Senate Scales Back Ambitions for Climate and Energy Bill

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) will lead the Senate energy debate, image courtesy of Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) will lead the Senate energy debate, image courtesy of Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

With increasingly dim prospects for passing an economy-wide cap-and-trade bill in the Senate this session, lawmakers leading the push for U.S. climate legislation have demonstrated willingness to make concessions. Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), sponsors of the American Power Act cap-and-trade bill that has failed to make headway, have produced a more modest draft proposal that would place a greenhouse gas emissions cap on electric utilities only, leaving the manufacturing and transportation sectors out of the emission trading scheme. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has drafted a similar utilities-only bill.

Consideration of these proposals will coincide with more sweeping discussions on energy legislation that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has scheduled for the week of July 26. He plans to present a draft bill that includes four titles: oil spill response, clean energy and job creation, energy efficiency, and utility-only greenhouse gas reductions, as outlined in the Kerry-Lieberman and Bingaman proposals. Critics of the energy package say the timeline for deliberation is too rushed, especially as details of Reid’s legislation remain largely unknown.

Environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have also expressed concern about the direction the Senate energy debate has taken. In addition to being disappointed about the reduced scope of greenhouse gas emission coverage, these groups warned Senator Kerry against making too many compromises to pass the bill, saying that they would oppose any bill that would relax Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emission standards for other criteria pollutants like smog and mercury.

The Bingaman draft bill has more provisions that are likely to prove unpopular with environmental groups. Even though it sets a mandatory emissions cap for utilities (other manufacturers can opt in on a voluntary basis), the bill would block the EPA and individual states from regulating greenhouse gas sources in the industrial sector until 2018.

Especially worrisome in the Bingaman proposal is the provision that other sectors could not be drawn in under the cap until the president decides that each of the United States’ top five developing-country trading partners (currently China, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, and India, although this could change by the time of the decision) have taken comparable action. Not only would this determination depend largely upon the political leanings of the president at the time (the bill stipulates no earlier than 2015), but the provision goes against the widely accepted principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” adopted in the globally supported 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and reaffirmed in the Bali Action Plan during the 2007 climate negotiations.

According to this principle, industrialized countries like the United States should be expected to take the lead in reducing emissions and providing resources for the transition to a clean energy economy to developing countries with competing priorities such as poverty eradication. Furthermore, mandatory legislation in developing countries has not become any easier to reach following last year’s Copenhagen Accord, which asks countries for only voluntary pledges internationally.

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