Energy Bill Clears the House, But Hurdles & Open Questions Remain

The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 has just cleared its biggest hurdle yet, winning approval from the House of Representatives in a close 219-212 vote late on Friday. The bill has already had a long and bumpy ride since a draft began circulating nearly three months ago — but while today’s victory may help build momentum for the bill, it’s far from a done deal.

waxman-voteAt this point, the Senate still has to negotiate and vote on its own version of the climate and energy bill, which some environmental groups say falls short. After the Senate vote, the two chambers have to come up with a compromise version of the proposal to create mandates for increased reliance on renewable energy and the country’s first comprehensive regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, through a cap-and-trade system or marketplace for buying and trading pollution credits.waxman-finalvoteHouse Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (pictured, speaking after tonight’s vote) and Edward Markey, who chairs the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, anticipated that controversy would swirl around their proposal (opponents have called it “national energy tax” and a “job killer”) — that’s why they introduced it, at first, as a “discussion draft.” Speaking on the House floor shortly after the final votes came in today, Markey called the passage a “historic achievement.”

If the law does go into effect, we can expect even more negotiations, since the legislation will likely leave some important questions open for federal agencies to answer as they implement the new framework. For example, what kinds of projects can be marketed and sold as carbon offsets? What’s more, the government will periodically reassess emission targets — so wherever Congress sets those targets in the final legislation, they will be subject to change, and likely significant debate, in coming years.

In the meantime, Waxman-Markey supporters are celebrating a victory. Earlier today former Vice President Al Gore called the bill “truly meaningful legislation to limit global warming pollution, vastly expand our use of renewable energy, and use energy far more efficiently,” and in a nod to criticism that political compromises have gutted the bill of any power to make a significant dent in climate change, he added:

This bill doesn’t solve every problem, but passage today means that we build momentum for the debate coming up in the Senate and negotiations for the treaty talks in December which will put in place a global solution to the climate crisis….There is no back-up plan. There is not a stronger bill waiting to pass the House of Representatives.

Today’s vote brings us one step closer to putting a price on carbon — one of the most critical policies for supporting the cleantech industry. As Better Place’s Jason Wolf said in a roundtable discussion at the Clean Tech Investment Summit earlier this year, “Everyone in this room has a better chance of standing up to the incumbents,” if that happens.

Incumbents, however, aren’t about to roll over. As Ford Motor (s F) CEO Alan Mulally said yesterday to a room full of utility executives at the Edison Electric Institute conference in San Francisco, “We’re going to have a lot of time to really debate this. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Screen grab images courtesy C-SPAN