By Peter Marcus
Democratic members of Colorado's congressional delegation on Monday called for a price on carbon emissions and reform to the nation's tax and regulatory codes as federal lawmakers debate sustainability policies.
Congressman Jared Polis, D-CD 2, hosted a congressional field hearing in Boulder at which panelists discussed local approaches to sustainability and how to expand policies on the national level. Held at the University of Colorado, the hearing was also attended by U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet. Sitting on the field hearing panel were James Martin, Region 8 Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, and Kerry Duggan, a senior advisor with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, part of the U.S. Department of Energy. Former Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat who left a renewable energy legacy in Colorado when he exited office in January after one term, also attended the hearing, testifying about the federal role in encouraging local energy innovations.
Bennet, a Democrat serving his first term, likened the energy debate in Washington to a "dysfunction" similar to the partisan struggle that recently plagued lawmakers during debate on raising the debt ceiling. Bennet said Congress is stuck in the past, not focusing enough on innovation in furthering the sustainability debate. He pointed out that China exports $15 billion worth of solar panels each year, despite the fact that America invented the technology. Some believe the technology was actually invented in Colorado, Bennet said.
"We have an energy policy today that some people will say is all about the free market, but it's an energy policy that among other things insists that we send billions of dollars of our treasure each week to the Persian Gulf for the privilege of buying their oil, instead of developing our own sustainable policies here in this country," said Bennet.
The Denver Democrat spent the majority of his remarks criticizing Washington for policies that are "terribly sad" and "somewhat embarrassing." He bashed some in Washington for criticizing forward-thinking people, arguing that there needs to be more of a focus on reforming the nation's tax and regulatory codes in creating jobs and developing sustainable federal policies.
"We don't have a theory in this country yet about how to create jobs here instead of exporting them overseas," Bennet said. "We are at a moment in our politics right now where it's sort of fashionable amongst some quarters to think of everything as it exists today -- every statute, every regulation, every tax policy -- as free market capitalism, and any change to any of those policies is Bolshevism, or Socialism, or something else.
"And what we're failing to acknowledge is that our tax code and our regulatory code, and many of our statutes, are all about the business of protecting incumbent economic interests that got those changes to the tax code, that got those changes to the regulatory code sometime in the 20th Century, and are not about innovation," continued Bennet. "They're not about job creation in the 21st Century."
Udall, a Democrat from Eldorado Springs, spoke in favor of a price tag on carbon emissions as a means to create sustainable policies in America. Proposals were raised in 2010 for tough climate change legislation that would include a so-called "cap-and-trade" system for carbon pollution permits. The plan would allow pollution permits to be traded and would include a price on carbon dioxide emissions, which would rise over the years. But the proposal was extremely controversial, as Republicans campaigned against it in their successful attempt to take control of the U.S. House in 2010. Critics argue that imposing such a significant mandate on the energy industry would reduce domestic supply and force more dependence on foreign oil. The topic emerged once again last week during a debate in Iowa of Republican candidates for president at which Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., blasted fellow contender Tim Pawlenty for having supported cap-and-trade in the past.
Udall, a member of the Energy & Natural Resources Committee in the Senate, says sustainability policy must include a cap-and-trade system, calling it a "common sense" approach to national security, creating jobs and protecting the environment.
"There's an old saying in certain parts of the West when it comes to the federal government, "Get out of here and give us more money,'" joked Udall. "I'd like to change that a little bit. Do [research and development] -- which the federal government has a long history of doing very, very well -- put a price on carbon, and yes, give us a little bit of money."
"What's more radical?" asked Udall. "Let's just double the amount of CO2 that we're putting into the atmosphere, push it over 500 parts per million and see what happens, or let's take a set of common sense steps that would enhance our national security, create jobs in a tough economic environment, and maybe have some environmental benefits along the way? Count me in that camp. Count the other in the camp of the radicals."
Ritter told the panel that global warming is unequivocally happening, and that it is the federal government's duty to enact policies that reverse the effects of climate change. Ritter is credited with coining the term "New Energy Economy," having laid the groundwork for Colorado to lead a national effort to create jobs in the renewable and clean energy sectors. Ritter is now the director of Colorado State University's Center for the New Energy Economy and a senior scholar with CSU's School of Global Environmental Sustainability.
"It will be radical to remain in the status quo because of the impacts we will see," Ritter testified. "Hopefully that's not at a time when it's irreversible. And that is one of the great fears that we all have, is that we can delay on doing those things that we call climate mitigation, and in fact delay so long that we waited too long -- that Rome literally burns because Nero fiddled."
Ritter pointed to several statistics for Colorado that he said policymakers should consider, such as eight out of the state's last 10 years have been the warmest on record; that there are 3 million acres of pine beetle kill; and that 17-18 percent of the state's Aspen trees are now dead. The former governor touted several achievements under his administration, including an effort to push a renewable energy standard of 20 percent by 2020. That standard was later raised by the Legislature to 30 percent by the year 2020. Ritter encouraged a similar federal renewable energy standard. He also spoke in favor of a switch from coal to natural gas.
Ritter said one way policymakers can go about achieving sustainability is to hit the issue on the local level by pointing out how climate change affects the economy, even something as basic as tourism and agriculture.
"It's not just something you do based around climate, but there is actually this economic development reality that can happen as a result of it," said Ritter. "There's a benefit, some may call a residual benefit, if you don't believe in climate change you call it the primary benefit, but in fact there's a benefit to doing it."
Polis said he was "optimistic" after hearing the testimony on Monday. He told The Colorado Statesman that the issue goes beyond federal funding, and instead is about changing the focus of Washington.
"We're listening. We will be taking back a lot of these ideas, and while it's obviously not the time for new spending, I didn't hear that here today," said Polis. "What we heard is flexibility, we heard alternative financing mechanisms, and those are two things that I think are viable in this political environment, and critical for our nation's future."