Can Cantwell and Collins CLEAR up U.S. energy policy?

By:  Joel Connelly
Source: Seattle PI

The “big gulp” cap-and-trade energy legislation was a casualty in the last
Congress and voters in November capped the careers of numerous sponsors in the
U.S. House of Representatives.

But a bipartisan team of Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Susan Collins,
R-Maine, are hoping a more modest, potentially popular plan will sell in the new
Congress. With gas prices going up, and U.S. oil supplies dependent on unstable
countries, Cantwell believes the country needs to act – now.

“CLEAR is a 39-page outline for a peaceful transition off fossil fuels and
onto other energy sources: I believe the American people know the transition is
going to happen, has to happen,” Cantwell told seattlepi.com.

The Cantwell-Collins bill would replace cap-and-trade with a free market
cap-and-dividend plan. The federal government would set a limit on carbon
emissions each year. Energy producers and oil importers would buy permits, which
would be auctioned.

The plan would raise energy prices, but auction proceeds would go to a
dividend that would send money to all American households. Hence, the plan would
a) protect consumers, b) provide a national incentive to burn less oil and coal,
and c) deliver rewards for investment in what Cantwell describes as “the right

“The House has intimated, ‘Send us little packages’,” Cantwell said. “We
ought to oblige them.”

CLEAR has yet to gain momentum in Congress, but has won praise from
publications as diverse as The Economist, The Denver Post, The Washington Post
and HuffingtonPost.

At the moment, however, “dirty energy” forces are on the march in Washington,
D.C. The new Republican chairman of the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee,
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., has introduced legislation to take away the
Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases.

“I think we will stop that effort in the Senate,” Cantwell said. “It is not a
guarantee. After all, we are talking about a Supreme Court decision: They said
the EPA must implement the Clean Air Act. A conservative court is telling the
EPA to do its job.”

Cantwell has worked with Republican colleagues on energy, joking Saturday:
“Orrin Hatch and I even did a thing on plug-in vehicles.”

But such veteran main street conservatives as Hatch, Sen. Richard Lugar,
R-Indiana, and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, are likely in 2012 to face Tea Party
challengers within the Republican Party. Cross-the-aisle cooperation is seen, by
some GOP activists, as cause for removal.

“I think there’ll be a lot of discussion about how this plays out with the
base of the Republican Party,” Cantwell said.

The United States endured gasoline shortages in 1973 with the OPEC oil
embargo, and in 1979 after the fall of the Shah of Iran. A sharp rise in energy
prices – fueled in part to market manipulation by Enron traders – did severe
damage to the West Coast’s economy in 2001.

The U.S. now imports more than 57 percent of its oil supplies, spending an
estimated $1 billion a day on foreign oil. Demand on the world’s oil supplies is
being driven upward by the growing economies of China and India. Despite
political cries of “Drill Baby Drill,” America has less than two percent of the
world’s oil reserves.

“When the crisis ends, people forget the pain,” warned Cantwell. “But the
pain will come back. We know that.”

Cantwell is getting new duties in the new Congress. She is due to be chair of
the Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security of the Senate
Commerce Committee.

She will be Congress’ chief overseer of airports and the Federal Aviation