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Senate Bill May Mark New Start for Climate Legislation

September 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Senate Democrats introduced legislation Wednesday aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent over 2005 levels. But with health care dominating the national debate, is Congress ready to tackle more big legislation? Jeffrey Brown talks to a reporter for more.
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JIM LEHRER: And still to come on the NewsHour tonight: building a new kind of house; dangerous driving; and engaging Myanmar.

That follows our look at a new climate bill. Jeffrey Brown has that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new proposal, presented today by two Senate Democrats — Barbara Boxer of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts — would establish mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, affecting thousands of plants and facilities around the nation.

Among its many provisions are measures to cut emissions by 20 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2020; cap emissions allowances for industry; and create a market for companies to buy and sell pollution permits; and offer incentives for natural gas and nuclear power, as well as for sustainable farming.

Senator Kerry said there was a fundamental reason to act soon.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass.: We introduced this legislation because of one word: security. Economic security, energy security, national security.

America knows that that is the battle that we face right now, and the fact is that what is in this bill provides an ability for America to get back into the driver’s seat and take back control of our own security and take charge of our future.

We have a chance to put millions of people back to work, leading the world in a new economic era. We can safeguard the air that our children breathe, the water that people drink. We can stabilize a dangerously changing climate.

JEFFREY BROWN: The house passed its own bill earlier this year. Today, President Obama renewed his pledge to passing a new energy law.

And for more on the bill and the political climate surrounding climate issues, we’re joined by Juliet Eilperin, national environmental reporter for the Washington Post.

Welcome.

JULIET EILPERIN, Washington Post: Thanks.

Democrats introduce bill

JEFFREY BROWN: In some ways, the Senate proposal goes a little further and faster than the House bill, right?

JULIET EILPERIN: Yes. In terms of the House bill, at the end of the day, would reduce emissions in 2020 by 17 percent below 2005 levels. And this is 20 percent. They end up at the same place in 2050, but initially it has a deeper cut.

JEFFREY BROWN: What else is new here? What jumps out at you as the key issues that they've put forward?

JULIET EILPERIN: One of the most significant things is that they're trying to address the issue of cost containment. There's a lot of anxiety among businesses that the price of these carbon allowances that they'll be obligated to buy and sell could get out of control.

And so it has what Barbara Boxer describes as a soft-collar, this idea that if the price of these carbon allowances got more than $28 per ton, that at that point the government would keep some of the allowances in reserve and would release them into the market to ensure that the price wouldn't go above that, and then over time it's indexed to a little bit above the rate of inflation to kind of bump it up a bit.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another key issue, of course, is the so-called emission permits, right, how companies will get them and use them?

JULIET EILPERIN: Right. And in a lot of ways, the legislation has not spelled out how it's going to deal with some of this, and this will be some of the wheeling and dealing that they'll have, in terms of not saying exactly how, you know -- how many different industries will get what percentage they'll get.

But what it does ensure is both that there will be some to ease the transition and also that there will be a form of rebates for particularly energy-intensive industries, trade-sensitive industries, to try to, again, address the concerns of lawmakers who are worried about that impact.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you just used the expression "wheeling and dealing," because clearly everybody sees this as a starting point, at least in the Senate, right?

JULIET EILPERIN: Right, and the lawmakers made that clear. Both Boxer and Kerry indicated that it's a starting point and that they're still in discussions. They were in discussions late yesterday with some of their centrist Democratic colleagues trying to bring them on board. And it's quite clear that they're going to have to cut a few deals if they're going to move this legislation along.

JEFFREY BROWN: We both noticed when Senator Kerry used the word "security." That's the way they're bringing this forward?

JULIET EILPERIN: That is definitely part of their sales pitch. While they know that the science on climate change exists and that it matters when they talk about it, they're talking about it in terms of economic issues, economic security, national security.

And those are really the things that they're focusing on, rather than, for example, talking about the potential impacts of climate change over the long term on the United States and other parts of the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this is to address the obvious concerns, right, that people bring to this?

JULIET EILPERIN: Yes. And, in fact, they've been very explicit about that. Senator Kerry has said, when you're trying to move legislation right now, whether it's health care legislation or climate change legislation, you've got to address the economic questions that Americans are concerned about and that lawmakers are concerned about right now.

Corraling G.O.P. support

Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post
The vast majority of Republicans came out against it, including Senator John McCain, who has made climate change a hallmark of his congressional career, and so that is significant.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so what kind of immediate reaction came to this? There were no Republicans.

JULIET EILPERIN: That was one thing that was significant. There were no Republicans standing up there endorsing the bill. They say that in the coming weeks they're pretty confident they can get a few. One of the most obvious ones would be Olympia Snowe, who the Democrats...

JEFFREY BROWN: Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

JULIET EILPERIN: ... Democrats turn to time and time again to show bipartisanship, so -- and potentially more. But it certainly was clear that the vast majority of Republicans came out against it, including Senator John McCain, who has made climate change a hallmark of his congressional career, and so that is significant.

JEFFREY BROWN: And people in the business community clearly quickly raised objections?

JULIET EILPERIN: There were definitely some that raised objections, again, particularly ones that you would imagine that will pay the highest price: oil refinery industry representatives, some from coal-fired power plants.

But on the other hand, there interestingly, of course, has been a growing support among the business community with the idea that they're going to have to live with this one way or another and they'd rather have Congress do this than, say, the executive branch. So you did see some prominent, you know, emitters say that they'd rather have this happen than, say, the alternative.

JEFFREY BROWN: And on the other side, environmental groups mostly supportive, not totally, from the other end, right...

JULIET EILPERIN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... not going far enough?

JULIET EILPERIN: Right. There was criticism -- for example, a group like Greenpeace, which feels that it doesn't go far enough. On the other hand, you really did have, you know, a number of the kind of more centrist environmental groups who are backing this as, again, the best deal that they think they can get.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there was also action today sort of upping the ante by the EPA taking a regulatory step. Tell us what they did.

JULIET EILPERIN: The EPA announced today that they put out a proposal for regulations that would essentially target the same big emitters of greenhouse gases that the Senate bill targets. These are emitters who produce 25,000 tons or more a year of greenhouse gases.

And what they're saying is, under the Clean Air Act, they will have the right to demand that these emitters, when they're applying for an operating permit or if they're going to significantly modify their plans, that they install the best available technology to control that pollution. And that's a really interesting development and certainly has wide ramifications.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the fact that they do it on the same day that this proposal comes out, I mean, is that read as some kind of signal that the president, the administration wants to push this forward?

JULIET EILPERIN: I think it does send a signal, and I think it also just underscores the political reality right now, which is that the administration has various tools at its disposal, and it's hoping that Congress acts. But if Congress doesn't act, they're prepared to move forward on climate change.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, the administration also has a lot on its agenda, notably health care. So the president came out today to renew his call for energy law. Some people have wondered, right, about how strong that commitment was, given the other things on his plate.

JULIET EILPERIN: They have wondered. And, of course, you know, he has a certain number of political chits that he can use. And so one thing people are looking at is, how heavily can he press lawmakers on climate change, when he is asking them to take risks when it comes to health care? So that's something that we're definitely going to have to watch.

Implications for Copenhagen summit

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the approaching target for all this is the international conference in Copenhagen, right? Tell us a little bit about that and how the U.S. legislation, or at least the procedures we're looking at now, play into that.

JULIET EILPERIN: Yes, basically, in early to mid-December, you're going to have representatives from more than 180 countries who are going to meet in Copenhagen and try to fashion a new international pact on global warming. And this will require commitments from countries all around the world on what they're going to do.

And everyone is really eyeing the United States to see what happens domestically, because it's very clear -- and the administration has underscored this -- that they're only willing to commit internationally to what they have support for back home.

This is because, when the Clinton administration committed, signed on to the Kyoto climate pact back in 1997, they found very quickly that there was not the domestic support for those kinds of goals.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, is it realistic to think that something will pass in the U.S. before that, before Copenhagen?

JULIET EILPERIN: It's less likely that we'll actually get something passed by the Senate. And what these members are hoping is that, as long as there's progress in committee and you already have the House climate bill, that they can say, "Look, we're moving on this, we're sincere, and we're going to follow through on our promises on global warming."

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Juliet Eilperin from the Washington Post, thanks very much.

JULIET EILPERIN: Thank you.