The Senate's Forthcoming Climate Bill – A Devil's Bargain?

The one place a climate and clean energy bill should never go

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Update (7/22): On 7/22 Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that the forthcoming energy bill will no longer include the section that would address climate change and limit carbon emissions from power plants. The Senate, he said, will address climate change in a separate bill in the fall after August recess.

In his statement to the press this afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said: "To be clear: we are not putting forth this bill in place of a comprehensive bill. But we will not pass up the opportunity to hold BP accountable, lessen our dependence on oil, create good paying American jobs and protect the environment.  I’m disappointed in my Republican colleagues, who again find themselves on the wrong side of history. But as we work through our differences on a comprehensive energy bill, Republicans have an immediate choice to make."

Senator John Kerry, the Senate’s key negotiator of the draft climate language that was taken out of the bill package today, told press: "Harry Reid, today, has committed to giving us that opportunity, that open door, if you will, over the next days, weeks, months, whatever it takes, to find those 60 votes. So the work will continue every single day."

Sen. Kerry has said he will continue negotiatons with electric utilities, and before today, he indicated that those negotiations need more time. If these negotiations continue, he and other Senate leaders must take the polluter giveaways described below off the table.>

Back in May, when the Kerry-Lieberman draft climate bill came out, we told you about one deadly provision in it that needed to meet the chopping block fast, before it threatened American lives and decades of cleaner air in the United States. Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen wrote about this in his Huffington Post column, "Giving a Free Pass to Soot, Smog, and Toxic Air Pollution is No Way to Pass a Climate Bill."

Well, this idea to use harmful air pollutants that have long been controlled through the Clean Air Act as bargaining chips in order to get industry on board is still ominously hanging around. And it needs to go away immediately. Take action now and tell your senators to step in and stop this now.

Here are some details on what exactly is happening:

Electric utilities — mostly composed of coal-burning power plants — are a major source of global warming pollution in the U.S., contributing a third of all of the U.S.’s total greenhouse gas emissions. From now on, I’ll refer to these entities as what they are: "big polluters."

Recently, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid confirmed that Senate leaders are working on a climate change and energy bill that would set up a scheme for carbon emissions reductions for big polluters only, due to a lack of votes for carbon reductions from all sectors.

Big polluters are pushing hard for some unconscionable giveaways in order to accept a new carbon-reduction bill. They are now talking about only agreeing to a utilities-limited climate bill if they are given, in exchange, some free passes on controls for other long-regulated pollutants—namely a host of "conventional" pollutants that make up deadly lung disease-causing, cancer-causing, asthma-causing soot and smog. These are the dangerous and nasty air pollutants that the Clean Air Act was written to address and clean up, and it has done exactly that for 40 years now.

Why is it absolutely unthinkable and out of the question that these big polluters should be able to bargain away America’s health protections (aka controls on soot and smog) for any reason whatsoever, even for a climate bill? The facts speak for themselves:

• Numerous scientific studies have established direct links between exposure to soot and smog and a variety of health problems, including: premature death, heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, chronic bronchitis, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function and increased respiratory symptoms such as coughing or difficulty breathing. These illnesses result in tens of thousands of emergency room visits, hospitalizations and lost work days each year.

• Soot and smog caused by U.S. coal-fired power plants power plants have been estimated to kill 24,000 people each year, including 2,800 from lung cancer, but thankfully that number is decreasing as coal plants are forced to install modern controls or "scrubbers." (Clean Air Task Force Report: Dirty Air, Dirty Power: Mortality and Health Damage Due to Air Pollution from Power Plants)

• In 2000, Clean Air Act programs, including those under attack, saved the nation $500 billion in mortality costs. Without interference, EPA expects that number to go up to $730 billion this year, and $1.2 trillion in 2020. (EPA, Second Section 812 Prospective Analysis, Nov. 2009)

And this information is just scratching the surface. David Roberts of Grist frames this push by utilities as the scam of the decade.

The bottom line: A provision that seeks to undercut life-saving Clean Air Act programs has no place in a clean energy or climate change bill. This devil’s bargain should not even be a consideration. It is a total non-starter and must be laid to rest.

We must tell our Senators not to let big polluters bargain our lungs and health away. Take action now and tell your senators this won’t stand!



Liz Judge worked at Earthjustice from 2010–2016. During that time, she worked on mountaintop removal mining, national forests, and clean water issues, and led the media and advocacy communications teams.