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Senate Climate Bill Would Cut Emissions 20 Percent by 2020

BY Lea Winerman  September 30, 2009 at 3:59 PM EDT

Coal plant; file photo

The bill, introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, calls for the U.S. to reduce its emissions by 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.

That’s a slightly steeper short-term cut than the one passed in a controversial House bill in June, which called for 17 percent reduction by 2020. The bills require equal levels of cuts by 2050.

Both bills would establish a cap-and-trade system that would limit greenhouse gas emissions by issuing pollution offsets. Power plants, factories and others could buy and sell those offsets in a regulated market. The number would be reduced over time, reducing the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

“We know clean energy is the ticket to strong, sustainable economic growth,” Boxer said at a rally to introduce the bill.

Most environmental lobbyists said they were pleased with the legislation.

“Quite simply, the bill means less pollution and more clean energy,” Joe Mendelson of the National Wildlife Federation told Reuters.

The legislation also includes provisions designed to appeal to businesses and conservatives. It is deficit-neutral, and includes provisions to make carbon offsets more affordable. It expands the number of offsets available by 40 percent over the House bill, and it includes a provision to hold in reserve some carbon permits in a market-stability fund to ensure that the price would not exceed $28 per ton.

The Senate bill also aims to change the terms of the debate, dropping any reference to “cap-and-trade” and instead calling the section that lays out the system “Pollution Reduction and Investment.”

But the legislation still faces a long road ahead, and it’s unclear whether it will be able to attract the bipartisan support its sponsors are aiming for. Some Senate Republicans immediately denounced the bill. When asked by Reuters if he could ever support it, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said “Of course not. Never, never, never.”

McCain said that he would like to see a bill that includes more provisions for nuclear facilities. “Frankly, I don’t see how significant reductions are possible unless you have nuclear power,” he told the news service ClimateWire.

Industry lobbyists denounced the bill as well. “The losers would be millions of Americans and American companies who rely on gasoline, diesel fuel and other petroleum products to get to work and to school and to run their businesses,” American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard told Reuters.

Not all Democrats are onboard either. Conservative Democrat Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota told ClimateWire that the 20 percent reduction target by 2020 is “problematic.”

“I represent a state where 90 percent of our electricity comes from coal,” he said.

There are also some issues left unresolved in the current bill, because other Senate committees hold jurisdiction in those areas.

For example, the House bill passed in June included carbon “tariffs” imposed on energy-intensive imports, such as cement and steel, coming from countries with more lax emissions standards. The tariffs would be designed to protect American businesses in those energy-intensive industries. The Senate bill, however, includes only “placeholder language” on that issue, a Boxer aide told ClimateWire, because the Senate Finance Committee holds jurisdiction in the area of international trade.

The bill also does not specify how the carbon offsets will be allocated in the beginning, a key issue.

The climate legislation’s path through the Senate is uncertain. Boxer has scheduled hearings in the Environment and Public Works Committee for mid-October, with a markup possible by the end of the month. Senate Democratic leaders hope to bring the bill to the full Senate floor by the end of the year, but the schedule is tight as lawmakers deal with health care reform. And it’s unclear whether Democratic leaders would be able to corral a filibuster-proof 60 votes on the issue.

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid told ClimateWire he believes that the Senate is on track to pass a climate bill before international climate talks begin in December in Copenhagen. But he also acknowledged the legislative reality that any unfinished business would expire with the new year, according to the New York Times.