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Friday, October 2, 2009

Pass ACESA, Part V: Don't Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good

[Part 5 of a series based on my conversation with the gents from Repower South Dakota and the Environmental Law & Policy Center.]

Last month, Repower South Dakota held a forum on H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, at the Rural Learning Center in Howard. Afterward, Heartland GM Mike McDowell told the Madison Daily Leader that ACESA is "one of the worst pieces of legislation that I've seen in my lifetime."

(Worst? Mike, did you see the Patriot Act? No Child Left Behind? the Big Pharma Medicare handouts in 2005? And people think I have a hyperbole problem.)

McDowell's skepticism seems odd, considering how his organization is desperately trying to save the failing Big Stone II coal plant, whose backers have claimed that ACESA would actually be beneficial to Big Stone II.*

Nonetheless, McDowell cites two major flaws in ACESA:

"It does not preserve or provide a system that will keep consumers' electricity rates affordable," McDowell said. "This bill attacks only one-third to 40 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions and leaves the rest of the emissions unregulated" [Elisa Sand, "Clean Energy Bill Draws Mixed Views at Howard Forum," Madison Daily Leader, 2009.08.24].

I'll address electric rates in a later post. For now, let's focus on McDowell's argument that ACESA doesn't do enough. I have to admit, I like it when McDowell sounds like my man Dennis Kucinich. But does McDowell really want to impose even stricter emissions caps, shrink offsets, and eliminate subsidies to coal? (Please, Mike, say yes!)

In our conversation about ACESA, Matt McLarty of ELPC responded with the pragmatist's position: We can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Analogize it this way: suppose there's a flood coming. The National Guard pulls up with a few truckloads of old sandbags, enough to build dikes along 40% of the creek bank. Do we look at the troops and say, "No thanks, we'll wait until someone brings us enough sandbags for the whole creek... preferably the new fancy sandbags that don't cause calluses"? Heck no! We grab and stack and tell Sergeant Sandbag to get on the horn to HQ for more!

Another good pragmatist, RSD's Rick Hauffe, reminds me that there is a difference between the philosophy behind legislation and the strategy of crafting and passing legislation. ACESA doesn't have everything that either Mike McDowell or I want. No legislation ever will. The Clean Air Act of 1990 faced the same arguments from greenies like me that it didn't do enough:

But the proposal came under ferocious political assault during those months. The final bill reflected a series of compromises needed to keep the coalition supporting it together. But the sulfur dioxide cap, a roughly 50 percent reduction in emissions over the next decade, held. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that compliance with the program is close to 100 percent.

“Our proposal was at first ridiculed by environmentalists as little more than a license to pollute,” said Representative Jim Cooper, a moderate Democrat from Tennessee and an early supporter of tradable permits. “But today, few dispute it is one of the government’s most successful regulatory programs ever” [John M. Broder, "From a Theory to a Consensus on Emissions," New York Times, 2009.05.16].

There are strong arguments that we would achieve more concrete results and show more global leadership if we adopted a tougher bill. We could do more, but as McLarty notes, more could be the federal government choosing to impose carbon taxes and fines. Instead, McLarty says, ACESA, like the Clean Air Act, chooses a compromise route, inviting industry to solve the problem in a market-based system that has been proven to work.

ACESA will not solve everything. There will still be lots of work to do after ACESA passes.

But in the meantime, hand me those sandbags.

Update 2009.11.03: Now that Big Stone II is dead, the project backers are scrubbing history and have deleted the page I linked. But you can read the same argument from Big Stone II spokesperson Dan Sharp in this July 2009 interview with the Minnesota Independent (hat tip to Badlands Blue!).

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