Senators Ready a Bill on Greenhouse Gases

(By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will unveil a bill Wednesday that aims to make deep cuts in U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions in the near and long term while setting a limit on the cost of carbon allowances, according to several sources and a close-to-final version of the bill obtained by The Washington Post.

The bill, which is still being revised, would make it easier for businesses to compensate for their carbon pollution by expanding the available pool of domestic offsets by 40 percent compared with the House-passed climate bill authored by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). It does not specify how pollution allowances would be allocated, which is sure to be a key battle as the bill moves forward.

The Senate bill, authored by Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), has a mix of provisions targeted at both liberals and conservatives. It calls for cutting the nation's emissions 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050 -- deeper reductions than in the House bill. It is also deficit-neutral and would make carbon offsets more affordable.

"It's not just movement in our direction," said David Doniger, policy director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group.

Still, environmentalists hailed the bill as an ambitious effort to address global warming while providing some reassurances to the U.S. business community. It includes provisions aimed at curbing speculation in the carbon market -- a concern of senators such as Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) -- and would reserve some carbon allowances in a market-stability fund that would help ensure that the price of those allowances would not exceed $28 per ton. This provision, known as a "carbon collar," would not be likely to kick in for some time, since the Congressional Budget Office has predicted that the cost of carbon under a cap-and-trade system would probably be $26 per ton by 2019. That is what a company would pay to compensate for each ton of carbon pollution it emits.

Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said the provisions amount to "a safety net to ensure that cleanup costs remain affordable. The draft Boxer-Kerry bill provides a solid foundation for Senate action on clean-energy-jobs legislation."

The Senate bill also emphasizes transportation efficiency, with provisions designed to get communities of 200,000 or more to plan more public transportation and bike paths. It would preserve the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate large sources of greenhouse gases, such as coal-fired power plants, a provision environmentalists had sought.

It is unclear whether Boxer and Kerry will be able to attract the kind of bipartisan support they are trying to win. Frank O'Donnell, who heads the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, hailed the measure, saying it "very well may be the high-water mark for strong action on climate in this Congress" because it would preserve the EPA's regulatory authority. But Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said t hat provision "will generate significant concern an d opposition by the business community."

Josten added that his group welcomes certain aspects of the bill, such as its inclusion of a nuclear power title that would provide money for worker training. But he said the lack of specifics on allowances "could be a contentious area" because, under the House bill, sectors such as the oil refinery industry "will pay 45 percent of the compliance costs but only received 2.25 percent" of the free pollution credits.

Tony Kreindler, spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, sent an e-mail to reporters Tuesday morning, cautioning that the bill probably will change markedly in the coming weeks as the Senate Finance and Agriculture committees weigh in, along with several centrist legislators who want to modify it, such as Sens. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.).

"Though the process sounds daunting, complex processes are part and parcel of passing major legislation," Kreindler wrote. "The most important thing is that the draft be taken for what it is: a starting point that Senators can work with, tailor and pass."

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