Bad energy

Washington's senators are in the thick of the battle over a national energy bill.

Energy drain: Sen. Maria Cantwell votes to protect the Arctic Refuge.

Energy drain: Sen. Maria Cantwell votes to protect the Arctic Refuge.

ENVIRONMENTAL groups have three words to sum up the working draft of a national energy bill the U.S. Senate is banging out: “worse than nothing.” They’re calling on Washington’s Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray to help kill the emerging legislation rather than pass a bill that they say would deepen the country’s fossil fuel addiction and stifle the production of clean energy through the next decade.

“It actually sends us backward,” says Kathleen Casey of the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club. “The best thing for the environment and our energy security is that this bill doesn’t get passed.” Spokespersons for Cantwell and Murray say it’s too early to talk about derailing the bill, though both senators vow to help vote it down if it opens the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil producers.

Two weeks ago, the Sierra Club and other Northwest policy groups praised the Washington senators for joining a small coterie of legislators who tried to raise fuel efficiency standards for cars and force utilities to generate more power from wind, biomass, solar, and other renewable sources. But as the Senate reconvenes this week, prospects look dim for any significant advance on those issues. The House has already approved legislation that grants billions in subsidies for oil and gas exploration, creates no standard for renewable energy generation, and lets car companies keep churning out gas-guzzling SUVs. Green power advocates fear that any bill approved by both chambers would likely keep all the bad stuff (perks for the petroleum industry) and precious little of the good (incentives for renewable power development).

The Washington delegation has more at stake than just clean air. Spurred by Gov. Gary Locke, state leaders would like to see the Northwest coast develop into a corridor of green technology industry. A recent consulting report says Northwest companies that manufacture hydrogen fuel cells, wind turbines, solar capacitors, biomass generators, and other renewable energy components could bring $2.5 billion and 12,000 jobs to the regional economy by 2020. If government would just turn the policy screws favorably, the report added, the industry could nearly triple that output.

“We’re not just talking about renewable energy technology for production here in the state,” says Patrick Mazza, research director for industry advocate group Climate Solutions. “We’re talking about making equipment and developing services that could be marketed nationally and globally.”

Already, signs suggest that the clean-energy industry is poised for the big time. Last month, General Electric agreed to buy Enron Wind from its crumpling parent company for $358 million. And Danish wind turbine maker Vestas just announced plans to locate a manufacturing plant in Portland.

But market uncertainty, recently heightened by the Bush administration’s determination to prioritize domestic oil production over renewable energy, is still driving investment capital away, says Ken Deering of Wind Turbine Company in Bellevue. Deering says a signal of support from Congress this session might have helped seal the deal on financing that his company needs to open a plant that would employ more than 30 people.

Both Murray and Cantwell believe provisions in the current Senate energy bill could still prompt growth in the clean-energy sector, pointing to proposals for a wide range of tax credits and additional government grants for research and development.

The bill also sets a renewable energy standard, although sustainable energy groups argue that it sets the bar so low that green power generation wouldn’t increase in many states. Northwest Energy Coalition spokesperson Mark Glyde argues that having no standard would be preferable to one that could retard renewable energy development for years to come.

Wind Turbine Company’s Deering says proposals to scatter tax credits to clean-energy producers and oil companies alike would do more harm than good. Tax incentives skew prices and invariably prevent renewable power producers from competing head-on with fossil fuel plants, he says.

The fate of the proposed Senate energy bill may turn on how determined Republicans are to insert an amendment permitting oil companies to drill in the Arctic Refuge. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has promised to filibuster a bill that includes such a provision. Washington’s senators say they’ll support that effort, though Cantwell’s office predicts that the amendment would fail on a straight-line vote anyway. Yet, some version of a bill without the Arctic drilling provision could pass the Senate.

Some folks back home, including the governor’s staff, say they aren’t holding their breath either way. “You may lose the battle, but you try to win the war,” says Karen Fleckner, president of fuel cell maker Nu Element. “Our technology is very flexible—that’s our response. You have to concentrate on meeting market demands rather than making the establishment bow to your needs.”

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