3 Senators Strike Climate Legislation Compromise

Sens. John Kerry, Joseph Lieberman and Lindsey Graham outlined Thursday the basics they would like to see in legislation to control global warming and to increase the nation's energy independence. This outline could ultimately suggest a way toward a compromise on the highly polarizing issue.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Today, three influential senators outlined the basics they'd like to see in legislation to control global warming and improve energy security. This outline could ultimately suggest a way towards a compromise in this highly polarized issue, that's because the three senators are a Democrat, a Republican and an Independent: that's John Kerry of Massachusetts, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. And joining us to talk about this plan and these three senators is NPR's Richard Harris.

Richard, first, what is it that these senators are proposing?

RICHARD HARRIS: Well, Michele, they're talking about this in terms of a jobs and energy bill. But at its heart, it is really a global warming bill. The central idea is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by the year 2020, and at least by 80 percent by the middle of the century, which are very ambitious targets. And they talk about getting there by boosting renewable energy supplies, which, of course, is a very popular idea, and to do research to see if it's possible to capture carbon dioxide from coal. That's obviously one of the major sources of carbon dioxide in our country right now.

They also do say that additional nuclear power is an essential component of this framework. And they also talk about increasing oil and gas production domestically, both on land and offshore. And, of course, that helps with the energy independence part but not so much on the global warming front.

NORRIS: Now, any energy and climate bill in the Senate needs to have bipartisan support. How are these senators trying to sell this idea - as enthusiastic as they are about it - to their colleagues?

HARRIS: Well, they talk about it, first and foremost, as energy security. They note that we currently spend about a billion dollars a day buying oil from overseas, often from people who don't like us particularly much. And they also talk about increasing jobs that will stay in the United States; things like building wind farms and building nuclear power plants. These are all sort of tied in with economic stimulus.

They also talk about environmental benefits like cleaner air. And those issues have been historically less partisan than greenhouse gas control.

NORRIS: What's the early reaction to this proposal?

HARRIS: Well, it was submitted in a letter to the White House today and the White House said thumbs up, they liked what they saw. Environmental groups have actually been mulling these ideas since Senators Kerry and Graham published an op-ed a few weeks ago in The New York Times that outlines sort of the broad issues here. And the environmental groups are obviously not thrilled about nuclear power or even less thrilled about offshore oil drilling, but they do desperately want a climate deal. And it seems to be a sense among some of the mainstream groups that they're going to have to accept some things they really don't like in order to get the things that they really do, the climate deal.

Businesses are also split. I should mention, some businesses who see a green economy sort of inevitable say, let's get going, let's create a legal framework that will help us sort of do that. And, of course, not unexpectedly, fossil fuel companies have been really fighting against climate and energy legislation.

NORRIS: When could the Senate actually take up this issue?

HARRIS: Well, the Senate could take this up in the spring, Senator Kerry said today. He has been sort of on the forefront of climate legislation and he's been trying to figure out how to make it bipartisan. And his partnership with Senator Graham in particular, I think, really helped seal this issue.

It's also important that this is happening right on the eve of President Obama's trip to Copenhagen. The timing is not coincidental here. President goes to Copenhagen next week to go to the climate talks. And although he's not ready to sign a climate deal, what he really does need to show is that the U.S. is serious about this issue and this is one way to do that.

NORRIS: Richard, thank you very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

NORRIS: That's NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

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