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Scenarios: Climate Bill Backers Enter Critical Week

Date: 22-Jun-10
Country: USA
Author: Richard Cowan

With time running out for the U.S. Senate to debate complicated and controversial climate change legislation, key players will huddle this week to try to come up with a plan for passing an energy/environment bill this year.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama holds a meeting at the White House with Democratic and Republican senators who either have been active on legislation or who could play an instrumental role if a bill is debated in the Senate in July.

On Thursday, Senate Democrats will hold their second meeting in a week to discuss what kind of legislation might be presented to the full Senate.

"It's a time when the herd is looking for which way to run," said one environmentalist.

Here are some possible outcomes of the upcoming meetings:

* OBAMA GAUGES SENTIMENT

Obama's national address last week on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill touched on the need for a major energy and environment bill, but it failed to lay out a clear path.

At a White House meeting on Wednesday, Obama will have a chance in a private setting to gauge whether senators are willing to work with each other on a bill and to try to rally support for significantly cutting U.S. carbon dioxide emissions blamed for global warming.

According to one close observer of the climate change debate in the Senate, Obama "will learn more about where the key senators are coming from and will use that information to persuade them, hopefully, on an individual basis" to support a bill.

Tony Kreindler of the Environmental Defense Fund, said, "The White House is trying to come up with a package that gets you the most emissions reductions" and still win the backing of 60 senators needed to advance controversial legislation.

"They've got a month to get this done" before the long August recess, he added.

Significantly, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who was central to the climate bill debate before dropping out of talks in late April, plans to attend the White House meeting.

* SENATE STRUGGLES

The meeting with Obama will be followed a day later by a closed-door session of Senate Democrats. Undecided senators will be able to quiz backers of competing bills and discuss Obama's posture.

"We're entering a few critical days," said Dave Hamilton, a global warming expert with the Sierra Club. "If they emerge from it with a plan, there is an ability to get something pretty serious done. If fear and apprehension reign, the prognosis is not so good," he said.

Democrats are badly split, with some undecided senators in recent days not even wanting to discuss climate change legislation when approached by journalists.

Most Republicans and some Democrats are vocally opposed to any climate bill in this election year. West Virginia Senator John Rockefeller, a Democrat, last week warned doing such legislation would spark a "bitter fight."

* A SLIMMED-DOWN APPROACH

If Obama and fellow Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, see there isn't enough passion among senators for a comprehensive bill, they will likely try to advance a narrow one, marking a major defeat for environmentalists.

Such a bill probably would set some tepid requirements for electric utilities to use more renewable energy and promote more nuclear power generation.

It would be coupled with legislation to clamp down on sloppy offshore oil drilling practices and poor government monitoring of those activities -- a politically popular move in the midst of BP's devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

* SETTING SIGHTS HIGHER

If Obama and Reid see an opening to do more, they might try to attach a "cap and trade" plan mandating carbon dioxide pollution cuts for one sector -- electric utilities. Senator Joseph Lieberman, an Independent, last week told Reuters that would be a "significant step forward," though he favors broader legislation he wrote with Democratic Senator John Kerry.

Under a utility-only cap and trade, that sector's carbon emissions would be capped and then would have to dwindle over the next few decades. Pollution permits they have to buy would be traded on a regulated market.

This proposal could be coupled with legislation by Republican Senator Richard Lugar to expand the use of electric vehicles and to improve clean energy standards in buildings.

A spokesman for Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who has voiced interest in doing climate legislation but hasn't embraced such a bill, said the utilities-only cap and trade bill "still means higher energy prices for Americans."

* THE GRAND PLAN

Kerry and Lieberman continue to push their comprehensive bill, which many senators doubt would win 60 votes. It would put cap-and-trade pollution controls on utilities starting in 2013 and expand it to large manufacturers in 2016.

New incentives for nuclear power and cleaner-burning cars would be included. Oil refiners would have to buy permits, at a fixed price, for transportation fuels.

No Republicans have yet embraced this proposal.

Whatever plan the Senate comes up with eventually would have to be reconciled with a climate change bill passed by the House of Representatives a year ago. A final bill might not be ready for Obama to sign into law until December.

* 2011

If Congress can't manage to pass climate change legislation this year, next year could bring better results, even if Republicans make gains in the November elections.

That's because the Environmental Protection Agency next year is expected to begin implementing mandatory carbon pollution controls. When the costs become reality, there could be renewed pressure on Congress to act.

(Edited by Todd Eastham)

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