POLITICS:

Administration presses on for a 'cap' on carbon emissions

The Obama administration's top climate adviser strongly defended a cap on emissions a day after the president suggested Congress might move an energy bill without such a cap in place.

White House climate and energy adviser Carol Browner used the words "cap" and "price signal" several times yesterday in describing what the administration would be pushing for in the days ahead to spur new jobs and curb the "dangerous pollutants that contribute to global warming."

"We need comprehensive energy and climate legislation that will not only allow us to lead the world ... but also enhance our national security," Browner said in front of renewable energy industry representatives at the RETECH conference in Washington, D.C.

She urged people to reread the transcript of President Obama's remarks Tuesday in Nashua, N.H., where he suggested the Senate may move on energy legislation without a cap-and-trade program intact. Cap and trade, which is enshrined in a bill that passed the House last year, uses a market-based approach in which businesses would buy and sell carbon allowances to meet mandated cuts in their greenhouse gas outputs.

The president's remarks stirred extensive speculation in the media and the environmental community that Obama was backing down from his earlier commitment to a carbon trading system, just as the Senate enters a critical negotiating stage on a global warming bill.

'Let's not give up the fight'

"The most controversial aspects of the energy debate that we've been having -- the House passed an energy bill and people complained about, 'Well, there's this cap-and-trade thing,'" Obama said in New Hampshire. "The only thing I would say about it is this: We may be able to separate these things out. And it's conceivable that that's where the Senate ends up."

According to Browner, the president simply was making an observation about the current Senate process, before saying "this is what I want to do." In his speech, Obama later emphasized that there was going to be a price on pollution and referred to the acid rain program, which used a cap-and-trade system to successfully curb sulfur dioxide emissions in the 1990s.

Undersecretary of Energy Kristina Johnson echoed Browner's comments yesterday and said Energy Secretary Steven Chu sent her to the conference to deliver the message of "let's not give up the fight." She said businesses could only find the certainty they needed to make critical energy investments with passage of a "comprehensive energy and climate bill."

Yet Browner did not press for a carbon trading system in conjunction with a cap. She acknowledged that there are some politicians who are "not so sure about this climate change thing," after meeting with several governors about energy and global warming yesterday.

One of those governors, Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), criticized cap and trade after the meeting in a conference call with reporters and called it an unfair attack on the coal industry. Manchin recently called on his state Legislature to condemn the idea of a federal cap-and-trade program because it would cost West Virginia jobs.

Senate trio keeps working on a draft

The fate of the Senate climate bill, meanwhile, remains in limbo. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) continue to work on draft legislation that caps emissions and appeals to moderates through incentives for nuclear power and additional oil and gas production.

Obama singled out the three at the Senate Democratic Caucus retreat yesterday and told them to "not give up" on their work. Unlike Browner, he did not use the word "cap."

The congressional trio are trying to figure out how to address competing legislation from Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) that uses the "cap and dividend" concept. That model essentially gets rid of the trade part of cap and trade and funnels most revenue raised from a program back to consumers.

There also is discussion of a sector-only system that would curb the emissions of just the electricity sector and would deal with greenhouse gases from other sources at a later time.

Yesterday, Graham slammed the "half-assed" idea of passing an energy-only bill, even though that approach is supported by moderate Democrats like Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) (Greenwire, Feb. 3).

To break the impasse, Browner made a plea to renewable energy executives at the conference.

"I am not allowed to ask you to lobby," she said. "But you can certainly share your experiences with the people you know in Washington."

Reporter Gayathri Vaidyanathan contributed.