Addressing Climate Change Is a Job for Congress

Monday, May 18, 2009

INTERIOR SECRETARY Ken Salazar ruffled more than a few feathers this month when he let stand a Bush administration decision to prohibit the use of the Endangered Species Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. It was the right call when it was made in 2008, and it is the right call now. Tackling climate change -- and all the implications that has for the economy -- should be dealt with by the people's representatives in Congress, not through a 36-year-old law not designed for such a complex task. Just how complex will be on full display today when the House begins its scheduled debate on the American Clean Energy and Security Act.

Inaction by the Bush administration led environmental groups to find backdoor ways to force it to deal with climate change. When then-Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne listed the polar bear as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act because global warming was melting its Arctic Sea ice habitat, activists geared up to use the decision to challenge high- carbon-emitting projects across the country. But Mr. Kempthorne wisely limited the law's reach by prohibiting "global processes" from triggering further action to protect a listed species' habitat.

That both the Bush and Obama administrations have had to contort Interior Department policies to ensure that it doesn't get dragged into setting U.S. climate policy shows why action on Capitol Hill is vital. The American Clean Energy and Security Act would seek to slash 2005 greenhouse gas emission levels 83 percent by 2050 through a cap-and-trade system in which government would set a declining limit on the amount of carbon dioxide that could be emitted and would issue allowances to emitting companies that could buy and sell those rights.

Shaping the bill, sponsored by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), was no easy exercise. Regional concerns, particularly those of members from coal-producing areas such as Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), forced a number of compromises that have left all sides grumbling. Initially, 85 percent of the carbon trade allowances would be given away. This is a far cry from the 100 percent auction position espoused by President Obama during the campaign. But the committee staff believes that this is necessary to ease the transition to a carbon-constrained economy for industries and states and to help limit direct consumer rate increases. By 2030, all the pollution permits would be auctioned.

The work on this bill is far from done, and the debate on the House floor promises to be spirited, as it should be. We continue to hope that Congress will consider a simpler carbon tax rebated to all taxpayers or less bureaucratic versions of cap-and-trade, such as that proposed by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). But it's encouraging that lawmakers are undertaking to meet the challenges of climate change. The responsibility is theirs, not that of unelected bureaucrats using laws far beyond their intended purpose.

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