Congress Begins Haggling Over Climate Bill

Next Monday members of Congress are scheduled to begin haggling in earnest over a massive piece of climate legislation that would change the way Americans make and use energy.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 ran well over 600 pages when it was first offered up by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) earlier this spring. Waxman chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where the bill has been getting a going-over for weeks. It's headed for a markup Monday where Republicans on the committee are expected to offer hundreds of amendments before the bill is reported out to the floor for final approval.

The current bill would cut the amount of climate-warming greenhouse gases industry can emit to 17 percent below the level in 2005. It also requires utility companies to use more renewable energy, like wind and solar, to make electricity. These are but two of dozens of provisions that move the country away from fossil fuels like coal and oil and into a "greener" economy.

Backlash From Both Sides

Advocates and lobbyists have descended on Capitol Hill to protect their clients, whether they be power companies worried about soaring costs or environmental groups pushing for the strongest limits on climate-warming emissions.

Many businesses no longer fight the inevitability of climate legislation and are now focusing on how to shape the bill and its prescriptions for limiting carbon emissions, says Kara Saul Rinaldi with the consulting firm Environmental Resources Management.

"I think most companies these days recognize that the writing is on the wall and they will need to pay for it at some point," she says. "It would be easier if you didn't have to pay for it at all, or if it was cheap or if you didn't have to do it any time soon, but at the same time if you are going to have to pay for it, you need to know when, and what and how much."

The Edison Electric Institute, which represents utility companies, has been trying to soften the emissions reductions required by the bill.

The current goal of 17 percent below 2005 levels is "certainly an improvement over a 20 percent reduction, which was initially required under the earlier draft," says Dan Reidinger, the EEI's spokesman. He says some coal-powered utilities still might not be able to meet that goal. He also says EEI helped convince legislators to reduce the amount of renewable energy they have to provide over the next decade under the bill's "renewable energy standard" from 25 percent of their electricity to 20 percent.

A Chance At Passing

Heretofore, climate bills died a death of a thousand cuts as members of Congress found the threat of high costs for consumers too dear a political price to pay. Having President Obama behind this bill could push it over the top, though, says David Hamilton of the Sierra Club.

Nonetheless, Hamilton says the bill could be stronger. He argues that it gives utilities too much time to figure out how to get carbon dioxide out of coal and bury it, and says it should require industry to pay for more of the hard work of developing that technology. He also points out that companies will be allowed to "offset" their emissions by paying for carbon-cutting projects overseas instead of making those cuts in their own operations here in the U.S.

Even with its flaws, Hamilton says, this bill stands the best chance so far of getting a climate and energy measure through Congress.

"This is one of the great legislative expeditions in history," he says, "and they're pretty well outfitted."

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