A Paler Shade of Green

After years of squabbling, can Washington declare a truce on energy policy?

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, center, and other GOP leaders speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 30, 2013, after a GOP strategy session.

Rob Portman is big on green. the Republican Senator from Ohio owns three hybrid vehicles, including a Chevy pickup and the 2006 Ford Escape his daughter took to college. His home outside Cincinnati is LEED-certified, with floors of reclaimed wood, special foam insulation and a geothermal heating and cooling system. He is even a graduate of Dartmouth College, whose nickname is the Big Green.

So it is ironic that when Portman began to shepherd a long-overdue energy bill through the Senate, his mantra was Go small. “It’s not the biggest bill in the world,” the mild-mannered Republican says as he tosses a football with an aide in his Washington Senate office. “But it is a model of how we can work through the system on a bipartisan basis and make important progress.”

Under President George W. Bush, Congress passed a pair of sweeping energy overhauls, mostly offering oil and gas companies fresh tax breaks. Barack Obama’s first term, in turn, was marked by nasty spats over energy policy, including a controversial stimulus with billions in new green investment and a cap-and-trade bill that was torpedoed by GOP opposition. To avoid a repeat, Portman and his Democratic partner, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, opted for a different approach.

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Their bill is crafted to skirt controversy. It has no mandates. It doesn’t add to the deficit. It has been stripped of contentious provisions, including a federal loan program for commercial buildings and another aimed at boosting the government’s use of green vehicles.

The search for an energy consensus reflects unexpected new realities for both the carbon-based- and renewable-energy industries. The Solyndra solar debacle spoiled the market for green subsidies, which liberals love. Meanwhile, booming domestic production has eased the political pressure to find new sources of oil at home. As Shaheen puts it, “We’ve tried to craft the bill in a way that will actually allow it to get through.”

Which is why the measure focuses on efficiency at a time when the U.S. wastes more energy than Japan produces in a year. It would create new efficiency codes for residential and commercial construction, offer incentives to states to meet them, provide worker training and require the federal government to adopt energy-saving techniques. “I think a lot of conservatives believe that this is an area where as a country we can do a lot more,” Portman says.

And while the bill may be modest in scope, supporters say its impact would be significant. A recent study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that the legislation and a bundle of likely amendments could save consumers and businesses up to $65 billion through reduced energy costs and create 174,000 jobs by 2030. “Sure, we would love to see this bill do more. That’s always the case,” says Suzanne Watson, the group’s policy director. “But it is a first step after a long time.”

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This being Congress, even relatively simple legislation attracts conflict. No sooner had the measure hit the floor of the Senate than it stalled. Louisiana Republican David Vitter held up debate over his demand for an unrelated vote on Obamacare. Other Senators are trying to add provisions that advance the prospects of the long-suffering (and still in limbo) Keystone XL pipeline, which environmentalists oppose.

Prospects are dimmer in the House. Tea Party Republicans remain leery of any government meddling in what they see as the private marketplace. “Our job is to make them understand that this is not the role of government,” says Nicolas Loris, an economic policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, whose advocacy arm is one of several influential conservative groups urging members to oppose the Shaheen-Portman approach.

Still, Portman thinks he has a shot to get the scaled-down bill to the President’s desk by the end of the year. If he’s right, it will be a sign that Congress can do something useful on energy even if the appetite for sweeping change has eased for now. “We have consensus,” Portman says. “Let’s make progress where we can.”

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