Shift in Washington to Affect Emissions Debate

For most of the last six years, the government has rejected limits on carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. But with Democrats taking over both houses in Congress, the dynamic is shifting.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For most of the last six years the government has rejected limits on carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. Early in his presidency, George W. Bush took the United States out of negotiations for an international treaty to fight climate change. He said regulating climate emissions would hurt the economy. But with Democrats taking over both houses in Congress, the dynamic is shifting.

NPR environment reporter Elizabeth Shogren joins us to talk about what we might expect from the Democrats on climate change. Good morning.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: How do you expect Democratic leaders in Congress to approach climate change?

SHOGREN: Well, the change will be very dramatic, especially in the Senate Environment Committee. For the last several years, James Inhofe has headed that committee. He's a conservative Republican from Oklahoma. He's blocked any kind of legislation going through the committee. Taking his place is Senator Barbara Boxer from California. She is one of the Senate's most fervent environmental activists, and she says the public wants action on climate change. This is what she had to say about it last week at Inhofe's last hearing.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): I think that this issue is going to take on, in many ways, a life of its own. And I only hope and I do pray that enough of us on this committee will be able to work together to reach some consensus on beginning to contain global warming.

MONTAGNE: So that's Senator Barbara Boxer from California. What do she and other Democrats intend to do?

SHOGREN: Well, Barbara Boxer says she wants to model what the whole country does on what California has already done. California has announced a plan that would require emissions of carbon dioxide to be reduced down to 1990 levels by the year 2020. Several Senate Democrats have written the president, saying that they are determined this next year to pass some kind of mandatory controls on carbon dioxide.

It's a little bit less clear what the picture looks like in the House. There are some very clear obstacles. Two of the key leaders of committees are in fact very allied to industries that oppose any kind of legislation like this. You've got John Dingell, who's from Michigan and has long been allied with the auto industry, and Nick Rahall from West Virginia, who's a very close ally with the coal industry. And so that will be interesting to see what happens there.

MONTAGNE: And what about the Republicans, both houses, what do they think of this?

SHOGREN: This is not just a Democratic issue. There are a number of Republicans, a growing number of Republicans who've come out in favor of a strong policy on climate change. You got John McCain from Arizona, Olympia Snowe from Maine, Richard Lugar from Indiana, and all of them want to pursue a very aggressive climate policy.

And then there're some Republicans from states that are allied with various interests who are actually now coming out and saying there is a problem with climate change and we need to do something about it. One of them is George Voinovich from Ohio, and the coal industry is very important there. This is what he had to say.

Senator GEORGE VOINOVICH (Republican, Ohio): I want everyone to understand I believe that we see warming. I believe that manmade causes do impact on it. And the issue is what do we do from a responsible policy perspective to deal with the problem?

SHOGREN: And Voinovich was talking about how he's very concerned about the energy industry, and especially the coal industry. He's worried that his state and others states in the Midwest, in the industrial heartland, might be disadvantaged by any policy that regulates carbon dioxide.

MONTAGNE: So does all of this mean we should expect a major climate change bill next year?

SHOGREN: Well, there are a lot of obstacles in the way. It's not at all clear. Even those who support some kind of policy aren't all in agreement about what it should look like. And President Bush has said from the beginning that he doesn't want a policy like this. His advisers have come out since the elections to say he still opposes any mandatory controls on carbon dioxide. Whatever happens, President Bush will still have the power to veto whatever bill comes through Congress if he doesn't like it.

MONTAGNE: Elizabeth, thank you.

SHOGREN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Elizabeth Shogren. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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