CLIMATE:

A well-rehearsed Senate panel stages another science debate

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee clashed today over the science of man-made climate change in the panel's first hearing on the issue this Congress.

The member statements seemed scripted to Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe.

"I think it's a lot of theater," Inhofe said. "But it's going to be fun, and it will be good to start talking about it again."

To which Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) asked, "Is this the second act?"

There's been little change in the script since Boxer shepherded a comprehensive carbon dioxide cap-and-trade bill through the committee during a Republican boycott in 2009.

"I appreciate that you have the same song you've had all along," Boxer told Inhofe, her longtime sparring partner on climate change. She vowed to keep trying to sway the Oklahoman.

Committee Republicans used their opening statements to take aim at the Obama administration, congressional Democrats and climate change "alarmists" who they said were deliberately overstating the scientific validity of carbon-reduction policies.

Inhofe played up a memo circulated by climate policy opponents over the last month that he said showed White House-approved "talking points" for Democrats showing them how best to sell climate policies by avoiding discussion of their financial effects and playing up health benefits.

"These talking points are not honest or straightforward, they are purely political," he said.

Ranking member David Vitter (R-La.) demanded that Boxer invite administration officials to testify on President Obama's climate action plan.

The president unveiled his plan last month at Georgetown University, calling for new utility regulations, adaptation measures and international engagement on climate. Vitter said the plan would "undoubtedly tighten the federal government's grip on our economy."

"It would have been useful to hear from the administration how exactly they plan to implement this strategy," he said. "It would also have been helpful to learn the exact measurable benefits that the United States can expect from these actions."

Vitter and other Republicans argued that climate change is chiefly the result of natural causes. Even if human emissions are driving some warming, they said, the United States can do little to change that on its own.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) announced today that he would offer a bill to require that any new U.S. EPA rules be approved by Congress, including for greenhouse gas emissions (see related story). Republicans have tried and failed to rein in EPA regulatory authority in this Congress and the last.

The agency is accelerating its rulemakings for power plant CO2. White House climate change adviser Heather Zichal said today at an event hosted by Politico that EPA would complete work on rules for new and existing power plants by the end of Obama's term -- a top priority for environmentalists concerned that a subsequent administration might repeal unfinished rules.

"We are very clear-eyed about the challenge there, but at the same time we recognize the opportunity," she said.

EPA has sent a second proposal for new power plants to the White House for review, and Zichal said it would begin the process of writing rules for existing plants "soon." The existing plants rule would be proposed in June 2014 and finalized in 2015 under a memorandum Obama signed last month.

It is an ambitious timeline, but Zichal said there would be time for stakeholder input.

"We know that there is not a one-size-fits-all policy that is going to achieve or embody this rule and that we have a lot of important work to do with states, with the utility sector," she said.

In his opening statement, Barrasso pointed to Zichal's appearance at the event this morning to hint that the White House may be trying to avoid congressional scrutiny of its climate change agenda.

"Administration officials are apparently available for webcasts but not for hearings to defend their policies to the public and to answer questions," Barrasso said.

But Boxer said she had not invited administration witnesses because she had hoped for a nonpolitical discussion on climate science. The committee will hold hearings on the topics Republicans suggest at a later date, she said.

"I guarantee you will have more than enough time to go at the administration," she told Barrasso. "I promise you, I commit to you, probably more than once."

Democrats urge action

Democrats, meanwhile, argued that climate change is already fueling sea-level rise, ocean acidification, intense wildfires and droughts. There's a need to curb heat-trapping emissions quickly, they argued.

While some action might come from the administration, Democrats made a plug for bipartisan collaboration on climate change legislation.

"Climate change is happening, its consequences are real, we here in Washington should be working to slow the known cause of that change: the incessant dumping of carbon pollution into our atmosphere and oceans," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the co-chairman of a bicameral caucus pressing for stronger climate change policy.

Whitehouse touted his carbon tax proposal-- one of at least three measures that Senate Democrats are floating to price heat-trapping emissions.

Boxer and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have introduced one bill, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is working on another that would apply narrowly to the utility industry.

These policies would internalize the real cost of carbon emissions, creating a market incentive for industries to make reductions, Whitehouse said.

"The big oil companies and the oil barons have offloaded those costs onto society," he said. He noted that the Obama administration recently revised upward its estimate of the cost to society from carbon emissions.

If Republicans believe in a fair and open marketplace, Whitehouse said, they should support a bill to prevent no-cost emissions.

Reporter Jason Plautz contributed.

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