Democrats May Ease Bill's Emissions Rules

Former Vice President Al Gore urged lawmakers Friday to overcome partisan differences and take action to reduce greenhouse gases, calling the climate issue the most important ever put before Congress. Video by AP
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 25, 2009

Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are negotiating among themselves on whether to scale back legislation that would impose a mandatory limit on greenhouse gases, with some conservatives and moderates calling for electric utilities to be given free pollution allowances and for more modest cuts in the targets for reducing emissions.

Many environmentalists argue that all emissions allowances should be auctioned off under a cap-and-trade system, using the proceeds to finance development of clean energy sources or to offset the resulting higher energy costs for consumers.

The talks suggest that utilities that distribute electricity from coal-fired plants are making progress in their efforts to get free access to 40 percent of the emissions permits, underscoring the challenge lawmakers face in seeking strict limits on carbon dioxide and other contributors to warming.

Some of the proposals to ease the impact on utilities, which lawmakers are discussing behind closed doors, were summarized in a four-page document authored by Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), whose district is dependent on coal and who sponsored his own climate legislation in the last Congress along with the panel's chairman at the time, John D. Dingell (D-Mich.).

The draft list of suggestions, which Boucher spokeswoman Courtney Lamie described as "a very early version" of what Boucher is seeking, includes lowering the proposed targets for greenhouse gas emissions cuts proposed by committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who chairs the panel's energy and environment subcommittee.

The Waxman-Markey bill calls for cutting U.S. emissions to 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and to 83 percent below by 2050; the Boucher proposal would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent by 2020 while leaving the 2050 goal in place.

Yesterday, Democratic former vice president Al Gore and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) testified before Waxman's panel on the bill, which Gore called "one of the most important pieces of legislation ever introduced in Congress" and Gingrich described as "environmental extremism."

Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said that senior Democrats are unlikely to adopt some of Boucher's requests -- such as lowering emissions targets -- because they simply reflect the legislation that he and Dingell pushed unsuccessfully last year, but that they might accept his proposal on free allowances.

"The Boucher list seems to be a very thoughtful distillation of good ideas, old ideas and areas for discussion," Weiss said, adding that awarding the allowances free could "soften the transition" to a low-carbon economy for consumers. "Boucher's request means a deal is very possible."

In an interview this week, David Ratcliffe, chairman of both Southern Co. and the nation's largest utility trade association, the Edison Electric Institute, said he and his colleagues have been focusing their lobbying activity on House Democrats. The Waxman-Markey bill may be taken up in subcommittee as early as next week. "The Democrats are in charge," Ratcliffe said. "They're making the leadership decisions."

The Energy and Commerce Committee's top ranking Republican, Joe L. Barton (Tex.), said his side hopes to collaborate with conservative Democrats, seizing on their reservations about the current bill.

"It represents the fact that some want free allowances as long as it seems like they can get them, and to put compliance off as long into the future as possible," Barton said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company