House Democrats to Relax Climate Bill to Win Over Industrial-State Lawmakers

Rep. Henry Waxman expressed optimism of quick passage by his Energy and Commerce Committee.
Rep. Henry Waxman expressed optimism of quick passage by his Energy and Commerce Committee. (By Jamie Rector -- Bloomberg News)
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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

House Democrats said last night that they would scale back some of the most aggressive provisions of a bill to cut greenhouse gas emissions, a compromise designed to win the votes of fellow Democrats whose states rely on coal or heavy industry.

Such a deal would give a crucial boost to a measure that is a key priority for both President Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill. It had run aground amid concerns that it would cost too much, or weigh too heavily on states in the Midwest and West.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), one of the bill's architects, said that the compromise should ensure rapid passage in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Waxman chairs the committee, and he vowed weeks ago to get the bill to the House floor by Memorial Day.

"I'm optimistic we're going to pass it by the end of next week," Waxman said, calling last night's changes "the basis for an agreement that will bring us the votes."

The basic structure of the bill remains unchanged: It calls for a "cap and trade" system, in which the federal government sets a national limit on greenhouse gas pollution and ratchets that limit down over time. The "trade" part of the system would allow some polluters to buy pollution credits, from the government or from others, to cover their emissions.

But the changes do lower some aims of the bill, and they also fill in some details left out of the original draft.

That first draft called for a 20 percent reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Under the new agreement, the goal would be a 17 percent reduction.

Also, the bill originally called for all states to get 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025. Under the new version, the standard would be lowered to 15 percent by 2020, plus a requirement to reduce energy use by 5 percent by then through improved energy efficiency, Hill staffers said.

Democrats from states that get most of their electricity from coal -- which has particularly high emissions -- had warned that the 25 percent standard could force them into a rapid, costly shift.

The changes also clarified some details of how the government will parcel out pollution credits. Some environmental groups had called for all such credits to be auctioned off, with the money funneled to energy-efficiency projects or back to taxpayers.

But last night's compromise said that some of the credits would be given out free -- and that 35 percent of those would be given to local electricity-distribution companies.

Waxman said he did not think that compromise ruined the bill's environmental promise. "I think we're going to be right on track" with the changes that scientists recommend, he said.

At the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has pressed for caps on emissions, Daniel Lashof said that the changes were acceptable. "Overall, it sounds like an agreement that is going to move this forward. And that's a good thing," said Lashof, the director of the organization's climate center.

A spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents power utilities, said the organization would support the agreement. Spokesman Dan Riedinger said he was pleased to hear that some allowances would be given for free.

But, he said, it would still be difficult to reach the target of a 17 percent emissions reduction without major breakthroughs -- or higher prices for some customers.

"We think it's aggressive . . . given the options we have right now," Riedinger said.

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