fact during the Barcelona talks last week, delegates from African nations walked out of  negotiations, namely because African nations argued that rich nations were not setting significant goals for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. This rift resulted in Norway’s chief negotiator Hanne Bjurstroem, calling for a separate conference sometime next year in order to ink a final deal.

In addition to the developments in Barcelona, the role of the U.S. in regulating greenhouse gas emission remains a concern for international policymakers.  As of today, the U.S. is unable to request binding targets at Copenhagen because of difficulties within Congress to pass an overall climate change bill (see earlier posts which focused on the details of the Boxer-Kerry bill in the U.S. Senate).  I suspect the inability of the U.S. to take the lead on this issue helped facilitate last week’s events in Barcelona.

These developments should not be surprising. My assessment: Environmentalists have placed too much faith on the international community to address climate change; they will be disappointed, as political leaders are merely attempting to manage expectations on the outcomes of the conference. Political elites focus less on a common interest and more on self-interest. The latter is the driving force behind the motivations of policymakers, which helps explain the current developments on climate talks. Initial positions taken by international leaders allow for these individuals to either take credit or assign blame for any outcome, which fall short of an actual treaty. In any event, I expect to see over the next few weeks international policymakers engaging in the politics of climate change while at the same time downplaying the goals of the summit.

The Politics of Climate Change: Boxer Invokes the “Nuclear Option”

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) Chair Barbara Boxer(D, CA) used a procedural motion today to dislodge the Boxer-Kerry bill from the EPW committee and to send it directly to the Senate floor for consideration.


(Harry Hamburg/AP)

In a statement, Boxer defended the move:

“The committee and Senate rules that have been in place during Republican and Democratic majorities are there to be used when the majority feels it is in the best interest of their states and of the nation to act,” she said. “A majority of the committee believes that S. 1733, and the efforts that will be built upon it, will move us away from foreign oil imports that cost Americans one billion dollars a day, it will protect our children from pollution, create millions of clean-energy jobs, and stimulate billions of dollars of private investment.”

Boxer was able to dislodge the bill from the committee by a vote of 11-1. The only Democrat to vote against the bill, was Max Baucus (D, MT) who raised concerns about the economic impact of emissions caps as well as agriculture provisions included in the legislation. All Republican committee members were not present for the vote.

Ultimately this is a partisan move and will make it difficult to get the necessary vote to invoke cloture in the Senate. Though this is the first of many steps for passage of the bill, I suspect this move will scare off more moderate Democrats who have already raised concerns over the bill.  This is important because it is the actions of moderate Senators, not the Democratic Leadership in the Senate, who will likely make or break this legislation. Votes matter and based on today’s events, the Democrats have lost at least one prominent moderate senator who will likely be very influential in determining whether the party can muster 60 votes within their party to move forward on this bill. More to come…

The Politics of Climate Change: Partisanship and The Mark-Up Process of the Boxer-Kerry Bill

Don’t hold your breath for the U.S. to have a climate bill ready for the Copenhagen summit. As expected, partisanship is driving the mark-up process of the Boxer-Kerry bill in the Senate Environment and Public Works committee. As of today, Republican committee members have signaled they will not participate in the process until they are provided with more information from the EPA and CBO over the bill’s full economic costs. At the same time, committee chair Barbara Boxer (D, CA) has signaled that she is ready to invoke Senate rules to dislodge the bill from the committee and to bring it directly to the floor in response to the Republican Party’s boycott. To supporters of the bill, Boxer’s strategy may seem like a good thing to pursue in order for the bill not to get bogged down in committee. It is not however. This is because she will need not only the support of moderate Democrats but also of moderate Republicans; both groups of committee members have signaled they are skeptical of the financial costs of the bill.

To understand the reasons behind the stand-off between Democrats and Republicans serving on the committee, it is important to consider the ideological differences between them. To do this, I have provided a chart below, which illustrates ideological differences among committee members as defined by Poole and Rosenthal’s DW-Nominate scores. The scores measure members’ ideology and range from -1 (liberal) to 1 (conservative) on the x-axis. The y-axis of the chart simply measures the differences between members geographically—i.e. how far they are from each other based on the Republican realignment in the south during the later part of the 20th century. By looking at the chart, you can appreciate the ideological polarization inherent to the committee as a contributing reason to the stand-off. A good way to understand the gap between members is to look at the differences between Bernie Sanders (I, VT), the most liberal member of the committee, and Jim Inhofe (R, OK) who is the most conservative member of the committee. Between these two members is a considerable gap, which helps explain the reason for the GOP’s opposition to the bill. The ideological divide between Democrats and Republican committee members, therefore, does not lend itself to a high probability of bipartisan behavior. This outcome, however, is not inevitable. In fact, it can be averted if Senator Boxer can successfully reach out to moderate committee members.
Senate 111 Environment CommitteeREV
So, who are the moderate members Senator Boxer needs to reach out to in order to pass a bipartisan bill? Moderate committee members are those who fall within the circle that is drawn on the chart above. I define moderates as: Democrats who are to the right of the party’s center (-.43); and Republicans who are to the left of the party center (.45). In actuality, moderate members of the committee tend to be closer to one another than they are to some of their fellow partisans. From this vantage point, moderates act as a third party in Congress and serve as means to counterbalance the ideological extremes at either end of the political spectrum. And as result, a coalition of these members negate the possibility that Boxer will be able to bypass her committee in the mark-up process.

If Boxer wants a bipartisan bill, I suggest two courses of action. First, build a coalition with some combination of at least five of the following individuals: Voinvich (R, OH), Carper (D, DE), Baucus (D, MT), Alexander (R, TN), Udall (D, CO), Bond (R, MO), Specter (D, PA) and Gilibrand (D, NY). The strategy here is that essentially these members are not too far from each other ideologically, so accordingly, if one of them supports the bill, the others might follow suit. Second, Boxer needs to be careful not to alienate any of the eight moderates in her endeavors to muster at least five of them to vote for the bill. If she does decide to pull the bill and take a more hard-line position, then this is sufficient enough to scare conservative Democrats (Carper, Baucus, Specter, and Gilibrand) or moderate Republicans (Voinvich, Bond, and Alexander) off. As of today, Boxer’s partisan approach ensures that both Republicans and moderate Democrats will not support the bill when it reaches the Senate floor.

So, to get the votes on the bill it is not enough for Democrats simply to unite liberals, they will also need support from moderate Republicans and Democrats alike. Even if Senator Boxer is able to get the support of a few moderates on the committee, she will have to reach out to all moderates in order to ensure that she does not alienate any of them when the bill does come to a vote.