Thursday, December 06, 2007

Emissions bill heads to fight on senate floor

Zachery Coile
Chronicle Washington Bureau
December 6, 2007

Washington- Congress took its first significant step in the fight against global warming Wednesday as a Senate committee voted to send a bill to cut greenhouse gases to the Senate floor next year.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's 11-8 vote sets up a contentious debate in Congress over climate change that could have an impact on the presidential and congressional elections.

"This is a historic moment," California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the committee, said teary-eyed at the end of the nine-hour hearing. "What happened here today will not go unnoticed. The whole world is watching."

Boxer was under intense pressure to finish the bill this week while world leaders are gathered at a climate change summit at Bali, Indonesia, to show the world that Congress is moving closer to acting on climate change even though the Bush administration still opposes mandatory cuts in emissions.

"The United States simply has to take a leadership role," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., one of the chief sponsors of the bill. "We are the superpower in the world, and we've got to utilize our status to try to correct a situation all of us acknowledge is causing hardship through fluctuations in temperature throughout the world."

The bill is modeled on California's market-based climate program. It would set a mandatory cap on emissions and would create a national trading system in which polluters could buy or sell credits to emit greenhouse gases.

The measure would cap greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2012 and require power plants, large manufacturers and the transportation sector to gradually reduce their emissions by 62 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.

But the heated debate at Wednesday's hearing showed there is still no clear consensus in Congress on solutions to the climate crisis. Warner was the lone Republican to join Democrats and two independent senators on the committee to support the bill.

Most Republicans on the panel warned that the bill could raise energy costs for American businesses and consumers and might not slow rapid temperature increases if emissions in China and India continue to grow.

"This bill is all pain and no gain," said Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the committee's ranking Republican.

The sharpest debate came over the issue of rising emissions from China and India. The United States historically has been the world's largest emitter - and it continues to be the world's largest per-capita emitter. But China, with a booming economy fueled by coal-fired power plants, is overtaking the United States in total emissions.

"We can do what we want, and Europe can do whatever it wants, but if China and India continue to do what they want, we will have zero impact on world carbon dioxide levels," said Sen. David Vitter, R-La.

But Warner, who warned of the national security implications if rising sea levels lead to mass population displacements, said the United States must stop using China and India as an excuse not to limit emissions.

"If we don't act, China and India will simply hide behind America's skirts of inaction and take no steps of their own," he said.

Republicans offered several amendments to boost nuclear energy, which some tout as a possibility for solving global warming because nuclear plants produce electricity without emitting greenhouse gases. But the measures were defeated after Boxer warned they would kill the bill.

Many of the GOP amendments were symbolic: One would have opened waters off the shore of several Southern states to drilling if natural gas prices increased because of the bill. Another would have pulled the plug on the bill if China and India didn't pass similar measures within 10 years. Still another measure would have required businesses to tell the Securities and Exchange Commission about how much it would cost them to comply with the bill. The committee rejected them.

A measure to prevent states like California or municipalities from enacting their own climate rules also was defeated.

The bill "continues to let the states do their trailblazing work," Boxer said.

The panel also added a low-carbon fuel standard - modeled on a California rule - that would require a 5 percent cut in the carbon content of transportation fuels by 2015 and a 10 percent cut by 2020. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who approved a similar standard in January, made calls to lawmakers in recent weeks lobbying for the measure.

But other efforts to toughen the bill failed. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., offered an amendment to require an 80 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2050, in line with what some scientists say is needed to limit the worst potential effects of global warming.

But Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., a chief sponsor of the bill, said the deeper cuts would not pass. "The most important thing is to get something passed, to get something started," Lieberman said.

Sanders also lost on a measure, backed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., that would have required the permits to emit greenhouse gases to be auctioned to companies rather than given away. The bill gives away most permits at first and gradually moves to auction them over time. But Sanders warned it could lead to windfall profits for some electric utilities and manufacturers.
Supporters hailed the panel's voting out of the bill as a major step, but insiders say it faces long odds in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to pass any major bill.

The measure has three Republican co-sponsors - Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has sponsored a separate climate bill. But supporters of climate legislation might have lost another key Republican vote: Arizona Sen. John McCain, who recently said he'll support a bill only if it boosts nuclear power.

The House has been waiting for Senate action, but House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., has pledged to push forward on a climate change measure next year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, has said it will be one of the House's top priorities in this session.

The battle lines for the debate are already being drawn. Schwarzenegger and groups of environmentalists, scientists and evangelical leaders released letters this week supporting the bill. The U.S Chamber of Commerce and the National Mining Association released their own letters, warning of the bill's costs.

Inhofe promised "an enormous floor flight" next year to defeat the bill. But Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who played a key role in brokering a deal over the climate bill, predicted: "The votes are going to be there. They're going to be there because it's the right thing to do."

Key provisions of climate bill

The bill passed Wednesday by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, among other things, would:

-- Cap emissions of greenhouse gases starting in 2012, and gradually reduce emissions by 62 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.

-- Cover about 80 percent of U.S. emissions, mostly from electric utilities, major manufacturers and fuel refiners.

-- Allow polluters to buy, sell and trade credits to emit greenhouse gases.

-- Create a Federal Reserve-type board to monitor the trading system, and make adjustments if the costs of the program rose too quickly.

-- Use the proceeds from auctions of the credits to develop new energy technologies and help low-income consumers pay their energy bills.

-- Create a low-carbon fuel standard, modeled on California's rules, cutting the carbon content of transportation fuels by 10 percent in 2020.

To read the complete text of the global warming bill go to

Source: Chronicle staff report.

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