The MA Senate Race: Consequences for Transport and Climate Policy

Democrats awoke this morning to find their worst fears realized, as lackluster Senate hopeful Martha Coakley (D-MA) was upset by Republican Scott Brown. Voters, lawmakers, and advocates are left to wonder what becomes of their issues in a year already marked by political upheaval.

brown_victory.jpgSen.-elect Scott Brown (R-MA), with his family on election night. Photo: Globe

On the transportation front, Brown’s election is unlikely to make passage of a new six-year bill any more difficult than it already is, with Democrats still in search of a way to finance the $450 billion-plus legislation many of them envision.

Brown ran as a critic of the gas tax increase floated early last year by Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick to help close the state’s transportation budget gap. As Brown’s campaign gained momentum in recent weeks, however, he found himself taking fire from Democrats for voting in favor of a budget that merely preserved, rather than raised, an existing state fuel tax.

The exchange underscores the conundrum that continues to stall a reform-minded federal transport bill, whether Brown would vote yes or not: Democrats have little appetite to find a way to pay for it.

The Senate’s climate change debate, however, is a different story. Brown’s election narrows the already slim chance of corralling enough Democrats to approve an emissions-cutting bill opposed by fossil-fuel industries. The promise of billion-dollar grants for local clean transport programs, which was included in the Senate environment committee’s bill, may well be lost for the time being.

What is possible on the environmental front? An "energy-only" bill that includes a renewable electricity standard has a stronger chance of winning a Senate majority, and a Green Bank-type proposal focused on leveraging private-sector money for transportation projects is still in the mix.

The biggest question mark, then, is whether the Obama administration will follow through on its intention to curb pollution through the Environmental Protection Agency if Congress fails to pass legislation. The EPA’s air-quality chief suggested last week the agency is on track, but a collapse of the White House’s top priority — health care — could throw a wrench into the works.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The sound you are hearing is “I’ve got mine Jack” from those who have very good deals funded not by themselves, but by others less well off and debts stuck on future generations.

    I’ve been hearing it for a year, from Democratic special interests who stalled six months beyond Obama’s deadline, and Republican special interests yelling “death panels.”

    Until someone is willing to stand up for Jack and face the unpopularity of challenging the entitlement of the clueless, the entitled will keep grabbing more and the Jacks of the world will end with less.

  • Elana is correct that Brown’s victory reduces the chances of Congress passing a carbon cap-and-trade bill from slim to minuscule. The almost-certain demise of the special-interest-laden and ineffectual Waxman-Markey-Kerry-Boxer bill, and the possibility of regrouping around a revenue-neutral carbon-fee-and-dividend approach, is a silver lining in this dark electoral cloud.

  • Harry Reid says he still plans to pass cap-and-trade in the Senate. Note that there are a few Republicans who support cap-and-trade – unlike health care reform.

    Though I think a carbon tax would work better than cap-and-trade, I don’t think there is time throw out cap-and-trade and start from scratch creating a carbon tax bill. That would take us past the midterm election, when the Republicans will almost certainly gain more seats, making it much more difficult to pass anything.

    We need something soon. As I wrote on SF Streetsblog:

    Scientists generally agree that world ghg emissions must peak by 2015 in order to avoid the worst effects of global warming; a group of Nobel laureates issues a statement about a year ago saying that this is the scientific consensus.

    If the US passes a cap-and-trade bill this year, and an international agreement follows, then there is some chance of emissions peaking by 2015.

    If the US does not pass a cap-and-trade bill this year, then I think there is no chance of an international agreement for the next several years, at least – which means there is no chance of emissions peaking in time to avoid catastrophic global warming.

    We live in very strange times. We are making decisions about the world’s climate that will affect humanity dramatically for thousands of years. There is no doubt that people one hundred years from now will look back on this at the most important issue we are now facing. Yet most people are completely unaware of the deadlines that scientists say we face, and they place this issue somewhere in the middle of their priority list.

    Here is a link to the story about Harry Reid. Sorry the link is so long

    http://climateprogress.org/2010/01/20/majority-leader-reid-to-senate-today-%e2%80%9cwe-will-tackle-our-daunting-energy-and-climate-challenges-and-by-doing-so-will-strengthen-our-national-security-our-environment-and-our-economy/

  • Sorry, Charles (Siegel): Congress isn’t going to pass a climate bill in 2010. Let’s use this year to either win over, outflank or dump the mainstream environmental movement and come back in 2011 with a revenue-neutral (and bipartisan) carbon tax bill.

  • Diane

    HALLELUIAH !!!!!

  • Larry Littlefield

    People really failed to take advantage of the “wave the flag” aspect of this. The only purely environmental issue is coal. The other fossil fuels are economic and national security issues right now, not in 2015, and have been since 1973.

    All they have to do is pass a tax on oil that goes up as the price goes down, to keep it at least at (say) $90 per barrel, with increases for inflation. Just stop OPEC from driving down the price and getting us hooked again, then jacking it up — the pattern over the past 40 years whenever we’ve started to conserve or pursue alternatives.

    Do the same for coal, matching it’s cost to oil, but refund the taxes to major coal consumers if the emissions are removed when the coal is burned. And the same for gas, “to promote domestic drilling,” but allow the minimum price per BTU to be lower, because its more domestic than oil, and cleaner than coal.

    If any tax dollars were collected, send people checks — so the less well off will actually benefit, since they use less energy yet would receive equal refunds. If none were collected because the prices stayed high, sobeit.

    We’ve seen that prices not much higher than they are now are enough to create both conservation, domestic gas drilling, and alternative energy, now all in retreat.

    To add to the “wave the flag” aspect, require each gasoline or heating oil producer to post the geographic mix of their supply on the pump of everyone they supply, in a large, simple pie: 1973 Oil Weapon Countries (Red), Other Opec (Orange), North America (Green), Rest of World (Yellow). People could decide accordingly where to buy.

    With price cuts off the table, how will businesses decide who to buy from? They’ll insist on long term price stability and reliability of supply instead, which gets the domestic producers such as T-Boone Pickens on board.

    Let’s face it, the political Democrats won’t move on this because they are panderers who don’t care about the future of humanity either.

  • “All they have to do is pass a tax on oil”

    That is very easy to do. I am sure all the Republicans in the Senate will go along with you when you tell them that “all you have to do is pass a tax.”

    And they will like it even more if you have rebates that redistribute the wealth to low income people.

    Then tell them that you also want to tax coal, so people in Ohio pay twice as much tax on their electricity as people in California. That is the way to get 60 votes in the Senate.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “That is very easy to do.”

    Nothing that isn’t shortsighted is easy to do in the era of Generation Greed.

    However, it brings in a few other people by working around the global warming denyers, and focusing on a closer-term threat.

    It’s easier to pass a national and economic security program that also helps the long term global environment than to pass a program to help the long term global environment that can be spun as a tax on the poor or hurting the economy right now.

    Remember the “National Defense Highways.” They don’t need my vote, or yours. These days they don’t need any votes except in swing districts, just a majority of the campaign contributors.

  • Or you can tell Senate Republicans you’re creating a fun new emissions trading market, which most of them have already labeled a shadow tax because it must raise prices as much as a tax would in order to be as effective in reducing consumption. Yes, 60 senators are practically jumping out of their seats to vote for this transparent deception!

    Everything can be made to sound ridiculous. The environmental establishment needs to lay off this claim that a revenue neutral carbon tax is politically impossible; they have no credibility on that point, for one thing. Much like suburban NYS Republicans could have been flipped to bridge tolls with an ounce of transportation leadership, support for a carbon tax is waiting in the national right wing. Most actual fiscal conservatives will admit when pressed that we’re playing with fire by substantially altering our atmospheric composition, that a carbon tax is the surest and fairest way to slow that process and reduce civilizational risk. If Democrats would seek them out instead of ever tacking towards an imagined center that is devoid of any principle or coherent thought, we’d might just stand a chance.

    Also, honesty is the best policy.

  • Current science describes our position with the environment as a war-like emergency yet the academy, most of the scientific community, most environmental groups, and most of the global political establishment are failing the address this with the level of extreme urgency required: a very dangerous situation.

  • The oligarchy has spoken through the creepy voices of redneck puppets atop the foot of Park Avenue as in a Tolkien nightmare while golem slithers: “My pretty pretty . . .”

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