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How Weak is the American Power Act?

While the ocean floor spews viscous goo into the Gulf of Mexico, environmentalists are taking a hard look at what was supposed to be the sweeping climate change bill that would liberate America from its fossil-fuel addiction. So far, mixed reviews from the environmental community suggest that they're looking at the bill they got and still seeking the bill they wanted.

While the new legislation isn't a carbon copy of the toxic bills penned by the industry under Bush-Cheney, the American Power Act still fails to cut carbon in a meaningful way, according to more radical environmentalists. Those deficiencies risk overshadowing the economic and job-creation initiatives, which are in turn dwarfed by handouts to polluters.

The bill sets flaccid standards for ratcheting down greenhouse gas emissions and establishes a cap-and-trade system—the centrist approach that the Democrats have embraced. Critics point out that the bill shamelessly coddles dirty industries by encouraging offshore drilling, nuclear power investment, and more welfare for Big Coal.

According to the official summary, the legislation promises that  “Industrial sources will not enter the program until 2016,” and at that point, “energy-intensive and trade-exposed industries receive allowances to offset both their direct and indirect compliance costs.” Then, after ensuring at least a few more years of corporate heel-dragging, the bill addresses subsidies for clean energy:

We also significantly increase incentives for clean technology manufacturing, by expanding the clean energy manufacturing tax credit by $5 billion, providing incentives for the production of advanced vehicles and component parts and funding investments in energy efficiency innovation. Alongside these priorities, we also support community economic adjustment assistance and worker training.

The one sentence devoted to labor reads like a bit of an afterthought. Do advocates see this as the germ of a green-energy boom or a condescending pat on the head?

Green for All praised the bill's support for the Green Construction Careers Demonstration Project, which they say “creates middle-class careers for our most vulnerable communities.” Still, the Demonstration Project is by definition small scale and experimental; the long-term future and scaleability of such initiatives remain in flux.

The national green-labor coalition Apollo Alliance endorsed the bill overall, but vowed to keep pushing for additional measures to ensure that the new green manufacturing jobs are primarily homegrown and not offshored. The Alliance also calls “direct federal assistance to small and mid-sized manufacturers to retool to produce renewable energy systems and components and become more energy efficient.”

So far, it seems like labor-environmental groups are cautiously lining up behind the bill on the assumption that flawed legislation is better than none. But from a long-range perspective, the American Power Act may set the terms for the congressional debate on climate-change policy for years to come, probably to the exclusion of more progressive proposals.

Last year, mainstream environmental groups called for investments in clean-energy R&D in the range of $15 billion per year. Meanwhile, climate wonks in England are demanding a wholesale post-Copenhagen paradigm shift toward earth-conscious models for development.

The Apollo Alliance's own green investment plan also laid out a relatively bold agenda:

It will generate and invest $500 billion over the next ten years and create more than five million high quality green-collar jobs. It will accelerate the development of the nation’s vast clean energy resources and move us toward energy security, climate stability, and economic prosperity. And it will transform America into the global leader of the new green economy.

That tone of ambition is already fading as lawmakers plow ahead with the Kerry-Lieberman proposal. Public Citizen pronounced it dead on arrival:

The Kerry-Lieberman bill represents a missed opportunity. By meeting behind closed doors, the lawmakers empowered corporate polluters to play an oversized role in influencing the legislation to the detriment of the climate and consumers. Barack Obama had it right when he successfully campaigned on a theme of making polluters pay and delivering benefits directly to households.

We need a bill that does not incentivize failed and dangerous technologies like nuclear power and does not enrich utilities at the expense of consumers.

Was labor at the table when polluters and politicians were evidently huddling in private? Now might be a perfect time to elbow their way in, if only to make sure that rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic doesn't get classified as a green job.

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