Can 'cap and trade' ever be the issue 'Obamacare' is?

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 7, 2010 

FREDERICA, Del. — Conservative Republicans around the country are using cap and trade — a way to limit global-warming pollution — as a political weapon to attack GOP moderates as well as Democrats.

Anger at big government, and its possible expansion, is a favorite conservative theme, and arguing against cap and trade allows candidates to rail against regulation and taxes.

"It's a very big deal," said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He cited Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky as among the states where the issue could help Republican Senate candidates. Republican strategists for seats in the House of Representatives also consider cap and trade an important talking point in close races.

The heart of cap and trade legislation is to set a declining limit — or cap — on the amount of heat-trapping gases that large industries and energy companies could release into the atmosphere. Companies would buy permits for their emissions, and could sell permits they didn't need — the trade part.

Democratic legislation includes permit giveaways intended to ease companies into the system. Most money from the permit sales would be used to offset higher energy costs, and the proposal included programs to promote alternative fuels to coal, gas and oil.

The House narrowly passed the measure 14 months ago, but it's stalled in the Senate and is unlikely to pass.

The House bill passed with help from eight Republicans. Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., was one of them. Commentator Christine O'Donnell, who's challenged him for the Republican Senate nomination in next Tuesday's primary, is using that against him.

Some Delaware voters like what they hear from her about it.

"There is a general distrust of government. It stems from the health care debate. People feel that this has happened before; government is getting bigger," said Steve Rust, a Milford police officer who's running for the state House of Representatives.

Castle supporters counter that he's backing what he thinks is right, and that he's no liberal on most issues.

"I know cap and trade has fired some people up,'' Delaware Republican Party Chairman Tom Ross said, "but at the end of the day, Castle voted against health care and a lot of egregious bills Democrats wanted."

There's overwhelming agreement among climate scientists that observed climate changes — a steady rise in average temperatures worldwide over the past 40 years and an increase of carbon dioxide in the oceans — are largely the result of human activities, primarily the burning of coal, gas and oil.

However, many well-funded conservative institutes and their websites provide a forum for opponents who deny the role of greenhouse gases in climate change, dispute the evidence of warming and downplay the whole topic as "theory."

Cap and trade fuels conservative ire because it's emblematic of what conservatives say they dislike most: big government.

"There's just been so much socialism," said Sheila Hernesh, a Dover, Del., artist. "General Motors isn't doing well; fine, we'll just take them over. Government is giving us a health care plan. This is not the America I remember."

Conservative candidates hear the message. In the weekly Republican national radio address on Aug. 28, Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican U.S. Senate nominee, argued, "It's time, once and for all, to abandon ideas like cap and trade."

Conservatives also rail against what they consider cap and trade's implicit tax increases. The legislation wouldn't raise taxes per se, but it could lead to higher energy costs, and Republican leaders thus call it an energy tax.

"This is a huge issue because it's going to raise people's taxes," said Cyndi Diercks, the coordinator of the Quad Cities Tea Party, which is active in Iowa and Illinois.

Republican candidates have hopped on that bandwagon, too.

"Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to impose a massive energy tax on all of us through a cap and trade bill," asserts Pat Toomey, the Pennsylvania Republican U.S. Senate nominee.

In Kentucky, the issue is being widely discussed in the U.S. Senate race. In the western part of the state, there's worry that cap and trade would drive up the cost of electricity produced from coal, hurting industry. In the eastern sector, many are concerned about the legislation's impact on mining. Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Jack Conway are against cap and trade, and Paul is seen as more coal-friendly.

Polls suggest that the issue's impact is limited. A Pew Research/National Journal survey June 10-13 asked people what was a more important priority, keeping energy prices low or protecting the environment. By 56 to 37 percent, a majority chose protecting the environment. A Gallup poll Aug. 27-30 found the environment a distant ninth on the list of issues that people say are extremely important to their voting decisions this year.

The issue plays differently around the country, said Darrell West, the vice president and director of governance studies at Washington's Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research organization. It's strong in conservative areas and in coal-producing states, he said.

"Tea party people are skeptical of the establishment in general, and that includes the scientific establishment," he said. "They think that if the establishment is unified in favor of something, that makes it wrong."

Cap and trade has muscled its way into some spotlights because conservatives use it to illustrate some of their favorite talking points.

A conservative voter guide in Texas before that state's primary March 2 listed opposition to the science of climate change and government regulation of greenhouse gases as "values" that candidates either had or didn't have.

In Erie County, Ohio, the local tea party group sent a questionnaire to candidates in late August, asking whether they agreed or disagreed with 15 issues. Issue No. 2 was:

"The regulation of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere should be left to God and not government and I oppose all measures of cap and trade as well as the teaching of global warming theory in our schools."

Jon Morrow, who sent the questionnaire, said that only one candidate responded. "I guess politicians do not want to answer tough questions?" he said in an e-mail message.

Democrats see the Republican emphasis on cap and trade as little more than a way of avoiding tougher issues.

"Jobs and the economy is the number one issue to middle-class families. That's what Democrats are talking about, and any Republican who tries to change the subject is simply trying to run away from their record of hypocrisy," said Deirdre Murphy, a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman.

(Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader contributed to this article from Lexington, Ky.)

ON THE WEB

Pew/National Journal poll on environmental issues

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

Information from the National Academies on climate change

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