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Latest On The Climate Bill in Congress

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What's Happening in the House

On June 26, 2009, "The American Clean Energy and Security Act" (H.R. 2454) was passed by the House of Representatives by a vote of 219-212. The legislation was sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) The bill's goal is to create clean energy jobs, reduce America's dependence on fossil fuels and ultimately cut global warming pollution. The bill that wins Senate approval will be merged with the House-passed bill.

What's Happening in the Senate

The last we left you, we were waiting on the Senate to move its version of comprehensive climate legislation by the end of 2009 -- but here we are in 2010 and still we wait. Last year did bring a few signs of progress, most notably a bold move by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who with Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) withstood a Republican boycott and passed the "The Clean Energy Jobs & American Power Act" (S.1733) in a 11-1 vote in early November. For the first time, this bill included an actual limit on greenhouse gas pollution -- known as "cap and trade" because the bill included provisions to allow some industries to adjust more gradually to the requirements.

The day before committee passage of the Kerry-Boxer bill, Sen. Kerry teamed up with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to discuss a bipartisan version of the legislation, with the goal of gaining the 60 votes needed to move the measure through the Senate. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) joined the effort shortly thereafter, and the three senators continue to reach out to colleagues on both sides of the aisle to build support for a comprehensive bill.

As has been widely reported, the current Kerry-Graham-Lieberman approach would address three major sources of emissions -- electric utilities, transportation and industry -- instead of setting a national target for emissions restrictions across all sectors.

Power plants would face an overall cap on emissions that would gradually become stricter, while a tax on transportation fuels would be used to compensate consumers.

Reining in emissions from transportation projects and industrial facilities would come later. Also, the legislation would expand domestic oil and gas drilling offshore, provide federal funds to build nuclear power plants, and provide more incentives to the coal industry for development of carbon capture and storage technology.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has asked Sen. Kerry to submit a bipartisan draft bill by the end of March. Meanwhile, in a private meeting with cabinet officials and 14 Senators as well as in several speeches, including the State of the Union, President Obama has continued to express his desire to see Congress move comprehensive climate and energy legislation forward this year.

Factors Stalling Climate Bill Progress

There are a number of reasons why progress toward climate legislation has stalled, but the divisive partisan atmosphere is the primary and most obvious factor impeding movement of any kind. This widely reported fracture has made almost every issue before the chamber an overly controversial one, and climate is no exception. The second is the Democratic loss of the Massachusetts special Senate election in February, deflating their super-majority, although it remains unclear how Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) will vote on climate.

Meanwhile, other legislative proposals are adding to the current uncertainty in the Senate. The most problematic one is an effort led by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) to derail a scientifically grounded finding by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that greenhouse gases are a threat to public health and welfare. This is an uncontested finding among most scientists, and the majority of members of the House of Representatives have already acted upon it.

EPA's scientific finding, an important step under the Clean Air Act toward reducing climate change pollution from sources like cars and power plants, came in direct response to the Supreme Court's landmark Massachusetts v. EPA decision from 2007, a case that Earthjustice, certain states, and other environmental allies won. The Court ultimately found that EPA had the authority to regulate greenhouse gasses, if found to endanger public health and welfare.

Sen. Murkowski's resolution is slated to come to a vote as soon as this month. Her allies include the industries most responsible for greenhouse gas pollution which would like nothing more than to stamp out any progress toward a comprehensive climate change bill.

Another obstacle is Sen. Byron Dorgan's (D-ND) notion that energy policy should move forward alone, separate from climate legislation. An energy-only bill is a half-measure that ineffectively addresses climate change and fails to create the initiatives necessary to truly move our nation to a clean energy future. It would also undermine the work of the House of Representatives, spearheaded by Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-MA), which showed that the best and most efficient way to make real progress is to address climate and energy policy together, in a comprehensive bill.

Another factor is an alternative to the cap and trade proposals in the House and Senate put forward by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Susan Collins (R-ME). Described as a "cap and dividend," the proceeds from requiring industrial sources to pay a premium on climate pollution would be returned directly to taxpayers. Senators Kerry, Graham and Lieberman have said they are considering combining this approach with other proposals in their bipartisan package on climate legislation. This could breathe new life into the debate, if the parties are willing to work together and incorporate other important elements from the House and the Kerry-Boxer bills.

Earthjustice and other clean air, climate and energy advocates continue to build support toward a comprehensive bill. To achieve actual climate progress, a cohesive bill must address energy and climate policy as one, maintain the integrity of the Clean Air Act, and establish enforceable pollution reduction measures at levels that are supported by the best available science. We will continue to keep you posted on this marathon effort.

The Basics

Here are a few terms that are frequently discussed in reference to climate legislation.

  • Cap – This refers to a pollution cap, or limit, and is the most environmentally significant part of the climate bill because it sets the bar for reducing pollution. Oil refiners, industrial facilities, electricity generators and suppliers of natural gas emitting more than 25,000 tons per year of greenhouse gasses will all be required to meet the emissions cap, and they must account for their emissions into the atmosphere. The cap starts with a 3 percent reduction in U.S. emissions below 2005 pollution levels by 2012; the end goal is an 83 percent reduction below 2005 levels by 2050. The cap covers roughly 7,500 of the largest polluters which emit more than three quarters of total greenhouse gas pollution in the U.S.
  • Trade – Since the overall amount of emissions will be declining, some entities will reduce more and some will reduce less, but the net contribution must decrease over time according to the cap. Facilities that reduce their emissions ahead of the curve would be able to trade or sell the permits that they otherwise would have held or had to purchase. 
  • Allowance – The currency of the cap and trade system is an emissions allowance. All facilities that come under the cap will be required to hold enough emissions allowances to cover their emissions. Facilities will be able to participate in a trading program where those that are able to make more significant emissions reductions help provide a cushion by selling excess emissions allowances that will be available to those lagging behind. Facilities in need of allowances, in some cases, will be given them freely. This is known as a direct allocation. They will also be able to obtain them by purchasing them through an auction.   
  • Offsets – Carbon offsets are a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions somewhere else to balance out emissions that are not reduced within a company's own operations. A carbon offset allows an entity to buy an emission reduction elsewhere to reduce its overall net carbon footprint. An entity is able to cover a portion of its emissions allowance requirement by holding an offset credit. For example, instead of sequestering the emissions from an industrial source, that facility could purchase an offset from a project that captures methane gas from a landfill that is currently uncapped.