Energy Policy

US Efforts to Enact Federal Climate Policy


Over the past several decades, there have been various legislative attempts to combat climate change at the federal level, with varying degrees of success. Here is an excellent summary (required reading!) from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. You'll see on that summary that several attempts at carbon pricing (mostly through cap and trade) emerged with bipartisan support.

The list stops short of the Clean Power Plan (also 2015), which in many ways was a turning point in US federal climate policy as the first ever energy policy designed specifically to reduce carbon emissions and was done so to position the US for the then-upcoming Paris climate negotiation talks. While we could devote an entire semester (or doctoral dissertation! or career!) to an analysis and discussion of the merits, drawbacks, and politics of climate legislation in the United States, we need to condense it into part of just one lesson in our course. If you find yourself really interested in this material and would like to know more, feel free to explore the links on your own and/or post to the class discussion board.

The Paris Agreement reached in December 2015 built upon the existing momentum that finally, the US is taking climate change more seriously. But what took so long?

Read "Federal Government Activity on Climate Change" from Ballotpedia (you can start at "Policy History (1992 - 2009). This is a few years old now, but provides a valuable perspective on the then-current state of affairs related to attempts to institute federal action on climate change, including bonus coverage of Massachusetts v. EPA, a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2007 that gave the EPA the power to regulate carbon dioxide. And remember, to understand the future of climate policy, we need to know how we got to where we are now.

The Economy....from late 2007 through mid 2009, the United States experienced an economic downturn and recession unparalleled in scope and severity since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Triggered largely by risky lending and the securitization of mortgages, coupled by increases in commodity prices like food and oil, thes "Great Recession" and substantial job loss made it quite a difficult proposition for elected officials to support climate policies perceived (to some extent, correctly so) to increase energy prices.

The Politics...every facet of tackling climate change is politically charged. As we saw last lesson, many people question the validity of the science that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are influencing our climate system. Others worry that climate policy will affect end users of energy more than energy producers. Still others are concerned that until the fast-growing, developing countries of China and India commit to reducing their unchecked emissions, the United States will put itself at a global competitive disadvantage for manufacturing goods (conveniently ignoring that the U.S. emitted GHGs unchecked for hundreds of years to establish itself as a global superpower). Climate policy is an issue with so much at stake - for everyone - that tensions run high and fears are plentiful. It isn't the goal of this class to draw political lines in the sand - instead, you need to understand the motivations of all sides and how the vested interest of various parties influences the decisions that are made about this issue.

This is a list (certainly not exhaustive) of some of the major attempts at climate legislation in the House and Senate over the past several years. While somewhat redundant with the C2ES list linked above, I include it here mostly for the summaries of these various pieces of legislation. I encourage you, as you're working on your research projects, to seek out summaries from credible, non-partisan think tanks. They can be quite helpful!

The Process...In case you are not familiar with how a bill becomes law, here is a good summary from, and here is a more detailed explanation - including videos that provide a step-by-step explanation of the process - from the U.S. Congress. 

Of course, the process is almost never this straightforward, as things such as "horse trading" (I'll support your bill if you support mine, I'll support your bill if you publicly state this or that, etc.) and political posturing have resulted in this process often being referred to as "sausage making" after the famous quote: "Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made." Whether Otto von Bismarck said it or not, the quote and characterization are still used to this day.

Climate legislation efforts

Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (2010)

  • Sponsored by Senators Kerry and Lieberman (and previously also by Senator Lindsay Graham), the American Power Act was the Senate's answer to ACES as passed out of the House the previous summer. Many of the provisions in the American Power Act were aligned with those in ACES.
  • Was never brought to the Senate floor for debate because sponsors were unable to procure the 60 vote filibuster-proof majority.

Pew Center Summary of American Power Act of 2010

Lugar Practical Energy and Climate Plan (S.3464) (2010)

  • The Lugar bill is different from most of the other climate policy proposals put forth in that it does not set a price on carbon to reduce emissions. Instead, this bill focuses on the establishment of a clean energy standard, increased energy efficiency, and reduced oil imports to address environmental and economic concerns associated with energy.
  • Introduced June 9, 2010.
Pew Center Summary of the Practical Energy and Climate Plan Act of 2010

Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (S.1733) (2009)

  • The Kerry Boxer Bill focuses on reducing US greenhouse gas emissions (one significant difference between it and the ACES bill). Also calls for an 83% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, establishes a federal cap and trade program to achieve emissions reductions, and is targeted to ease the transition to a low carbon economy.
  • Passed the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works November 5, 2009. With many other bills, was to be taken into consideration as Harry Reid prepared something for the Senate floor.

Pew Center Summary of the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act

American Climate and Energy Security Act of 2009 (ACES)

  • Included a Renewable Electricity Standard, provisions for clean energy including carbon capture and nuclear, as well as the development of a smart grid. Encouraged energy efficiency. Established a mandatory cap on greenhouse gas emissions and a market-based permit trading system to achieve the reduction schedule of the cap through 2050 (83% reduction in GHGs by this point), including the use of agricultural and other offsets. Included provisions for transitioning to a lower carbon economy that addressed green jobs and adaptation policies.
  • Passed the House (219-212) on June 26, 2009 but failed to gain real traction in the Senate.
Pew Center Summary of American Climate and Energy Security Act

The American Clean Energy Leadership Act of 2009 (S.1462)

  • Sponsored by Senator Bingaman, this bill focuses on energy efficiency, renewable energy standards, improvement of transmission networks, energy market stabilization, and research and development.
  • Passed by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, June 17, 2009.

Pew Center Summary of American Clean Energy Leadership Act of 2009

The Clean Power Plan (2015)

  • The Clean Power Plan is an amendment to the Clean Air Act which allows EPA to establish performance targets for both coal- and oil-fired power plants and natural gas units. Enacted in 2015, the Clean Power Plan marks the first federal legislation targeting the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions; specifically from power plants. Designed to be flexible, the Plan affords states the opportunity to implement tailor-made strategies to reach their reduction targets at the least cost. States can also choose to work together to achieve their targets. States must submit their final plan (or at least a plan with an extension request) by September 6, 2016. Then, they have 2 years to revise and finalize the plan (September 6, 2018) and 16 years to implement measures.
  • Final Rule in Federal Register - October 23, 2015.
  • Replaced by the Affordable Clean Energy rule by the EPA under the Trump Administration in June of 2019.

Climate Equity Act of 2020 (H.R. 8019)

  • This Act focuses on frontline communities ("e.g., communities that have experienced environmental injustice or are vulnerable to climate injustice") by requiring the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to evaluate the impact on frontline communities under the auspices of the Climate and Environmental Equity Office. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) would also have to establish an Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability to measure the costs to frontline communities of all proposed legislation (among other things).
  • Introduced to the full House on 8/6/2020, then referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. No activity has been reported past this point. 

H.Res.319 - Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal

  • You are almost certainly familiar with term "Green New Deal," which was orignally proposed in 2019 when the Democrats controlled the House and Senate, but not the Presidency. It has some support in the Senate, but never made it to a full vote. Thge original bill really just provided a framework and specified the problem, but was heavy on goals and devoid of actual policy. In short, it provided a very robust indication of what to do, but not how to do it. The goals of this latest iteration of the Green New Deal are just as robust as the original, and seeks to "[achieve] greenhouse gas and toxic emissions reductions needed to stay under 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming," among other sustainability goals such as ensuring access to clean air and water for everyone in the U.S. and ensuring "economic security for all" and more.
  • It seeks to accomplish the above through a number of means, including:
    • building smart power grids (i.e., power grids that enable customers to reduce their power use during peak demand periods);
    • upgrading all existing buildings and constructing new buildings to achieve maximum energy and water efficiency;
    • removing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation and agricultural sectors;
  • However, as with the original legislation, it does not provide policy solutions that can be implemented, only goals. That stated, if passed it would provide an incredibly comprehensive set of goals that, if achieved, would achieve climate goals along with holisitc sustainability goals.
  • It has been referred to a number of committees, but given Republican control of the House, it is not expected to go anywhere.