Advocates for Senate climate legislation are pushing back against calls to abandon a mandatory cap on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in favor of a stand-alone energy bill that some say has a better chance of passing in an election year.
For starters, President Obama's top energy adviser insisted yesterday that the administration's goal remains a "comprehensive bill" that touches on all corners of the energy and climate debate, including the controversial cap-and-trade program that most Republicans have labeled as an energy tax.
"We think it can be hugely successful in giving us both the environmental gains that we want and we think are important, but also the flexibility and the cost savings to meet the challenge of greenhouse -- of reducing greenhouse gas emissions," said Carol Browner in a White House-sponsored Web chat.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the lead author of the Senate climate bill, also took aim at the idea of dropping cap-and-trade provisions that he thinks are fundamental to helping the U.S. economic recovery.
"It's a horrible idea," Kerry said yesterday in an e-mail to E&E. "If you separate climate from energy reform, you slow your ability to create those clean jobs because every market expert tells you those energy reforms can't take hold unless you price carbon. Unless you do something comprehensive you're just going a more expensive, less effective route and you'll keep trailing other countries."
Several moderate Senate Democrats have called for Obama to break stride and aim instead for the stand-alone energy bill, including Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Agriculture Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Policy Chairman Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. Off Capitol Hill, industry officials also think it would be best to lower expectations on the mandatory cap long sought by environmentalists.
"2010 might be a tough year to gain consensus," said Scott Segal, an attorney who represents coal-fired electric utilities and petroleum refiners. "I think the smart approach is to continue to work on climate change policy, refine it, define it, sharpen the pencil on the modeling assumptions, do the homework that wasn't really completed when this was under more active consideration last year."
But Segal added, "It's not a bad thing to take a short hiatus, pass energy policies, and then refine the assumptions behind an across-the-board climate change policy."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agreed about a year ago to follow the House Democrats' lead and combine energy and global warming legislation together into one big bill. The House followed in June by passing a bill that would require a cut of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, steadily increasing to more than 80 percent by midcentury. The bill also includes a nationwide electricity standard.
In the Senate, Reid is now waiting for Kerry, Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham to draft a bill that includes the global warming limits and other energy provisions needed to win over moderate GOP support.
Major environmental groups say they would drop their support for the Capitol Hill effort if Democrats went only with an energy bill -- even if the votes were not there for their preferred approach.
"Fortunately, first of all, we have commitments from leadership all up and down the board," Jeremy Symons, senior vice president of the National Wildlife Federation, told reporters on a conference call today. He said past energy-only bills have sent "mixed signals" to the marketplace when it comes to investments in low-carbon energy technologies.
"I don't think it's a question of getting a little bit of something or nothing," Symons added. "I think it's a question of do we really believe our future is in clean energy technology, or do we believe it's in oil dependency and the polluting technologies that have gotten us there?"
But another cap-and-trade advocate is warning colleagues in the environmental community not to lose sight of what is possible.
"We'd all prefer a really good economywide cap-and-trade system," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "It's the best. It's the most efficient. But if we can't get that, I don't want to end up with nothing. I want to end up with something that really starts to address this problem."