A Modest Energy Bill Is Better Than None

Going the distance.

Photographer: Luke Sharett/Bloomberg

It seems every elected official in Washington has found a different shortcoming in the energy bill now before the Senate, which would be the first overhaul of U.S. energy policy since 2007. There’s a term for this kind of imperfection: It’s called legislation.      

In fairness, members of Congress may have forgotten what actual legislating feels like, there’s been so little of it in recent years. And this bill is hardly the kind of comprehensive reform U.S. energy policy needs. But it’s a start, and Democrats (in the Senate) and Republicans (in the House) need to get on with it.

The bill, which has bipartisan support on the Senate energy committee, would speed the review of natural gas export terminals; make it easier to build hydroelectric, geothermal and biomass power projects; better protect the electricity grid against hackers; permanently authorize a conservation fund; boost funding for energy research; and increase efficiency standards for federal buildings.

QuickTake Pricing Carbon

Could it have done more? Of course. The U.S. needs to reduce the amount of ethanol that’s added to the nation’s gasoline supply, for example, and lower subsidies for both renewable and fossil fuels so they compete on something closer to a level playing field. And an energy bill would be a logical place to include the most effective energy policy of all: a carbon tax.

Somewhere in the infinity of possible alternate universes, there’s a U.S. Congress interested in pursuing this ideal energy bill. This is not that universe. Instead, Senate Democrats blocked a vote on the bill Thursday, on the grounds that it did nothing to help residents of Flint, Michigan, get clean water. House Republicans, meanwhile, are focused on including something, anything (the latest is a plan to hamstring the Department of Energy), that would ensure a presidential veto.

There is a difference between honest disagreements over what to include in a bill and blatant attempts to make legislation unpalatable to the other side. Senate Democrats should be willing to use another vehicle to provide (much-needed) assistance to Flint. House Republicans need to realize that passing basic energy legislation that they essentially agree with is superior to passing nothing at all. President Barack Obama, whose advisers have noted both the virtues and flaws of the Senate bill, should likewise remember the value of half a loaf.

There is little doubt that the U.S. needs to change the way it produces and consumes energy, and that those changes will be difficult. This bill doesn’t quite address those challenges, but at least it doesn’t make them worse. And it has the benefit of reminding Congress -- and showing the public -- how Washington can work.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.