Climate Bill Underlines Obstacles to Capping Greenhouse Gases

By Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 1, 2008

When the Senate takes up landmark climate legislation this week, its backers can be sure of just one thing: The obstacles they face show how hard it will be to enact a meaningful cap on greenhouse gases -- probably under the next administration.

The next administration, not this one, because even supporters of the complex, extensively negotiated 494-page bill say that there is little chance that it will win Senate approval, less chance that the House will agree on a similar measure and perhaps no chance that President Bush will sign it if it reaches his desk.

"In some ways, this is a dress rehearsal for next year, but I still think it will be a useful thing for the Senate and Congress, because at some point we have to deal with it," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who says he has yet to decide how he will vote.

For the moment, supporters of establishing a federal cap-and-trade system to curb emissions linked to global warming say they hope to put down a marker in the national debate over climate change. And lawmakers from both parties are eyeing how their votes might become fodder in this fall's presidential and senatorial elections.

The bill -- which would require that U.S. emissions be cut 18 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and nearly 70 percent by mid-century -- has picked up support in recent weeks from 13 unions in the AFL-CIO's building and construction trades department, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and many faith groups. It is also backed by companies such as General Electric and Alcoa and utilities such as Exelon, PG&E, FPL Group and Public Service Enterprise Group.

But it has run into opposition from some energy titans who say they favor a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions but argue that this version is the wrong one and will cost consumers too much.

"This is just a money grab," said James E. Rogers, the chief executive of Duke Energy. Rogers says he supports a cap-and-trade system but argues that this bill raises too much revenue from coal users while diverting too much of it to other purposes. "Only the mafia could create an organization that would skim money off the top the way this legislation would skim money off the top," he said. Duke, with customers in Ohio, Indiana and the Carolinas, relies heavily on coal-fired plants.

More than a dozen key senators -- including freshmen Democrats Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) -- have yet to endorse the bill. And Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who supports the bill, is staying neutral rather than pushing recalcitrant members of his caucus to back it.

"Generally, I believe that global warming is a serious issue and that we need to address it," said Dorgan, whose state produces lignite coal as well as wind power. But he added that he is still "digesting" the complicated bill, which he fears would not do enough to spur technology that would enable the country to continue burning coal.

"We thought and hoped we'd be in a more serious place, but most people are using it as an opportunity to vet ideas and advance ideas for the debate to come in the next Congress," said Tim Profeta, who directs Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. "Not many people see this as a serious piece of legislation that will become law this year."

That doesn't mean a lot of work hasn't gone into the bill. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who has led the fight for the bipartisan bill by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.), said in a statement that it is understandable that she and her colleagues are encountering resistance.

"This is landmark legislation, and enacting landmark legislation is never an easy task," Boxer said. "There is always an excuse not to act -- but in this case, the longer we wait, the harder it gets to solve this problem. Time is our enemy, and every expert has told us we face dangerous consequences from unchecked global warming if we do not address this problem now."

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