Senate Bill Targets Coal-Power Greenhouse Gases This past week, a Senate subcommittee passed a bill that would be a major step toward controlling greenhouse gases. The legislation would target places like Maryland's Brandon Shores coal-fired power plant, which emits 10 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.

Senate Bill Targets Coal-Power Greenhouse Gases

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This week, members of the U.S. Senate took action on global warming. A bill to cap greenhouse gas emissions move through a Senate subcommittee. The legislation would target places like Brandon Shores - a big coal-fired power plant that emits a whooping 10 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.

In a few minutes, we'll talk to NPR's Elizabeth Shogren about the bill's prospects. But first, she takes us on a tour of Brandon Shores.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Coal-fired power plants like this one are the country's biggest contributors to global warming. But they also supply about half of the country's electricity.

I'm touring the plant with Paul Allen. He's a senior vice president of Constellation Energy - the company that owns Brandon Shores.

Mr. PAUL ALLEN (Senior Vice President, Constellation Energy): This power plant serves the electrical needs of perhaps a million customers. It's a very significant portion of the generation supply for the Baltimore metropolitan area.

SHOGREN: How long do you expect this plant will still be here?

Mr. ALLEN: Oh, decades.

SHOGREN: That means it will also be pumping out carbon dioxide for decades. Right now, that doesn't cost the company anything. But that will change if one of the bills making their way through Congress becomes law.

That's because power plants, refineries and factories would be covered by what's called a cap-and-trade system. They would need allowances for every ton of carbon dioxide they emit. At first, the government will probably give Brandon Shores and the other polluters some of those allowances. But over time, the company will have to buy them.

Mr. ALLEN: The price will be dynamic. It will go up. It will go down. But if we are serious about meeting the kind of targets that climatologists tell us need to be met, it's possible to think that the price of carbon control could be pretty high.

SHOGREN: Allen says Constellation will have no choice but to buy the allowances from other companies or the government.

Mr. ALLEN: We recognize that this is going to be, ultimately, an additional cost of doing business.

SHOGREN: And over time, as the cap gets tighter, that could mean customers will have to pay more expensive electricity bills. Allen says Constellation can't just install a pollution control device for carbon dioxide, the way it's doing to strip out other pollutants like the ones that create smog and acid rain.

That's because carbon dioxide is an unavoidable byproduct of burning coal. Some engineers are working on ways to capture carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants and then inject it underground. But Allen doesn't expect those technologies to be available any time soon.

Later, in a quieter spot, Allen says the prospect of carbon dioxide regulation already is having a huge impact on his business. For instance, Constellation is planning to build new nuclear plants because they don't emit carbon dioxide.

Mr. ALLEN: If you believe as we do, that carbon policy is both good and inevitable, and that it's going to have to be pretty significant in order to make a difference, ecologically speaking, then you'd begin to believe that it has to be at the center of all of your business planning — and for us, it is.

SHOGREN: Economist Billy Pizer, from the Washington think tank Resources for the Future, says that's exactly the kind of thinking supporters of climate change policies are hoping to inspire by making it expensive to emit greenhouse gases.

Dr. BILLY PIZER (Economist, Resources for the Future): Suddenly, this activity that had no consequence before has a consequence, a financial consequence. So it's going to change the way people think. It's going to change the way they use the fuels they currently have. And it's going to change the way people invest in research and development to try to find cleaner technologies.

SHOGREN: Pizer says the hope is over the long run. The changes will be enough to stabilize concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that will protect the environment.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

LYDEN: I spoke with Elizabeth yesterday about the legislation now making its way to the Senate. She said, if the bill is passed and signed, it could change the whole U.S. economy - making us rely less on fossil fuels.

SHOGREN: The bill does make a significant cut of 15 percent by 2015. That's pretty quick. And that's part of what people are hoping for. Of course, there are others who think this is not nearly what the climatologists tell us needs to be done. And so there's a battle going on. But it is a big step.

LYDEN: So you think this bill will pass?

SHOGREN: Well, I think it's got surprising energy. And that's because you've got Senator John Warner, who's a Republican and not a particularly liberal Republican, who's on board. And you have also Joseph Lieberman from Connecticut, an independent who's - they're working together and they're trying to do this in a very practical way. They're treating it very seriously.

I'm kind of surprised that things have gotten as far as they have by now. There are lots of hurdles ahead, though. The House is moving more slowly than the Senate, and President Bush doesn't like the idea of this bill at all. And so if he gets his way, nothing will pass through Congress while he's in the White House. That might set up a very interesting situation for the next president who comes in who might have fixing the problem of global warming or at least the U.S. contributions to global warming as a big part of what he or she might have to do.

LYDEN: Okay. Elizabeth Shogren, our environment correspondent. Thanks so much for joining us.

SHOGREN: My pleasure.

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