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Is Lugar's "Plan B" For Energy Any Good?

Now that Lindsey Graham is bailing on the climate bill he helped write, does he have any other bright ideas? Sort of. Earlier today he appeared at a press conference in support of Indiana Republican Richard Lugar's new energy bill. Yes, this is exactly the sort of energy-only bill that Graham himself once derided as "half-assed." What's more, as Kate Sheppard reports, Graham seems to have backtracked so much from his old views that he's now spouting a lot of nonsense about climate science. But hey, Graham's confusions and self-contradictions are old news by now. What about the Lugar bill? Is it any good?

The main thing to note here is that Lugar's plan (summary here) wouldn't explicitly cap greenhouse-gas emissions. There's no price on carbon. Instead, it relies on a whole flurry of regulations and smaller measures to try to nip away at emissions. Such as:

--Requiring that fuel-economy standards automatically get 4 percent stricter every year (currently they're allowed to stay put until Congress or the administration decides to raise them—and they stagnated for many years in the '90s).
--Stricter construction codes and retrofit programs to improve the energy-efficiency of buildings. Given that commercial and residential buildings are responsible for 38 percent of our energy use, this is always a good idea. There's also money for loan programs so that industrial polluters can adopt new efficiency measures.
--A "diverse energy standard" that, in theory, is supposed to spur utilities to adopt cleaner power. This is sort of tricky—more on this in a sec.
--A provision that would allow old, dirty coal plants to dodge environmental regulations if they shut down by the end of 2018. Given that many of the oldest, filthiest coal plants in the country are grandfathered in under the current Clean Air Act, this is a good idea in theory, though it has some problems—more on this below.
--More money for nuclear power, naturally.

Okay, now the problems. For one, when you add everything up, Lugar's bill would only cut emissions 9 percent below 2005 levels by 2017. By contrast, the Kerry-Lieberman bill would do 17 percent by 2020, and even that's on the low end of what climate scientists would recommend. What's more, because there's no overall cap on carbon, it's not even assured that Lugar's bill would lead to these promised cuts. What if, say, industrial polluters get more efficient but then just decide to pollute more overall? (This is what's happening in China, after all.) Without a cap, there's nothing that would prevent this from happening.

The details of Lugar's bill also deserve more scrutiny than they've been getting. For one, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Lugar's "diverse energy standard" would actually lead to less new renewable power than if Congress simply did nothing. That's because there's a weird little loophole here: Utilities can avoid purchasing renewable power if they pay a fee. But that fee then gets cycled back to the utilities in the form of a subsidy for things like carbon-sequestration projects that may never pan out.

Moreover, while the idea of retiring old coal plants is a good one, the way Lugar would go about it is a little troubling. Via e-mail, Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch points out that the country's dirtiest coal plants would get to avoid all sorts of pollution regulations for the next eight years—they could dodge mercury regulations or limits on wastewater discharge. And then? The theory is that in 2018 they'd have to close up shop. But the EPA could waive this requirement if a shutdown would create "regional energy disruptions." Want to bet that, by the time 2018 rolls around, electric utilities will be arguing exactly that? And if an industry-friendly Republican is in the White House, what are the odds that these coal plants will be allowed to stay online?

All told, some of Lugar's proposals are great—the building efficiency stuff, especially—but others look downright counterproductive. Maybe the bill could get 60 votes, but is this the only bill that could get 60? That's the looming question. At the moment, Harry Reid is trying to put together some sort of "smorgasbord" energy bill that will bring together a bunch of different ideas: maybe some of Lugar's provisions, probably some other clean-energy measures, very likely an array of oil regulations, and possibly some sort of carbon pricing or cap-and-trade element. Reid, presumably, will try to strike a balance between effective and politically feasible. But it's still unclear what that will look like.