July 1, 2009
Climate Plan Faces Challenge After Narrow U.S. House Victory

U.S. House Democrats cheered when they won a vote to impose the nation’s first limits on greenhouse-gas emissions. Senate Democrats didn’t join the party.

“They don’t have my vote yet,” said Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio. “In the Senate this bill will not pass unless Midwestern Democratic senators support it in large numbers.”

The hard-won 219-212 vote on June 26 to move a climate bill through the House was just a first step on a difficult legislative path. Several climate measures are being crafted in the Senate, where the regional and philosophical differences that dogged the House measure are even more sharply defined.

Climate-change legislation is a top priority of President Barack Obama, who has asked Congress to pass a bill before December’s United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen. In his weekend radio address, Obama said the House plan would transform the nation’s economy and create millions of jobs.

“The House vote lets President Obama walk into the G-8 summit of world leaders in Italy next month with his head held high,” said Alden Meyer, director of policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. There, the president will discuss climate change with fellow world leaders.


The House measure, called the American Clean Energy and Security Act, would create a cap-and-trade system that would curb emissions while creating a market for trading pollution permits and fund investment in new energy sources. It aims to cut fossil fuel emissions from power plants, factories, oil refineries and vehicles 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

Long before the House vote, work began on how to get a bill through the Senate. In March, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and other Obama administration officials dined at the home of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry of Massachusetts. The group pondered how to rally Senate support for a climate bill while preserving its mandate to focus on environmentally friendly alternative energy sources such as cellulosic biomass and nuclear power.

Even so, broad Senate support for cap-and-trade legislation has yet to materialize.

“The bill is not perfect, but it is a good product for the Senate and our committees to start considering,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in a statement after the House vote. He has told committee chairmen to finish their climate work by September 18. At least six of the Senate’s 20 committees are working on their own pieces of legislation.

Weekly Meetings

Twenty senators led by Kerry and Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer have been meeting weekly to flesh out ideas. The group was briefed last week by a coal-state architect of the House bill, Representative Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat.

Electricity generated from coal and oil produces the most carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, making fossil fuel reduction a focus in the climate debate on Capitol Hill.

Boxer, of California, plans to hold a committee vote on her plan by early August, before lawmakers’ summer recess. Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the top Republican on Boxer’s committee, has vowed to stop it. He called the House plan the “largest tax increase in American history.”

“Today’s razor-thin vote in the House spells doom in the Senate,” Inhofe said in a written statement.

‘Magic Formula’

Kerry, saying he is confident the Senate can pass legislation, put it this way: “We have to find the magic formula over here.”

Even with Obama’s backing, “it’s going to be very tough,” Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa said in an interview. Harkin, Brown and their Midwestern and industrial-state colleagues are concerned that a cap-and-trade system would raise energy costs on consumers, including farmers, while forcing U.S. companies to comply with stricter environmental standards than their overseas competitors. Yet any effort to weaken environmental mandates risks losing support of senators such as Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent.

Business groups including the Arlington, Virginia-based American Chemistry Council are lobbying the Senate to boost the number of free pollution credits to manufacturers and other polluters. At the same time, environmental advocates are urging senators to improve forest protections, making emission limits more strict and limiting the number of offsets companies can buy to make up for the pollution they produce.

“The House bill is inadequate,” said Carl Pope, executive director of San Francisco-based Sierra Club. “We still have power plants operating without any pollution controls that were built when Woodrow Wilson was president” almost a century ago.

Forest Protections

The Natural Resources Defense Council, which helped sketch a blueprint for the House bill, wants senators to strengthen that measure’s pollution controls and forest protections. Still, the two chambers aren’t as far apart as some might think, said David Doniger, policy director of the New York-based group.

The House measure “has all the elements in it that are going to work in the Senate,” he said.

One example is a House provision that would force states to obtain at least 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar power. On June 17, the energy panel advanced a bill requiring that utilities get at least 15 percent of their power from renewables.

“Six months ago lots of people said the House could not get this done by the end of June,” Doniger said. “They have. Momentum creates more momentum.”

Source: Bloomberg, June 29, 2009


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