Senate panel begins work on climate bill

Senate Democrats are looking to restart momentum for climate legislation, which has taken a backseat to healthcare.

The Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee next week opens debate on the Kerry-Boxer bill with three hearings over three days in which more than 50 witnesses are scheduled to testify.

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Not much has happened since the House passed its climate bill in late June on a tight vote, but Senate Democrats hope to make progress on one of the administration’s highest priorities before global climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December.

One marathon session set for Thursday on the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act will include 22 witnesses on four panels. That follows two days of hearings, the first of which will receive testimony from the secretaries of the departments of Energy, Transportation and the Interior and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

On Friday, climate watchers were waiting for a revised version of the climate bill co-sponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is the chairwoman of the Senate EPW Committee. The revision was expected to provide more detail about how valuable pollution allowances companies will have to hold under the cap-and-trade mechanism would be divided.

The first cost estimate from EPA on the Senate version of climate legislation was expected to accompany the latest draft. The EPA has projected a modest cost impact for the House climate bill, although critics said it relied in part on unrealistic assumptions like a big growth in nuclear power plants, which don’t emit carbon dioxide when operating.

There is no shortage of studies estimating the costs of the climate bill. Last week, Doug Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that there would be “some cost” to the legislation, although overall the economic impact might not be that severe.

But for particular sectors — like fossil fuel producers — the impact could be significant, Elmendorf warned. Regional differences make building a coalition to reach the 60-vote threshold difficult, but supporters insist not impossible.

The most immediate financial impact is being felt on K Street, where a number of players are hiring lobbyists for the first time to weigh in on the massive measure, according to a study this summer by the Center for Public Integrity.

The watchdog counted 1,150 companies and advocacy organizations registered to lobby on climate in the weeks before the June vote in the House on the climate bill, a 30 percent increase since the start of the year, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

A number of those stakeholders will show up next week at the EPW’s three-day look at the climate bill. The testifiers include climate bill supporter John Rowe, who made news recently by pulling his company, Exelon, out of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over the business group’s aggressive stance against climate legislation.

Bill Klesse, chairman and CEO of Valero Energy Corp., an oil refiner, will testify on Tuesday. One thing to watch is how the Senate addresses transportation fuels. Right now, refiners are on the hook for the emissions at their plants and those their products emit when used. The allowances they receive in the House bill don’t cover nearly that amount. The Senate is expected to be much more generous. One lobbyist for an oil refiner said Senate staff was offering a bit more to small refiners to help ease their costs under a cap-and-trade bill and split off some industry support from the bill.