WASHINGTON -- Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Tuesday laid out the scientific risks of inaction on global warming and went straight to his main point — the climate and energy bill starting its way through the Senate could help drive what he called "energy opportunity."
The Senate is only now taking up the bill -- Tuesday was its first hearing -- and much could change as senators demand amendments and compromises. No Republicans now support it, though Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has written that he's interested in a consensus approach.
The bill's Democratic supporters are looking for some Republican allies to help secure the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural blocks for passage. They're also working against the odds to get the bill finished in time for international climate negotiations in December in Copenhagen, Denmark. The House of Representatives passed a version in June, but before anything's enacted into law, the House and Senate must agree on identical terms.
Chu, leading off testimony before the Senate Environment Committee, noted that a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study this year found a 50 percent chance of a 9-degree Fahrenheit temperature increase in this century and a 17 percent chance of a nearly 11-degree increase if heavy dependence on fossil fuels continues. Those numbers are higher than a 2007 international scientific consensus report that estimated an increase of more than 7 degrees.
"The world now realizes that its current level of greenhouse gas emissions is unsustainable," Chu said. Demand for clean energy technologies will leap as countries strive to limit emissions, he said. "The only question is -- which countries will invent, manufacture and export these clean technologies and which countries will become dependent on foreign products?"
Chu said the climate-change legislation was needed to help the U.S. catch up with China, Denmark and Japan.
"The most important element of this bill is that it puts a cap on carbon emissions that ratchets down over time," Chu said. "That critical step will drive investment decisions toward clean energy."
The Senate bill would reduce U.S. emissions by 83 percent from 2005 levels by 2050. The Environmental Protection Agency concluded that this reduction would put the U.S. in line with international efforts to limit climate change.
The Senate bill is similar to one that passed the House in June. It would require sources of 25,000 tons or more of heat-trapping gases a year, roughly the output of 2,300 homes, to buy permits to release them.
Companies that found cleaner approaches would need to buy fewer permits and could sell those they didn't need. The bill would require payment only from these large sources, which produce 75 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases.
Investments in power plants require billions of dollars and the plants last at least 60 years. A requirement to reduce greenhouse emissions from coal would make nuclear, wind and solar power more attractive, Chu said.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday said the bill "is going to be critical" because it makes "clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America." Obama made the comments in Arcadia, Fla., where he announced $3.4 billion in stimulus funds for grants to improve the electric grid.
Republicans on the panel opposed the mandatory emissions reductions and said they preferred conservation, nuclear energy and encouragement of electric vehicles and other cleaner technology. They also argued that the bill would cost too much and cost jobs.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said the bill would create "green welfare" instead of jobs. Inhofe also said that global warming ended nine years ago, citing an idea circulated on the Internet that's at odds with observations and models by NASA scientists.
NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies' data show that the 10 warmest years since record-keeping began in the 19th Century occurred in the 12-year period from 1997 to 2008, and that the long-term upward temperature trend continues.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the bill's author, cited a list of consequences that emissions from fossil fuel burning already have caused, including increasingly acidic oceans and the loss of permafrost.
"Another reason we need to do this — climate change and our dependence on foreign oil are a significant threat to our national security," Kerry said. "There's nothing conservative about remaining indebted to hostile regimes for our energy. Doubters often talk about the cost of taking action. But I have to tell you every analysis shows that the cost of not taking action is more expensive.
"If we think it's good for America to send $400 billion a year to other countries so we can put stuff up in the atmosphere that will cost us even more to fix, we're crazy! We'd be far better off moving more rapidly for the creation of that energy here at home."
The EPA found that the Senate bill would cost less than $10 a month per household.
The bill includes financial incentives for the capture and storage of carbon dioxide from coal burning and support for efficiency, renewable energy and clean vehicles. It would provide assistance to steel and other industries that use large amounts of energy.
The money would come from the sale of permits for pollution emissions. The largest segment of these funds — 35 percent — would go to holding down energy costs for consumers.
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