Climate Change Bill Languishes On Capitol Hill

Just about everyone agrees that climate legislation is off the table in the new Congress. And while many energy executives are relieved, others fear there could be longer-term consequences.

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The new Congress has many ambitious priorities. Global warming is not among them. There weren't many takers on the issue, even before the election swept Republicans into the House. And now the issue appears to be off the table entirely. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren explains.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: During their campaigns, many of the newly-elected members of Congress flat out denied that people are causing global warming. Others called the cap and trade bill a job killer.

Representative CORY GARDNER (Republican, Colorado): And I believe one of the biggest impediments to creating jobs in this nation is a government that is now bent on working cap and trade policies, not just through the legislature, but through the administrative and through the regulatory process.

SHOGREN: That's what Republican Cory Gardner had to say in a debate just before he won his election in Colorado.

The cap and trade bill was designed to cut greenhouse gas pollution. It passed the House but got stuck in the Senate. And so, even long-time supporters of action on global warming like Eileen Claussen of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, agree: legislation is off the table.

Ms. EILEEN CLAUSSEN (Pew Center on Global Climate Change): I think there is almost no chance of getting a major climate bill through Congress for the next two years, at least.

SHOGREN: That's not to say the issue will go away.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Climate change will be heard in the halls of Congress, but in a very different way than we might have imagined a year ago.

SHOGREN: For instance, some House Republicans say they want to investigate claims that climate scientists fudged data. Others want to take away the Environmental Protection Agency's power to regulate greenhouse gases. It's no surprise that advocates are unhappy, but even some in industry worry that there will be unintended consequences.

Some companies had started making long-term plans based on the idea that Congress would act. For instance, Duke Energy, one of the country's largest electric utilities, has plans to build a nuclear plant, which would supply a lot of greenhouse-gas-free electricity.

Duke's Thomas Williams says part of the calculation was that a new law would make nuclear more competitive, because it would make fossil fuels that spew out carbon dioxide more expensive.

Mr. THOMAS WILLIAMS (Duke Energy): It's hard to justify nuclear energy without a price on carbon. It's a very expensive project.

SHOGREN: A big reason climate policy became unpopular is that Republicans successfully recast it as an energy tax. But Williams fears that avoiding climate policy could lead to expensive electric bills.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Absent an approach on climate change, utilities really have little choice but to build natural gas plants for the majority of their new production. That, we think, is simply bad policy because we can expect to see spikes in our power prices.

SHOGREN: Historically, natural gas prices have fluctuated wildly.

Others say America will miss a chance to create lots of great jobs manufacturing and installing clean technologies. Preston Chiaro is a top executive of mining giant Rio Tinto. He says China already is racing to take the lead in everything from solar panels to electric cars.

Mr. PRESTON CHIARO (Rio Tinto): I'm just afraid that the Chinese will leave us in the dust. And that, to me, is a bigger concern about future jobs.

SHOGREN: But other companies are relieved.

Mr. BILL DAY (Valero Energy): The fact that that legislation is no longer around, is very good for a company like Valero.

SHOGREN: Bill Day represents Valero Energy, an oil refining company based in San Antonio. He says the timing of the cap and trade bill could not have been worse.

Mr. DAY: It was guaranteed to make prices go up during a recession, at exactly the last time that consumers need prices to go up.

SHOGREN: Without federal cap and trade, companies face various state and regional programs and new regulations from the EPA. Some say these could be even more unwieldy than a federal law.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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