House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman vowed today to get comprehensive climate and energy legislation out of his committee before Memorial Day in a bid to give President-elect Barack Obama a major environmental achievement in his first term.
"That is an ambitious agenda, but it is an achievable one," the California Democrat said. "We cannot afford another year of delay."
Waxman revealed his committee markup schedule during his first hearing since taking over in November as chairman of the powerful panel. The 18-term congressman did not provide details on the climate bill, but he signaled that there are a number of recommendations available to draw from -- including that from the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, or U.S. CAP, a coalition of companies and environmental groups, which rolled out several principles for a cap-and-trade bill today (see related story).
"A consensus is developing that our nation needs climate legislation," Waxman said. "Our job is to transform this consensus into effective legislation. The legislation must be based on the science and meet the very serious threats we face."
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee, will play a lead role in writing the climate legislation. Markey said he would build off a cap-and-trade bill he authored last spring, as well as the U.S. CAP suggestions and a draft measure released last fall by Democratic Reps. John Dingell of Michigan and Rick Boucher of Virginia.
"I am committed to moving a bill as quickly as possible, because the urgency of the problem demands swift action," Markey said.
Waxman and Markey will not have an easy time. They will need to convince dozens of House Democrats who represent districts with large industrial bases, as well as Republicans who still question climate change science and also have problems with the economic implications of global warming legislation.
"I think it's good for chairmen to have goals, and that's a worthy goal," Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said of the Memorial Day target.
But Barton underscored the political battle ahead by reading aloud the declining stock prices of several U.S. CAP members as their company leaders sat before him at the committee witness table.
"There's not one CEO here today whose stock price is even close to what it was a year ago," Barton said. "We're in a very serious economic recession, and you cannot tell me that if we adopt one of their principles of a mandatory cap-and-trade program on CO2 emissions for our economy that it's going to help their stock prices."
U.S. CAP officials responded that movement on global warming legislation would help stimulate the economy while staving off the negative consequences from climate change. The coalition's proposal represents a far more detailed set of recommendations for cap-and-trade legislation compared with its initial plan unveiled two years ago, including a 2030 target to curb emissions 58 percent below 2005 levels and calls for the construction of new coal plants capable of capturing and sequestering their greenhouse gases.
Members testifying at the hearing included some of the biggest energy companies in the world -- mining giant Rio Tinto, Duke Energy Corp., and General Electric Co. Environmentalists from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund also are members of U.S. CAP, while the National Wildlife Federation plans to drop out next week to pursue a separate lobbying effort.
Republicans challenge U.S. CAP
Signaling the battle ahead, Republicans challenged several issues associated with the U.S. CAP coalition.
Barton sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson raising questions about insurance giant AIG's role in lobbying the government in favor of climate legislation through U.S. CAP when it is also on the receiving end of federal bailout funding.
"My concern relates to AIG's continued association with implicit and explicit lobbying activity and whether this relationship is appropriate under existing statutes and agreements, or as a matter of public policy," Barton wrote.
Other Republicans spoke up with complaints that the U.S. CAP representatives were not in attendance during the opening statements at the beginning of today's hearing.
"A terrible start to hopefully a better year," said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.). "I understand they're doing a press conference, so it's more important for them to attend a press conference versus hearing the concerns of over 650,000 of my constituents."
Waxman defended the committee's protocol. "The purpose of a hearing is to hear what the witnesses have to say, not to tell them what we have to say," Waxman said.
The chairman then explained that the chief executives would testify for two hours before going to meetings with Obama's transition team. U.S. CAP representatives would then remain to answer questions.
But Shimkus said he was not satisfied. "With all due respect, I don't want to talk to the designee, I want to talk to the CEOs," he said.