Congress shined a bit of light on the solar industry’s future by renewing alternative energy tax incentives. (Photo: Jackie Beck)
As Congress tries to wrap up a session dominated by energy and financial woes, two major environmental items emerged: tax credits crucial to wind, solar and other clean energy sources won support; and a moratorium banning most offshore oil drilling came to an end. Living on Earth's Jeff Young explains what that might mean for the country's energy future.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, This is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood.
As if staving off the chaos of economic collapse wasn’t enough, Congress scrambled to deal with two major environmental issues before calling it a session: Renewing tax credits for renewable energies, and deciding the fate of a 30-year offshore drilling ban. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports on what Congress did and what it didn’t do.
YOUNG: Each year since 1981 congress has renewed the moratorium on offshore drilling. But not this year. Public outrage over high gas prices fueled an aggressive pro-drilling agenda by Congressional Republicans and backed Democratic leaders into a corner. There simply weren’t the votes to keep the moratorium in place. So, at the end of this month most of the US coastline from three miles out will be open for government leases for oil and gas exploration.
It’s a big win for oil drilling advocates like Texas Republican congressman Joe Barton.
BARTON: It is a very significant step and it is probably the most positive result of this congress in any venue.
YOUNG: For California Democratic senator Barbara Boxer, who chairs the senate’s environment committee, it’s something else.
BOXER: It’s a very sad day for the country when we lose the protections in place for so many years.
YOUNG: Politically, Boxer and Barton are poles apart. But they agree that the end of the moratorium does not end the drilling debate. Energy companies say they will need a clear legal framework, and perhaps more incentives, before they lease and explore offshore areas. Dan Naatz of the Independent Petroleum Association of America says he doesn’t expect to see any drilling anytime soon.
YOUNG: Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope says the moratorium’s demise means the real drilling debate now awaits the new Congress and president next year.
POPE: Symbolically it’s obviously a blow, substantively it doesn’t mean much because the next administration was always going to decide what happened on the coast. And the next administration will now decide what happens on the coast.
YOUNG: The presidential candidates disagree strongly on drilling. Democratic candidate Barack Obama would consider limited expansion of drilling as part of a broader energy agenda. Republican candidate John McCain strongly supports expanding offshore drilling. Either way, the end of the moratorium means those who favor protecting the coasts, like Senator Barbara Boxer, will be on the defensive.
BOXER: It puts us in a difficult position. But I’ve got to tell you, those of us who favor protecting the moratoria areas are not saying don’t drill anywhere off the coast. There’s lots of areas. So I think once the heat is off this issue and it’s not caught in an election year politics as it is now, I think people will see the wisdom of drilling where it’s appropriate and protecting the coastline where it’s appropriate, and have an energy policy not an Exxon policy.
YOUNG: For weeks congress considered more comprehensive energy measures. But when Wall Street’s financial crisis landed in their laps, lawmakers decided to punt on energy issues.
One energy item does look like it will get over the goal line, though. The Senate finally passed an extension of tax credits crucial to wind, solar and other sources of renewable energy. The tax package encourages energy-efficient homes and appliances and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. It’s especially good for solar power, extending credits for eight years and greatly increasing benefits for homeowners who go solar. Rhone Resch of the Solar Energy Industries Association says that means renewable energy will continue to be a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy economy.
RESCH: It is going to create over 1.2 million new job starts in the United States and over 230 billion dollars of economic investment. This is just in the solar industry alone. Think about that. It isn’t just about energy independence, it isn’t just about energy security; it’s about the new energy economy.
YOUNG: But the country’s fastest growing source of clean energy, wind power, did not fare so well. The bill only extends the production tax credit for wind projects one year.
That means wind companies could soon be back in the same, uncertain situation next year. So while advocates for renewable energy and offshore drilling reached important milestones, the real story for both is, “to be continued.”
For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in DC.
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