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Graham Calls Energy-Only Idea "Half-Assed"

In recent weeks, a bunch of conservative Senate Democrats have suggested that, instead of trying to go for broke this year with a big climate bill that curbs carbon emissions, Congress should just pass an "energy-only" bill instead.

What would that entail? As Kate Sheppard reports, one possibility is the legislation that passed out of the Senate energy committee last June, which would lavish subsidies on a variety of energy sources, including oil and gas. That bill could probably snag 60 votes, even in this Congress, but it wouldn't put much of a dent in the country's greenhouse-gas emissions. (Indeed, without a cap on carbon, the bill might even end up increasing emissions—especially if the proposed new transmission lines merely gave coal-fired plants access to new markets, allowing them to boost output.)

In any case, President Obama caused a stir yesterday when he said that its "conceivable" the Senate could take this approach while scuttling cap-and-trade. Obama then went on to make a case for pricing carbon, saying that subsidies alone wouldn't provide enough incentives to shift the economy toward cleaner energy. Still, it was hard to shake the nagging feeling that he was talking about a carbon cap the way he once talked about the public option: something he's in favor of, sure, but also willing to abandon if need be.

So is anyone going to mount a full-throated defense of carbon pricing? Actually, yes. Here was Republican Lindsey Graham earlier today:

There was this idea floating around yesterday – don’t know how serious it is – that somehow it would be wise for Congress to do energy bill only. I don’t think that’s wise. The reason I don’t think that’s wise is that it is a kick-the-can-down-the-road approach. It’s putting off to another Congress what really needs to be done comprehensively.

I don’t think you’ll ever have energy independence the way I want it until you start dealing with carbon pollution and pricing carbon. The two are connected in my view – very much connected. The money to be made in solving the carbon pollution problem can only happen when you price carbon in my view. So if the approach is to try to pass some half-assed energy bill and say that is moving the ball down the road, forget it with me.

Graham's right. Ultimately, only a price on carbon, rippling through the economy, will be able to spur all the myriad little changes needed to shift away from dirty energy. Having Congress just draw up a list of its favorite technologies and hand those companies money isn't even close to a workable alternative (subsidies and efficiency standards and new transmission are a good complement to a carbon price, but not a substitute). That said, no one knows yet what Graham's preferred approach actually is, especially since he dislikes the cap-and-trade bill that passed the House last summer. This Greenwire piece tries to make sense of where Graham's at in his negotiations with John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, but the picture's still muddled.

(Flickr photo credit: World Economic Forum)