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Commentary: Clean energy legislation would support green jobs

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 21, 2009 - Last month, Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and John Kerry, D-Mass., introduced the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act. Their bill represents a significant upgrade from the bill passed by the House in June ("The American Clean Energy and Security Act"). According to ThinkProgress, a liberal think tank, the Senate bill is designed to "stave off catastrophic global warming by investing in clean energy." Such an ambitious undertaking will have important economic ramifications that deserve close scrutiny.

Both the Senate and House versions of the clean energy legislation are massive. The House Bill is 1,200 pages long, while the relatively streamlined Senate bill currently has 821 pages. Should the Senate pass the Boxer-Kerry bill, a conference committee would be formed to reconcile both versions into a single bill that would go to President Obama for his signature.

One of the Senate bill's key provisions includes significantly limiting carbon emissions by a future date. Boxer-Kerry sets a 2020 mandate to limit these emissions by 20 percent below 2005 levels. Furthermore, the bill sets a target of 80 percent of 2005 levels by 2050. According to the bill's supporters, the 80 percent target is the minimum level that experts claim is necessary to avoid worldwide climate disaster.

To achieve these ambitious goals, Boxer-Kerry proposes a Pollution Reduction and Investment system that would cover only a small proportion of U.S. businesses. Thus, the bill would apply to the 7,500 largest polluters in the country, which account for nearly three-quarters of all the country's carbon pollution.

It would also establish a cap on the annual allowable greenhouse gas emissions from these companies. However, a provision would give companies more time to bring themselves in line with the policy by paying for the right to continue polluting. In the long run, paying to pollute will have an adverse effect on a company's bottom-line eventually making it less competitive in the marketplace.

National Security 

The Boxer-Kerry bill attempts to make America more energy independent by investing heavily in coal, natural gas, nuclear energy and renewable energy sources. These investments are designed to make those energy sources more clean and efficient while, at the same time, not hurting the national economy.

Related to the idea that America needs to be more energy independent is the notion that reducing the threat of global climate change will increase our national security. Scientists predict that catastrophic climate change will bring about natural disasters and population shifts that threaten to destabilize many parts of the world.

Former Middle East Forces commander, Gen. Anthony Zinni, recently declared that "without action ... we will pay the price later in military terms. And that will involve human lives."

Green Industries

In the current economic downturn, the green jobs component of the proposed legislation has attracted considerable attention. The bill would make billions of dollars available for worker training. It would provide funds for retooling workers' skill sets for new industries, new educational programs at the post-secondary level, and programs designed to help transition workers in the older manufacturing sector.

In Missouri, local proponents of Green Industry have been paying close attention to the progress of legislation at the national level. Joe Thomas, Missouri coordinator for the Apollo Alliance, said that the bills would create:

"1,000,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector overall. Places like Missouri that have suffered manufacturing job loss will stand to benefit because we can retrofit our unused and underused industrial capacity to produce new jobs. An example of how this might happen is Missouri Enterprise, a program which provides consulting services to small-to-medium businesses in the state. The new bill would expand Missouri Enterprise's scope to include green jobs. The bill would create a revolving loan fund ($30 billion at the national level) that Missouri Enterprise would be eligible for."

According to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts , a nonprofit foundation, there were already more than 11,000 clean energy jobs in the state in 2007. These are jobs in existing clean energy industries. With the significant investment and other stimulus contained in the Kerry-Boxer and House Bills, this number will definitely grow to many times that figure.

For example, Vanessa Crawford, climate change coordinator for Missouri Votes Conservation, notes that:

"Already a number of Missouri businesses are trying to make a go of clean energy initiatives but there haven't been the incentives yet. These include Energy Savings Store (solar installers), Thermal Vision (energy auditing company), White Caps Green Collars (white roofing company -- save tons of money on AC), are examples of companies that would be helped by the passage of the bill (showmeyoursolutions.org). A lot of people who have skills now that would be transferable to the clean energy/green jobs industries, for example, roofers and HVAC workers."


GOP leaders began denouncing the Kerry-Boxer bill immediately after its introduction last month. John Boehner, the House Republican leader from Ohio, called it a "terrible idea." They also attacked the House bill before its passage in July. However, attacking and offering a constructive alternative are two quite different things. To date, the Republican leaders have not offered their own plan to control global climate change, preferring instead to pretend that it does not exist.

At the same time, most environmental leaders threw their support behind the measure. For example, Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a press release: "This is the right step at the right time. It confronts the growing problem of global warming head-on - before it's too late to avoid the worst impacts of climate change." Other environmental groups -- for example, the Audubon Society, Earthjustice and the Alliance for Climate Protection -- generally endorsed the bill's language.

It will be difficult for the bill to achieve its carbon emission objectives within the 2020 deadline. In many other respects, the proposals are very ambitious and resistance, particularly from the Republican side, is likely to be fierce. It is very unlikely that the Kerry-Boxer Bill will emerge unchanged from the legislative process. After the bruising health-care fight this year, Congress probably does not have the stomach for a protracted battle over climate change, at least, not this year.

If Congress manages to pass its overhaul of health insurance this year, we can expect that climate change will be at the top of the agenda for the next session. The sooner we as a country addresses this issue the better. Neither the Earth's climate or the economy can afford to wait much longer.

Robert Cropf chairs the Department of Public Policy Studies at St. Louis University. 

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