TOPICS > Politics

Lawmakers Struggle to Agree on Plan for Emissions Cuts, Energy Policy

June 2, 2008 at 6:30 PM EST
Loading the player...
A new climate bill on Capitol Hill aims to reduce carbon emissions by creating a hotly-debated carbon cap-and-trade system. Senators on both sides of the debate weigh the pros and cons of instituting such a system and how it could impact energy and environmental policy.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: The most significant legislative effort so far to tackle climate change began winding its way through Congress today. The Senate agreed to begin a week-long debate on a bipartisan bill forcing a major cut in U.S. emissions.

The bill would impose new regulations on industry to lower overall emissions to the 2005 level by the year 2020. By the middle of this century, the bill would require greenhouse gases to be cut by 66 percent.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), California: This comprehensive bill is long overdue.

RAY SUAREZ: The bill’s major tool for enforcing the cuts is also the biggest obstacle to passage. It’s what’s called a cap-and-trade system, allowing companies to continue releasing greenhouse gases into the environment, provided they buy the right to do so in the form of carbon credits.

Some credits would be granted to companies, but a percentage of other credits would be sold at auction.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), Maryland: This bill is important for an energy policy for America for security. It’s important for an energy policy for America for our economy. Look at the price of gasoline at the pump. And it’s critically important for our environment.

TELEVISION AD NARRATOR: Congress is at it again. This time, they’re pushing massive new taxes and regulations in the name of global warming.

RAY SUAREZ: For months, both sides have been drawing battle lines around the Climate Security Act and are taking their fight to the airwaves. Opponents say the bill will lead to a spike in energy prices, among other economic costs. The bill’s supporters say it will spur new energy innovations.

TELEVISION AD NARRATOR: Some in big oil and coal will do anything to drive this bill into the ground.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, White House officials made it clear the president would veto the bill. And the president criticized it in remarks he made this morning.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: You know, there’s a much better way to address the environment than imposing these costs on the job creators, which will ultimately have to be borne by American consumers.

And I urge the Congress to be very careful about running up enormous costs for future generations of Americans. We’ll work with the Congress, but the idea of a huge spending bill fueled by taxes increases isn’t the right way to proceed.

RAY SUAREZ: Most observers see the fight as a pivotal moment in the climate change debate, one that might forecast a new direction after the election. All three presidential candidates have proposed mandatory curbs on emissions.

Senators describe bill's issues

Sen. Joseph Lieberman
(ID) Connecticut
The first good news to say is that this is the first time either house of Congress has considered a bill favorably reported from a committee that actually would do something to stop global warming.

RAY SUAREZ: For a closer look at this bill and where this issue is headed, we turn to two senators who are key to this debate: Senator Joe Lieberman, co-sponsor of the bill with Senator John Warner of Virginia. Senator Lieberman is an Independent Democrat from Connecticut.

And Senator Lamar Alexander is a Republican from Tennessee and a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Well, Senator Lieberman, let's start with how. How would your bill achieve near-term reductions in emissions and drastic cuts over the long haul?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I), Connecticut: Ray, the first good news to say is that this is the first time either house of Congress has considered a bill favorably reported from a committee that actually would do something to stop global warming.

So I think that shows that there's increasing acceptance of the fact that we've got a problem.

We had some choices, Senator Warner and I, my Republican co-sponsor. We could have gone at this by increasing or adopting a carbon tax. We thought that was a wrong idea and would guarantee no reduction in emissions. We could have gone with an old-fashioned, big-government, command-and-control system, and we thought that was too inflexible.

So we went with a market-based system. It's worked to reduce acid rain for the last 18 years.

Basically, we set a cap on how much greenhouse gas can be put into the atmosphere, and we slowly reduce it over 40 years. And we give 2,100 facilities -- not every mom-and-pop store -- but 2,100 big facilities a cap and credits. If they can't get to where we say they've got to go, they've got to go out and buy some credits to continue to do so.

If they can do better than the cap, they can go into the market and sell those and make some money. And so we want to use the power of the marketplace to drive innovation and to reduce greenhouse gases, and I think, along the way, make this country energy independent.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Alexander, the words "market" and "marketplace" are usually music to Republicans' ears. Do you think it will work?

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R), Tennessee: Well, this bill won't work. I give Senator Warner and Senator Lieberman a lot of credit for trying, but too much of the bill has turned into a well-meaning contraption.

The first problem is, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which has analyzed it, it's a 53-cent gas tax increase per gallon on top of the nearly $4 we're paying today.

Second problem with it is the 53 percent gas tax increase per gallon, according to the EPA, isn't enough of an increase to make much difference. And so it wouldn't reduce carbon. So it wouldn't reduce what it's said it would do.

So this is a well-intentioned effort, but the wrong way to deal with a real problem.

Helping Americans, the environment

Sen. Lamar Alexander
(R) Tennessee
If we were to bring any money to Washington for a climate change bill, it ought to all go back directly to the taxpayers who sent it here to help pay for their higher electric bills or their higher gas prices.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Senator Lieberman, a lot of the debate during this afternoon's cloture motion, which you won 74-14, went to current energy prices and whether this would make the cost in the near term of the gas people buy and the other energy-related products they buy more expensive.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Yes, obviously, all the American people, including members of the Senate, are agitated about the cost of a gallon of gasoline. But the claim that passage of this Climate Security Act would exacerbate the problem has it exactly wrong, in my opinion.

This Climate Security Act is probably the one best way to reduce the cost of gasoline or other energy in the years ahead.

By the Energy Department's estimate, this bill, if adopted, would add two cents to every gallon of gas a year. We don't look to pay just two more cents a gallon, instead of the buck more addition, almost doubling that we're paying now.

The second point is that this money is going to be used for something. And here's where it's the answer to high gas price increases.

In dealing with climate change, you've got to break our dependence on oil and foreign oil. You've got to re-invest the money this market raises into fuel-efficient cars, into hybrids, into electrics, into cellulosic biofuels.

We're going to reduce how much oil we're going to consume in the transportation sector, which will reduce demand and, therefore, I think reduce the price of gasoline.

And more important, a lot more vehicles after this bill passes are going to be powered on something other than oil we have to buy from tyrants in places like Iran and Venezuela. So this is the answer, not the exacerbation of the gas price problem.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Senator Alexander, do you agree, first off, with the goals of the bill? Do you think that something has to be done and very soon to reduce emissions? And how would you get there, if not using Senator Lieberman's suggested means?

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, if we're just dealing with climate change, I'd get there this way. I'd focus just on power, electricity, and on fuel.

Senator Lieberman and I have a bill, a separate bill, that would put controls on power plants. That's 40 percent of the carbon. Then I'd leave the rest to the economy alone and put some controls on gradually reducing the amount of carbon in fuel. For example, if you drove a plug-in electric vehicle, then you would reduce the amount of carbon.

That would leave alone the manufacturing. And that would be fewer surprises, less cost, and a lot less complicated.

The Warner-Lieberman bill would raise over 10 years a trillion dollars, which would then be brought to Washington. And there's nothing more dangerous than a trillion-dollar slush fund in Washington, D.C., with 535 congressmen spending it for everything.

If we were to bring any money to Washington for a climate change bill, it ought to all go back directly to the taxpayers who sent it here to help pay for their higher electric bills or their higher gas prices. But I would just focus on fuel and power and leave the rest to the economy alone.

Why is settled, how is disputed

Sen. Lamar Alexander
(R) Tennessee
We have a problem of an increased demand for energy. We have a problem with increased prices of energy. We have clean air -- in Tennessee, I'm as concerned about sulfur and nitrogen and mercury as I am about carbon.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Senator Lieberman, you heard your colleague suggest that if you just concentrated on power plants and transportation, just with those two sectors, you'd take a huge bite out without touching manufacturing. Why not?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Here's the good news about Lamar's idea here. It's what we agree on. We agree that there is a problem, that climate change is a problem.

Secondly, we agree that it's not going to get solved voluntarily, that there ought to be a mandate.

And, third, we agree on the cap-and-trade system. We disagree on what we'd apply it to. As Lamar said, he wants to apply it to the power sector, which produces 40 percent to 45 percent of the emissions. That's significant.

Senator Warner and I want to additionally apply it fully to the transportation sector and the industrial sector, which gets us up to about 85 percent of the emissions. And to me, it's too big and too urgent a problem to do it piecemeal.

Also, we're talking about a market mechanism here. And markets work better when more people are involved.

So I think we've got a good faith disagreement, if I can call it that. But what's really heartening and, to me, encouraging about what's possible to get done in Congress this year is all the things that Lamar Alexander and I agree on.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Alexander, what does it mean to you that so little of today's debate focused on whether change was needed and whether it was happening and so much was focused on the how?

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: I think that's very encouraging. I think most senators understand what most people do. At least, I believe climate change is a real problem and that humans are contributing to it and we need to deal with it.

But the difference I have is I think we have other problems. We have a problem of an increased demand for energy. We have a problem with increased prices of energy. We have clean air -- in Tennessee, I'm as concerned about sulfur and nitrogen and mercury as I am about carbon.

So I wish the president would come here and say, instead of going to Saudi Arabia and say, "Pump more oil," I wish he'd say, "Let's have a new Manhattan Project for clean energy independence," some of the things Joe Lieberman just talked about.

Some of it would be exploring for new oil, offshore, more nuclear power plants. But the rest of it would be plug-in cars, give some competition to Big Oil. And from the day the president said that, I believe the speculators would get nervous, the oil countries would begin to get nervous, prices would stabilize, and we'd be well on our way, within three or four or five years, to being reasonably independent in our production of energy.

Aiming for energy independence

Sen. Joseph Lieberman
(ID) Connecticut
I think this bill is the energy independence bill. It is the Apollo Project for energy independence, because we'd take all that money that this market will make and re-invest it in a way that no other bill has done.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Lieberman, as this debate rolls out, do you see the lines that are rising up more on region and more on whether a state has extracted industries or large coal deposits than you do on party lines?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: First, let me say that I -- in response to what Senator Alexander just said -- that I think this bill is the energy independence bill. It is the Apollo Project for energy independence, because we'd take all that money that this market will make and re-invest it in a way that no other bill has done. It's the biggest, boldest energy independence program America could have.

I hope this doesn't break on party lines. Right now, there's more Democrats than Republicans by a lot supporting the legislation. I don't think the American people break that way.

But, listen, there's a lot of local concerns here, too. If you come from a state with a certain kind of coal, you want to make -- and you want to do something about climate change, you want to do something about climate change and support this bill, but you want to make sure that we're going to make sure that your coal folks back home are not pushed out of business. And we've tried real hard to do that in a lot of different ways.

This is a -- look, climate change, global warming is a big problem. It requires a big solution. That's what this bill is, and that's why the debate in the next couple of weeks on it is going to be very important.

I hope the American people follow it. I think we've got more than 50 votes now. We're not at 60. If folks at home call their senators and urge them to vote for it, we'll break the filibuster and get this thing moving finally.

RAY SUAREZ: Extremely quickly, Senator Lieberman -- because I want to hear from your colleague on this before we go -- is this really a bill that's going to be settled by the next president? Is this the opening shot of a debate that really doesn't end until the next Congress?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Well, we sure hope we can get it done this year. I understand it's going to be hard. But the great news is we're going to break the ground here. I think we're going to get over 50 votes.

And then whoever of the remaining candidates for president is elected is basically for a bill like this. And I hope, when they're elected, they'll say, "Let's get this Climate Security Act adopted by Memorial Day." We can do it.

RAY SUAREZ: OK.

And Senator Alexander?

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: I think the new president should come to Congress and say not let's have a climate change bill. Say, "Let's have a clean energy independence bill," and deal with high gas prices, electricity prices, clean air, climate change, national security, not by higher taxes and another trillion dollars, not by a 53-cent gas tax increase, but by exploring, by building nuclear power plants, and agreeing on six or seven things to do, like reducing solar costs and plug-in vehicles that will make us more independent so we can have clean energy. That would be the goal.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Lamar Alexander, Senator Joe Lieberman, gentlemen, thank you both.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Thank you, Ray.