May 9, 2019 - Energy & Environment

America's pent-up thirst for climate change policy

In this illustration, water fills up the ground outside the Capitol building.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Lawmakers offer lots of bills every day that just vanish into the ether, but yesterday my inbox filled up with responses to a new energy proposal, and the rollout says a lot about the state of play heading into the 2020 elections.

Driving the news: 2 Democrats — Sen. Tina Smith and Rep. Ben Ray Luján — unveiled plans for a "clean energy standard" that would require utilities to supply escalating amounts of carbon-free power annually over coming decades.

Why it matters: It's a big but also detailed marker and clearly has plenty of advance organizing behind it.

  • And it shows how Democrats are starting to try and gain traction for specific ideas should a political window open in years ahead.
  • It's the latest iteration of a proposed national clean power standard, an idea floating around in some form for a decade.

By the numbers: The intricate system recognizes regional differences, but overall sponsors say it would cut power-sector emissions by nearly 80% in 2035 (relative to 2005 levels) and get close to net-zero by mid-century. Modeling by the nonpartisan think tank Resources for the Future concludes it would...

  • Boost renewables to 56% of total generation in 2035 and avoid retirement of 43 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by that date.
  • Cut fossil fuel generation to 26% of the nationwide total by 2035, while increasing average retail electricity rates by 4%.

Of note: RFF helped with technical analysis during the development of the legislation.

Between the lines: The rollout and early support (more on that below) suggests advocates of an approach that backs a suite of zero-carbon technologies are gaining the upper hand over calls on the left for a renewables-only vision.

The big question: Whether there's any chance of GOP support. It's not a totally bananas possibility.

  • It matters because even if Democrats win the White House, they would need some Republicans to advance big policies (unless they also took the Senate and killed the filibuster).
  • A source familiar with the bill's development tells me that sponsors have been in discussions with potential GOP backers.

Flashback: Roughly a decade ago, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham floated a version of a "clean" standard, albeit as Republicans were countering largely Democratic calls for renewables-only mandate.

  • GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski has also expressed openness to the idea, per this piece I wrote for The Hill in 2010.

What they're saying: The bill is supported by United Steelworkers, the Utility Workers Union of America, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Clean Air Task Force, sponsors say.

  • The National Wildlife Federation and The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions also sent me emails supportive of the idea.

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