Senate Energy Bill and Reducing Greenhouse Gasses An update on the energy bill now in the Senate. Will proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions make the cut?
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Senate Energy Bill and Reducing Greenhouse Gasses

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Senate Energy Bill and Reducing Greenhouse Gasses

Senate Energy Bill and Reducing Greenhouse Gasses

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This country has been without an energy policy for quite a long time. The House passed its version of an energy bill in April, while the Senate is still duking it out over its version. At issue, among other things, an amendment calling for the use of corn-based ethanol, a federal mandate calling for utilities to generate more of their power from renewable sources, proposals calling for the limiting of carbon dioxide emissions, and also included are billions of dollars in loans for developing of nuclear power plants.

Joining me now to talk about the bill is someone who has been following the debates this week, Mary O'Driscoll, senior reporter for Energy & Environment Daily and Greenwire. She joins us on the phone. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. MARY O'DRISCOLL (Environment & Energy Daily): Hi. Thank you so much. I'm glad to be here. That's Environment & Energy Daily.

FLATOW: I'm sorry. What did I say? Energy & Environment...

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Well, no, it's OK.

FLATOW: I had it backwards.

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: I like to say energy's our middle name, but that's fine.

FLATOW: OK. Now why is it taking so long to get something done here in Congress, besides the usual--why it takes anything so long to get done in Congress?

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Well, that's true. You pretty much answered the question yourself. It's very difficult, particularly on energy issues, because you really need to get buy-in from every region of the country, because energy really doesn't understand Republican and Democratic differences; although there are some. But it's really much more of a regional issue, and so you need to make sure that you satisfy the needs of the environmental, as well as the energy needs of every region of the country before you're going to be able to get a real mass of support for an energy bill. And as we found out two years ago when there was a filibuster in the Senate that kept the energy bill from becoming law, any little thing can trip it up.

FLATOW: Has the president--the president keeps asking Congress to send him an energy bill, but has he really offered a comprehensive bill of his own, some ideas of his own?

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Oh, yeah. Four years ago, as a matter of fact, he came out with his national energy plan, his own proposal, and Congress got right to work. For three consecutive Congresses now, they've been working on trying to pass some version of that plan, but it's been caught up every time, and there's a lot of hope that this time will be the charm.

FLATOW: Let's talk about the main provisions that might hinder--give us just sort of a thumbnail sketch of what this Senate bill is about.

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Well, the Senate bill is pretty--well, they're both very comprehensive, but what's being debated right now is the Senate bill that--it encompasses just about everything you can imagine on energy. It encompasses provisions for oil and gas exploration, provisions for coal, development of clean coal technology, provisions for renewable energy, to expand renewable energy programs, studies of new technologies--for vehicle technologies for new power generation kinds of technologies, for conservation and efficiency of energy, and then it's got a pretty sizeable tax package as incentives for all of the above, and I can't forget nuclear power.


Ms. O'DRISCOLL: It also has some--a lot of programs in there for nuclear.

FLATOW: What about the effort to try to stick in some provisions for limiting carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases?

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Well, you know, I'm glad you asked about that, because that's what's very likely to be the dominant debate next week. There are three proposals, two real primary proposals that are competing for everyone's attention right now, and it's kind of amazing, because no one really thought that climate would gain this much traction, because Congress has not really been wanting to address climate change. There really hasn't been the votes for it.

But it's very interesting that things are now seeming to coalesce around two competing proposals. There is the McCain-Lieberman plan that Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Joe Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, that they have been floating this plan for several years now that would cap greenhouse gas emissions at 2000 levels by 2010. And in order to try to get it passed this time, they've put a sweetener in there by providing $600 million in incentives for the nuclear power industry.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: There's an emerging proposal coming from Senator Jeff Bingaman. He's a Democrat of New Mexico and the lead Democrat on energy policy. He's the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. And his plan is based on something that was first outlined by what is called the National Commission on Energy Policy. It's called for a cap and trade system with kind of a safety valve to prevent economic harm if the price of carbon credits rise too high. So you've got these two competing proposals going on right now.

And then there's a third one from Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican of Nebraska, and he has support from Senator Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, and George Voinovich, Republican of Ohio, that essentially would kind of codify the Bush administration's current voluntary emissions reporting program.

FLATOW: So what do you think's going to happen?

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Well, it's going to be very interesting. There's been quite a bit going on. My colleague, Darren Samuelson, who covers climate, has been covering this really, really closely, and McCain and Lieberman have gone on the offensive and said, `You know, we're sticking by our bill.' They've had votes on their bill, and it's never quite passed. They've only been able to get somewhere in the mid-40s as far as Senate votes for it. But they're determined to get their bill through. Environmentalists have been slamming their proposal because it adds the provisions for nuclear power, but McCain and Lieberman are about--they intend to follow through with it. And it's one that a lot of Democrats have supported actually, and indeed, it's very--you know, they said yesterday at a meeting with reporters that the Bingaman proposal is a fig leave and a joke, because it does--it's much less than what they would offer. And so they intend to follow through with theirs.

But Bingaman's proposal--or the National Commission on Energy Policy proposal has been gaining a little bit of traction because Senator Pete Domenici, the Republican chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, also from New Mexico, has been meeting with Senator Bingaman and also the White House to address some way to address climate change. And Bingaman's focus has been on this National Commission on Energy Policy proposal, but it's unclear just what's going to happen. It seems that what appears to be happening right now is an effort to try to water it down a little bit so that it comports more with what the White House is trying to do in getting companies to voluntarily reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

FLATOW: If the heavy-duty McCain-Lieberman bill were to pass, that version were to be incorporated into the bill, do you think the president might veto it?

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Well, he has not actually said he would veto it. It's very interesting. The White House has issued what they call a statement of administration policy, and they said that they--said the White House opposes addressing climate change, and so they have--the White House has not said it would veto, which is, you know, one of those very subtle distinctions that everyone here in Washington lives on, but they do oppose it, and so it's unclear how that's going to happen. But, you know...


Ms. O'DRISCOLL: ...the White House has been--is--has not been supportive of climate change policies.

FLATOW: Right. Well, they don't admit it's happening.


FLATOW: But next year is a congressional election year and also a lot of senators are running next year.

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Well, that's true.

FLATOW: Do you think that there's a move to separate now, seeing that this is a lame-duck president with a couple of years to go, that they're trying to hide--cover now and say, `We are more environmentally friendly than the president would be,' looking for that election year coming up?

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Well, you know, that's a very interesting question because that could be part of it. You know, the president has had some political trouble. You know, for him, it's political trouble. I think, you know, you have to keep things in perspective. He's been immensely popular and he's been very successful with his policies, but...

FLATOW: But his numbers are way down.

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: ...his numbers are way down now, and...

FLATOW: They're in the 30s now.

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: ...there's--you know, and there's some--and a little bit of backlash from Congress on a range of issues right now, and so this could be a signal of that. But what's important to understand, too, is that we're only talking about the Senate. The House of Representatives is the leadership--the Republican leadership over there is not inclined at all to accept any kind of climate change language, so this will set up its--if the Senate does manage to pass something regarding climate change, this is going to set up a pretty huge fight between the two chambers.

FLATOW: Yeah. Last time, the House stripped some stuff out that killed the bill in the Senate. The--didn't they?

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Well, yeah. They--well, what they did last time was addressing a liability protection for a fuel oxygen that...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: ...everyone calls MTBE, and the House insisted that that be in there, and the Senate said `no,' and it hung up on that issue and failed.


Ms. O'DRISCOLL: And so the difference is, you know, there's--it's not necessarily, as I said, Republicans and Democrats. It's a lot of regional issues, and when it comes to energy policy recently, it's much more so between the House and the Senate.

FLATOW: Anything close to raising the CAFE standards, the fuel efficiency standards, for cars?

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Well, probably not. There really isn't much appetite for that, particularly in the Senate and definitely not in the House. There was a vote on an amendment by Senator Maria Cantwell earlier--I believe it was just yesterday afternoon. Her proposal was a pretty aggressive plan that would require the president, by 2025, to reduce US oil demand by--it would effectively reduce oil demand and oil imports by about 40 percent. And the Republicans--Senator Domenici and many other Republicans and some Democrats got up and said, `This is a back-door attempt at trying to impose CAFE standards, because the only way we could ever comply with it would be to raise CAFE standards for automobiles by a hundred and eighty-five percent,' and so the--through the debate, they had a vote and it failed, not by a wide margin, but it did fail.

FLATOW: Has the president said he might veto the bill for any other parts of it, that...

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: No, we have gotten no real veto threat at all from the White House. And once again, you know...


Ms. O'DRISCOLL: ...they did note that, well, we--you know, that the White House opposes addressing climate change. The White House says it has expressed some concern about the price tag of the bill and...


Ms. O'DRISCOLL: ...but nothing that has really alarmed anybody. The bill managers are optimistic that they won't run into any problems with the administration on that point.

FLATOW: Yeah, but--so the administration thinks that their friends in the House can take care of any problems that come up in the Senate.

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Well, as often happens, the House-Senate conference--when the two chambers get together and they appoint a committee to go over the differences between the two bills and try to work out those differences, that's where all the real action takes place.

FLATOW: Yeah. Anything on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in this--any of these bills here...

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Well, the House...

FLATOW: ...(Unintelligible).

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Yeah. The House--that's a good question, because that's been another point where the two chambers have hung up on energy policy before. The House bill includes provisions that would include ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to oil and gas exploration. The Senate, however, this year is addressing that issue through the budget process, because the problem is is that they could probably get enough votes to open up the Arctic to oil and gas drilling in the Senate, but not a veto-proof majority or a filibuster-proof majority--excuse me. They would need 60 votes, and they never quite get that many votes. So what they have done is that the Senate is addressing that through the budget reconciliation process that only requires that they get a min--the bare majority of 50, plus one.

FLATOW: Do you think we're going to see bare knuckles in the Senate and--when this comes up for debate?

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Oh, yeah. Well, they've already been through one week of debate, and it's been--it's actually been pretty smooth, but there are other issues that could hold it up as well. There's quite a bit of back-room jostling going on, whether to open up the offshore regions of the country, the...

FLATOW: Oh, right. Florida and Texas, places like that.

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Yeah. Well, Texas is open, Louisiana is open.


Ms. O'DRISCOLL: If you look at a map, the western part of the Gulf of Mexico's open, but the eastern part--Florida is very protective of their offshore areas, and they do not want to drill--they do not want to allow any drilling in the offshore areas there.

FLATOW: Yeah. And Je...

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: And California's also opposed to it and a lot of places on the Atlantic Coast, too.

FLATOW: And Jeb Bush has good connections to the White House.

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: You could say that.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much, Mary, for taking time to talk with us.

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Oh, well, thank you so much.

FLATOW: And good luck following the bill.

Ms. O'DRISCOLL: Oh, well, thank you.

FLATOW: Mary O'Driscoll is senior reporter for Environment & Energy Daily and Greenwire, and she joined us by phone.

We're going to take a short break, and when we come back, we're going to still talk about energy. We're going to talk about the possible rebirth of nuclear energy in this country. A lot of environmentalists say it's the lesser of two evils if you've got to choose that over greenhouse or global warming. So others are not so convinced. Stay with us. We'll get your opinions and talk to the experts. Don't go away. We'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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