Senate climate bill falls short of Copenhagen aim
Author: Richard Cowan
The American Electric Power Company's cooling tower at their Mountaineer plant is shown in New Haven, West Virginia October 27, 2009.
Photo: Ayesha Rascoe
A scaled-back climate change bill Senate Democrats are considering would achieve far less than President Barack Obama promised at a U.N. global warming conference last year - but even this may be too much for Congress.
With little time left in a short, crowded legislative schedule this year, Senate Democratic leaders are weighing a final attempt to begin reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Instead of the kind of economy-wide scheme the House of Representatives approved last year, senators are trying to rally support for a narrower plan that would set pollution caps only on the electric power sector -- covering about one-third of the country's greenhouse gas emissions.
It would do so by allowing an ever-dwindling number of pollution permits to be traded.
By signing onto the Copenhagen Accord last December, the United States accepted the goal of cutting 2005 domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020.
This required congressional action -- extremely difficult with an ailing economy in an election year when opponents argue the measure would raise consumer prices.
Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change said a cap on utility emissions would result in a 12 percent to 14 percent cut by 2020.
"It's not 17, but I think it's not terrible," she said.
However, that preliminary estimate assumes that the utility cap and trade program would be coupled with some other pollution-reduction steps, such as requiring more fuel efficient heavy trucks and improving building efficiency standards -- initiatives that could be folded into a large energy and environment bill.
According to Pew estimates, the utility sector emission reductions alone in the draft law translate roughly into an economy-wide 7 percent cut in fossil fuel pollution by 2020.
Many countries already were criticizing the U.S. promise of a 17 percent reduction, noting that it amounts only to a 4 percent cut from a benchmark 1990 pollution level.
The EU has pledged a 20 percent reduction by 2020, from 1990, and 30 percent if a global deal on tackling global warming is reached.
This week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid heartened environmentalists by saying he was focusing on the utility sector for pollution reduction -- a sign that a carbon pricing mechanism could be inserted into a bill to encourage more alternative energy use and clamp down on offshore oil drilling practices after BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
But it is very much in doubt whether any firm cap on U.S. emissions will become law this year.
"I honestly have to tell you this is going to be a steep uphill climb ... even the utility piece ... and we may not be able to do that," Claussen said.
The Edison Electric Institute, which represents about 70 percent of the U.S. electric power industry, has not endorsed the utility-only draft proposal. A spokesman said "every option is on the table" and that discussions were in early stages.
Several environmental groups warned senators not to negotiate a climate bill deal with industry that would delay or weaken Clean Air Act standards for other pollutants.
In a letter to senators, the environmentalists said that would create the potential for more pollution from coal-fired power plants and contribute to health problems.
As senators and lobbyists met behind closed doors, some environmental groups placed an ice sculpture outside the Senate. The three-tiered piece depicting a globe over the words "climate deniers" rapidly melted in the Washington heat.
(Editing by Alan Elsner)