Outlook chilly for a smart climate bill

Sunday, July 25, 2010

WITH DEMOCRATS in control of the White House and Congress and a major international climate conference scheduled in Copenhagen, the prospect of passing legislation that would curb America's carbon emissions appeared better than ever at the beginning of the Obama administration. But President Obama and the Senate did not prioritize climate-change legislation. Health care and financial reform dragged on much longer than expected.

On Thursday came the consequence: Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) announced that he would not, as had been planned, bring a climate bill to the floor before Congress's August recess.. There isn't enough time to gather the necessary votes before the break -- and, it now seems likely, before the end of the year. Which means more delay and, ultimately, a higher price tag.

The Senate might consider a renewable portfolio mandate, which would require utilities to derive a certain amount of their electricity from renewable sources, in the fall. Other proposals promoting natural gas, efficiency, and research and development also have a shot of passing this year. But these are not enough to achieve the size of emissions reductions for which America must aim. The most attractive policy is putting a simple price on carbon, which would encourage private initiative to reduce emissions. But Republicans have hypocritically attacked this market-based approach, and Democrats have defended the idea weakly, while compromising it with giveaways to favored constituencies in the bills they proposed.

What's next? Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate carbon emissions, and it is set to begin with power plants and factories in January. The process will be messier, involving bureaucratic review of individual sources, complicated litigation and high risk that regulations will change from president to president. Congress would have curbed the EPA's authorities in a compromise climate bill. But since a climate bill probably won't be passed anytime soon, the agency should proceed vigorously; it would be most useful targeting the dirtiest utilities and industrial facilities. The president may have to use his veto to defend the EPA from congressional attempts to strip the agency of its power to regulate carbon.

Eventually, Congress will have to act. The optimistic view is that increasingly dire warnings from scientists and controversial EPA carbon regulation will spur the next Congress. But given the record of this one, it's hard to be optimistic.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company