Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe expressed support yesterday for making electric utilities pay fees for releasing carbon dioxide, giving Senate Democrats a critical Republican supporter in their stalled pursuit of climate legislation.
The assertion could inject momentum into a downsized plan to regulate emissions, supporters say, following weeks of impasses and fractured opinions around a broader bill that sought to cut carbon from thousands of businesses.
Snowe, a moderate from Maine, has been discussing the utility option privately with colleagues for months, one source said, seeing it as politically appealing even as Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) were developing legislation to include refineries and factories under the cap.
Over that time, Snowe has been moving behind the scenes to encourage Democrats and Republicans to consider capping utility emissions, sometimes finding resistance from liberal members seeking deeper cuts. She believes the focused cap-and-trade program would protect businesses and electricity customers from stricter greenhouse gas limits -- and costs -- being drafted by U.S. EPA, which is poised to begin enforcing its first round of climate policies in January.
Snowe is highlighting the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a 10-state program capping emissions from 233 power plants from Maine to Maryland, as a "template" that could be adopted at the national level. Republican senators in those states, including Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, are being discussed as possible supporters, given that utilities are already regulated in their states, according to one Senate source.
"We have an established history with the power sector, and it gives us certainty that the business community is looking for uniformly across the nation, and it could be in the models that have already been out there, represented by Maine and the Northeastern states," Snowe said yesterday, noting that utilities are familiar with cap-and-trade programs targeting other pollutants.
"The [Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative] could be a template for that approach, and possibly that is a way in which to build consensus on the question of pricing carbon in the future," she added. "[It's] also a way, frankly, to replace the EPA regulations. I mean, 'cause that's an imminent threat across the board."
'Scale back' sprawling bill
Snowe promoted her ideas at a White House meeting yesterday in which President Obama convened more than 20 senators from both parties to push forward on energy and climate legislation before election-year partisanship pollutes the political atmosphere.
"It was a very significant development in the meeting with the president," Lieberman said of Snowe's announcement. "John Kerry and I have been talking to her about it off and on. She suggested that that was a possibility, but it was very significant that she said it in the room with everybody there."
"There may be one or two other Republicans who are willing to come in and talk about this, so we'll see," he added, declining to identify the lawmakers.
The meeting yesterday seemed to solidify the narrower approach to capping carbon, following Obama's Oval Office address on the BP oil spill two weeks ago in which he opened the door to options that differed from the Kerry-Lieberman "economywide" approach.
"All of us have to compromise," Kerry said yesterday after the president's 90-minute meeting. "We are willing to compromise further. We are prepared to scale back the reach of our legislation."
The new legislative path is unclear. Snowe is working with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to build support for his utility-only cap-and-trade bill, a draft of which is complete. Supporters are eyeing an emission reduction goal from utilities of 17 percent by 2020.
That pathway could be easier to swallow for New England Republicans, given that their electorates and utilities are familiar with the regional cap-and-trade program, which has raised more than $500 million for energy efficiency programs in the participating states.
"If you are expanding what already exists in your state, that's a different climate change vote than if you're imposing something on new industries in your home state," said one aide to a senator who supports the utility approach.
Brown, the Massachusetts Republican, voted in favor of the regional program as a state senator.
Obama aims for a bill this year
There are other impediments than Republican hesitation. Democrats and the administration have been slow to embrace the utility plan, the aide said. Without the president's recent help to "reduce the scope" of economywide caps, Democrats and environmentalists were slow to get on board.
Lieberman, who last week said a utility approach wasn't his "first choice," acknowledged yesterday that "we're open to that compromise."
"We don't think it's as effective as our bill in terms of reducing pollution, breaking dependence [on energy] and creating jobs," he said. "But it would be a big step forward. And I think, in the end, we want to get started."
Obama pressed senators several times yesterday to "aim high" on efforts to price carbon, participants said. Yet he also "welcomed other approaches and ideas that would take real steps to reduce our dependence on oil, create jobs, strengthen our national security and reduce the pollution in our atmosphere," according to a White House statement.
"There was agreement on the sense of urgency required to move forward with legislation and the President is confident that we will be able to get something done this year," it added.
Manik Roy, vice president for federal government outreach at the Pew Center for Climate Change, said "an energy bill, plus a measure that caps CO2 emissions from the utility sector, should give you the best bet for a climate and energy bill this year."
He called Snowe's comments "tremendously positive."
Anger over capitulating
"Getting bipartisan support for any price on carbon is a really, really important step," said Joshua Freed, director of the clean energy initiative at Third Way, noting that there was "a perceptible jump in energy" when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) joined Kerry and Lieberman to draft their climate bill.
"Having a Republican, or Republicans, move in that direction now would cause a similar increase in energy," he added.
But there is also doubt -- even anger -- about the utility path.
If the proposal gathers speed and ultimately addresses both climate and energy, it might be worthwhile, said Kate Gordon, vice president for energy policy at the Center for American Progress.
But if it only kicks off months of new deliberations, it's a loser -- at least for this year.
"We don't have time for it," she said.
Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, accused Democrats of cozying up to corporate emitters.
"It's time for senators to stop caving to corporate polluters and start listening to the people they represent who are demanding clean, safe energy and jobs," he said in a statement. "Capitulate, then compromise is not a strategy that will produce a real climate bill."
As for Snowe, she hopes her colleagues will coalesce around provisions found in several pieces of legislation, including a renewable electricity standard, encouraging electric cars, and increased building and vehicle efficiency.
Then it's time to test the appetite for a carbon price on power plants, she said.
"It seems to me it would be preferable to determine what we could build on now for a consensus," she said.