House Panel Begins Debate on Climate Bill

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hinted that a final bill may not be ready this year.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hinted that a final bill may not be ready this year. (By David Paul Morris -- Bloomberg News)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2009

The House Energy and Commerce Committee started work yesterday on the nation's first-ever limit on greenhouse gas emissions, sparking an intense round of lobbying in Washington as interests on both sides of the debate sought to sway undecided lawmakers.

As lawmakers deliberated on the benefits and costs of placing a national cap on carbon-based emissions, electric utility executives, environmental advocates and clean-technology entrepreneurs alike made their case in front of the panel as well as behind the scenes. The intense effort -- on a day that environmentalists across the country were commemorating as Earth Day -- underscored the uncertain fate facing the bill sponsored by the committee's chairman, Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), and Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), which proposes ambitious cuts in greenhouse gases over the next four decades.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) raised the possibility yesterday that the final version of climate legislation would not be ready a year from now, a day after vowing that the House would pass legislation "this year."

"It is my commitment that by the time we observe the 40th Earth Day next year, that we will have made substantial progress toward energy independence, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and . . . reversing the climate crisis," Pelosi told reporters at a gathering hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

Pelosi's remarks reflected the fact that many senators, including about a dozen Democrats, have reservations about a bill that would set an overall limit on greenhouse gases and then allow emitters to buy and sell the pollution allowances allocated by the federal government.

A Senate leadership aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk freely, said Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who plans to take up a cap-and-trade measure in the summer or in early fall, met this month with eight to 12 Democrats who "have some concern about going forward" with the bill.

The Waxman-Markey legislation calls to reduce the nation's greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and by 83 percent as of 2050. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, who testified yesterday with Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, called the measure "a jobs bill."

SynGest chief executive Jack Oswald, one of 18 clean-energy entrepreneurs in town to lobby for carbon-cap legislation, said in an interview that his business converting farm waste into fertilizer would benefit significantly from federal action on greenhouse gases: "What's going to give us the ability to expand as rapidly as possible is carbon legislation."

But committee Republicans such as Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.) said the bill could harm the economy by raising energy prices in the short term. "I do believe that we need to reduce emissions, but it needs to be done in a common-sense way that takes into account the economic and global realities of the issue," he said.

Like many officials from sectors dependent on fossil fuels, David Ratcliffe, president and CEO of Southern Co., said the utility industry backs the long-term goals in the Waxman-Markey bill but wants to get free pollution allowances for 10 to 15 years to keep energy prices in check. "We are supportive of a bill, but we've got to get a bill that does not significantly cost our customers in this new, challenging economic reality," he said.

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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