Climate and energy bill delayed as political support withers

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 22, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Bowing a lack of support, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid on Thursday said there'd be no vote this summer on a bill that would put the nation's first limits on the carbon pollution responsible for global warming.

The decision could doom the measure's long-term chances as well.

If Democrats lose their narrow majority in the Senate in the November elections, they'd have to relinquish the leadership power that would allow them to bring it up for a vote next year. Many — but not all — Senate Democrats support it, but not a single Republican has agreed to vote for it. A similar measure squeaked through the House of Representatives last year.

Instead of a broad energy and climate bill, Reid said there would be a vote before the Senate takes its August recess on legislation that would increase liability on companies for oil spills, boost a conversion of 18-wheeler trucks from diesel to natural gas to save oil, and create a program that would give homeowners a price break on upgrades to save energy.

The energy and climate bill would have required power plants, large factories and oil and gas companies to pay for permits to emit carbon dioxide, the gas from burning fossil fuels that traps heat in the atmosphere. Most of the revenues would have been refunded to consumers to compensate for higher energy costs.

Reid said it was still possible there'd be a fall vote. However, he'd still face an uphill fight to get the 60 votes needed and the fall session will be short because of the upcoming election.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who'd been meeting with interest groups and senators from both parties for over a year to try to reach a compromise bill that would get enough votes, said the draft he proposed earlier this year would lower energy bills, create jobs in clean energy and reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Some industries, however, warned that their costs would go up and they'd lose competitiveness if carbon pollution had a price. That message made some senators, including some Democrats, fear that they'd lose their seats if they supported it, Kerry said.

"What you're seeing is classic special interest resistance," Kerry said at a town hall meeting earlier Thursday. He urged his supporters not to get discouraged but to take part in a grass-roots effort to drum up support.

"We need to take the fear out of this and empower our colleagues to go out and vote," he said.

"It is dismaying that the bill doesn't put a price on carbon because already-strong evidence about the direction of our climate has been confirmed again by NASA: The first six months of 2010 were the warmest January-to-June on record," said Rafe Pomerance, president of Clean Air Cool Planet. "As the Earth's climate continues to rapidly move into unchartered territory, the U.S. Senate needs act. The failure to price carbon leaves a giant hole in U.S. energy and climate policy, and the long-term cost to the United States will be enormous."

Reid said the scaled-down bill had enough Republican support to give them a chance to pass. It has four parts:

  • Oil spill: Removes the $75 million cap on liability for oil spills retroactively to include April — the month when BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Energy efficiency: Establish "Home Star," a program that would provide rebates at the cash register for energy-saving investments for homes. Reid said it could spur 350,000 to 400,000 new jobs.
  • Natural gas: Promote conversion from diesel fuel to natural gas for transportation, an idea pushed by oil and gas magnate T. Boone Pickens.
  • Conservation: Add money to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which gives money to federal, state and local governments to buy land, water and wetlands for recreation and preservation. Most of the money comes from fees paid for offshore oil and gas drilling.

President Barack Obama's adviser on climate issues, Carole Browner, said the White House could work with the Senate to keep looking for a bill that could pass. Obama has not publicly pushed for the measure in recent weeks.

Environmental and health advocacy groups objected strongly this month to one of the compromise measures involved in the legislation.

Utilities that rely on coal asked for some exemptions from Clean Air Act restrictions on the main air pollution from their plants — smog, soot and mercury — in exchange for their consent to going first with having to pay fees for their carbon pollution. The Edison Electric Institute, an industry group, and executives of several utilities, including Duke, made the case in lobbying sessions in Washington over the past two weeks.

Six medical associations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, wrote to Reid this week saying there should be no delay of air pollution cleanup from power plants in any climate bill. Thirty-one environmental and health advocacy groups, including the Sierra Club and the American Lung Association, made the same case in a letter last week.

The latest climate bill draft from Kerry and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., would have set up a task force that would have considered requests from coal-fired power plants for exemptions from the three main air pollutants.

The U.S. gets about 50 percent of its electricity from coal.

Forty years after the passage of the Clean Air Act, hundreds of coal-fired power plants throughout the country still do not have scrubbers to remove conventional air pollutants — nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and hazardous pollutants including mercury. Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury pollution in the U.S.

The EPA has proposed strengthening the standards on air pollution in the next few years, saying that cleaner air would reduce asthma and other respiratory diseases, heart attacks and premature deaths.

ON THE WEB:

A guide for all ages by U.S. scientists: "Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science"

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