Price of emissions: House bill would send taxpayers a check

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 25, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said on Wednesday that he'll soon introduce a climate bill that does something different — it would return at least 90 percent of the money from the sale of emissions permits to every American man, woman and child.

The announcement comes a day after President Barack Obama told Congress that he wanted a climate bill to combat global warming and to wean the nation off fossil fuels. As yet, the White House hasn't endorsed any specific plans.

Van Hollen's legislation is a simpler version of previous ones that sought to establish an emissions permits trading system that have died in Congress. It would require companies that sell oil, coal and natural gas to buy permits for amount of carbon dioxide gas the fuels would release when burned. A climate bill that failed in the Senate last year would have required many other companies — including power plants — to buy the permits.

Van Hollen's bill would distribute at least 90 percent of the permit proceeds in the form of dividends to everyone in the U.S. with a Social Security number. It would be the first time a "cap and dividend" bill was considered in Congress.

Van Hollen, who has a leadership role in the House of Representatives as an assistant to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sketched the rough details of his proposal in a letter to colleagues dated Tuesday that his office made public on Wednesday.

In the letter, he noted that any climate change bill would need popular support from Americans for at least 40 years.

Obama has called for government support for renewable energy and efficiency over the next decade. If Van Hollen's idea prevailed, there'd be little money from the sale of the permits available for scientific research and development of cleaner energy. The government would have to find other savings or would have to budget funds to support the president's spending plan.

Van Hollen wrote in his letter that the most important step to getting the country off fossil fuels was "providing markets with a strong price signal to accelerate the development and deployment of homegrown renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies."

A dividend would be a way to encourage energy savings. As energy companies passed along higher costs, people would pay more for electricity, gas and other goods from fossil fuels. Every person would get the same amount of dividend. Those who use less fossil fuel could end up ahead.

The higher cost of fossil fuels also would help renewable energy companies become more competitive by narrowing the current price advantage of fossil fuel.

Van Hollen said his plan would call for caps on carbon emissions in 2012 that would decline over time until reaching at least an 80 percent reduction by 2050. That amount of reduction is in line with what scientists have said will be necessary for the U.S. to do — while other countries also reduce emissions — to prevent disastrous and irreversible climate disruptions from global warming.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, was a leading supporter of the climate bill that failed to get enough Senate support last year. Boxer has yet give specifics of plans for a new version. She said on Wednesday, however, that climate legislation will "create jobs, reinvigorate the economy, and make us more energy independent." She added: "The science makes it clear that we must not wait any longer to get started."

Boxer's committee heard testimony from scientists on Wednesday who summed up recent scientific reports showing how global warming is a deepening problem.

Scientists have found that emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning have been increasing at a faster rate than a decade ago; sea levels may be rising faster than previous estimates showed; Antarctica is warming; and summer sea ice in the Arctic, which has been decreasing for years, reached a record low in 2007 and a near record in 2008.

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