What was once the central political battleground for addressing global warming in the United States may be making a comeback.
While President Obama and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill continue to focus on legislation covering greenhouse gas emissions across broad sections of the U.S. economy, a small bipartisan faction of Senate moderates is examining the idea of passing a bill that deals only with the heat-trapping emissions from power plants.
"A power plant-only cap and trade could be doable on the Hill," Mark Helmke, a senior aide to Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), said today.
Senate Democratic and Republican staffers are studying a package that combines a mandatory limit on power plant emissions with separate programs outside of the cap-and-trade program aimed at cutting greenhouse gases from other sectors of the economy. "It'd be done with efficiency standards for buildings and stronger CAFE [corporate average fuel economy] standards for transport," Helmke said.
For now, Helmke said, talks are in the early stages and do not involve drafting a bill. "We're doing a lot of research," he said.
Legislation focusing on power plant emissions alone is not new. Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush both floated the cap-and-trade idea as part of more sweeping plans that covered traditional air pollutants like nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury.
But the power plant approach -- aimed at about a third of annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions -- largely ended when Bush reversed his 2000 campaign pledge to tackle climate change through mandatory limits.
Senate Democrats narrowly passed a "four pollutant" power plant bill out of the Environment and Public Works Committee in 2002 but that legislation never made it to the floor (E&E Daily, June 8, 2002). After that, the concept quickly took a back seat as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) pressed for floor votes on the broader, economywide plan that went after major energy, transportation and manufacturing companies -- accounting for more than two-thirds of U.S. emissions.
Obama and McCain campaigned last year in support of cap-and-trade legislation dealing with most segments of the U.S. economy. And the House-passed climate legislation, as well as the Senate bill approved earlier this month by the Environment and Public Works Committee, followed with language that deals with about 7,500 industrial facilities.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is taking the lead with Lieberman and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in writing the broader climate legislation, said in an interview today that he is not planning to write a bill that goes after only power plants. That, he said, would not be a political winner, anyway.
"The problem is you lose countless numbers of entities," Kerry said. "It becomes far more expensive, and they don't get the help you get the other way. You get no transitional cost help that way, so it becomes more expensive. And in fact, you lose three-quarters of the support for the legislation."
Kerry added, "We're looking at all kinds of options, but the early take on that is that it's very problematical."
Even with midterm elections looming next November, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) yesterday said that he planned to schedule a floor debate on the climate and energy bill "sometime in the spring."
Who might be interested?
Helmke did not name names when it comes to interested Senate offices.
But a simple look back at past legislative debates reveals some of the lawmakers who have co-sponsored such bills dealing just with power plants, including Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Agriculture Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Budget Committee ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
Gregg sent mixed signals today when asked about a power plant-only bill. "I think we're into a whole different dialogue about how to approach this right now, involving things like doing nuclear power, hybrid cars, things like that," he said.
But the New Hampshire Republican also added, "I think there's some places where we can make progress around here if everybody sort of steps back and takes another look at it."
Off Capitol Hill, observers of the climate debate say that the power plant-only approach should not be ruled out, considering the difficulties in getting a climate bill in the Senate, coupled with commitments that Obama is expected to make next month at U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark.
"We're talking about this maybe more than this deserves," Jason Grumet, a former Obama campaign adviser who runs the Bipartisan Policy Center, said last night during an event hosted by The Economist magazine. "The 'A' plan is still trying to advance a discussion about an economywide cap.
"But as we look to the urgency of the science and the global deal and recognize that we're going to basically make some very profound promises in a month and then have to deliver them, if we're not making real progress by January or February ... there's going to be, I think, an appropriate desperation to think about something else."
Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said she still sees a window for Senate action on an economywide cap-and-trade bill during the first six months of 2010.
"I think the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman process has the potential to actually get us to 60 votes, but if it looks like it can't actually get there, then I think we can't just settle for nothing," Claussen said. "If it looks by the late spring we're nowhere, we might have to change focus and try to do something that's less than an economywide program in order to really get moving. I'd say power plants first."
Environmentalists pushing for a climate bill also are divided on what approach to take.
"An economywide cap-and-trade structure is not the only structure we think would work," said the Sierra Club's Carl Pope.
"I could be writing 1,000 pieces of legislation that could solve this problem," Pope added. "We need to establish a national limit but that doesn't require a single regulatory mechanism."
Tony Kreindler, a spokesman at the Environmental Defense Fund, urged lawmakers to stay on their current path. "Senators who understand the need to act on climate change also understand the need to act comprehensively," he said. "Achieving the goal, domestically and internationally, will require a comprehensive approach."
Industry watches, waits
Industry officials also are taking a wait-and-see approach. One source involved in the debate said a number of alternatives will be floated in the coming weeks and months, especially when Baucus' Finance Committee turns its attention to the issue after the completion of health care legislation.
"It's clear that the path to 60 has to address many issues and constituencies," the source said.
A spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, the major trade association for investor-owned electric utilities, declined comment. EEI has endorsed an economywide approach, and its members earlier this year approved a formula for the distribution of emission allowances that was incorporated into the House bill and its Senate EPW Committee counterpart.
As for the automakers, the Obama administration is already on track to issue regulations by March 2010 that would require a 40 percent cut in the domestic industry's greenhouse gas emissions. Those rules, coming from U.S. EPA and the Transportation Department, have kept the industry occupied.
"We're monitoring, but honestly our big battle was with mobile source emissions, and that's been decided by the national program," said Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Staff reporter Robin Bravender contributed.