Global warming becomes hot topic on Capitol Hill

Facing the loss of the committee gavel he used to block global warming legislation, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) urged corporate executives late last month to keep up the fight against greenhouse gas emission limits.

Facing the loss of the committee gavel he used to block global warming legislation, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) urged corporate executives late last month to keep up the fight against greenhouse gas emission limits.

“In 2007, there will likely be many bills introduced, hearings held, and floor debates on the issue of climate change,” the Senate’s leading global warming skeptic wrote to “several dozen” CEOs in a three-page letter that challenged dire climate forecasts and estimated greenhouse gas emissions would carry a heavy economic cost. He warned executives that “Wall Street will not reward” companies that “are positioning themselves in the hope for specific climate proposals.”

Whether Inhofe’s marketplace advice proves worthwhile remains to be seen. But his political prognostication seems spot-on.

In just the third week of the 110th Congress, bills that seek to curb global warming are among the hottest on the Hill. Presidential candidates are among the supporters, including the favorite to win the Republican nomination, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Environmental groups are increasingly optimistic that a measure might reach the president’s desk.

“It is becoming nearly a full-time job just tracking various global warming plans in our nation’s capital,” Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch wrote in an e-mail yesterday that listed a few of the proposals.

There was even a rumor that President Bush was among the converts and that he planned to support a greenhouse gas emissions cap in his State of the Union address. But Tony Snow, his press secretary, put that to rest on Tuesday, saying it wasn’t true.

Democrats say they are committed to moving global warming legislation forward, after Inhofe and other Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee thwarted climate change legislation in the last Congress. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the new Environment and Public Works Committee chairwoman, plans a hearing next week on various climate proposals and has said it is her intention to move a bill to the floor.

Action seems less clear in the House. In a letter he sent last week to committee members, John Dingell (D-Mich.), Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, called climate change the one issue the panel must address, but he also seemed to indicate that a bill will not come out soon.

“It is critically important that Members of the Committee gain a full appreciation of the scientific and substantive implications of climate change policy so that we can develop and, if at all possible, enact a sound and effective public policy that is environmentally and economically responsible,” Dingell wrote. 

While the Senate may move faster, Democrats there will have to overcome differences among themselves before a measure gets to the floor even though a number of Senate Republicans also support climate-change measures. There are four main climate proposals in the Senate.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) introduced a bill yesterday that would cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 10 percent from 2006 levels by 2020.

“This is the first of five bills to address the No. 1 environmental issue facing this planet: global warming,” Feinstein said.

She intends to introduce companion measures that will target emissions from industries besides electric utilities, raise fuel efficiency standards for cars by 10 miles per gallon over the next decade, promote biodiesel and other cleaner-burning fuels, and raise energy-efficiency standards.

Feinstein said the broad effort was necessary to limit global temperature increases and therefore avert the most serious consequences of global warming. But she also acknowledged that her measure’s political success is not assured.

“I know that coal is in 40 states, and garnering the votes here in the Senate will be very difficult,” she said.

Coal is critical because it produces more than half the power used in the United States, despite its reputation as a dirty fuel.

As many as 154 new coal plants have been proposed, according to the Energy Department. Most will not be built, but coal, which is relatively cheap and abundant, is still likely to be the mainstay for electricity generation into the foreseeable future.

Industry officials claim that technology that would siphon and then store carbon dioxide emissions is not ready for widespread use and therefore a federal carbon cap is premature. Electric power plants account for a third of the carbon emitted in the United States. But six utilities are supporting Feinstein’s bill.

By far the most aggressive approach to global warming is a measure authored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that also has the support of EPW Chairwoman Boxer. It calls for slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. A host of environmental groups signed a letter of support for the legislation.

Sanders acknowledges his plan is ambitious but said the problem required goal-setting on the order of putting a man on the moon or preparing to fight World War II.

“I think the American people are catching on that we have a huge crisis,” Sanders said.

A third proposal, authored by McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), is similar to Feinstein-Carper in that it would use a “cap-and-trade” program to cut emissions. But its target is steeper: by 2050, emissions would have to be cut roughly one-third from 2000 levels.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is floating a fourth option that by 2020 would freeze carbon dioxide emissions at levels projected to be reached in 2014.

The proposal is meant to attract “key players in the Senate who are a little bit cautious of jumping into the debate,” said Jonathan Black, the lead committee staffer on global warming.  

Despite the buzz surrounding global warming, neither the Senate nor the House has ever passed a bill to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmental groups were encouraged that a Sense of the Senate resolution that acknowledged a human cause to global warming passed last year with 55 votes.

But a bill offered by McCain and Lieberman, less aggressive than the current version but one that would actually limit greenhouse gas emissions, only garnered 38 votes on the floor last year. Sen. Robert Byrd (D), the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee from West Virginia, a big coal producer, was among the “no” votes.

A few Democrats voted no because the measure included financial aid to develop nuclear plants, which do not emit carbon dioxide. Environmental groups remain opposed to that approach, a possible complication to action this year on McCain-Lieberman.

“We’re encouraged by declining caps, but as long as the legislation includes nuclear subsidies, it’s a non-starter,” said Julia Bovey, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Carper said the measure he and Feinstein support is the right compromise between doing nothing and the Sanders bill, which he equated with driving 55 mph “and then hitting reverse.”

The McCain-Lieberman bill, Carper later said, is like a freeway that lacks an on-ramp. His bill is like the on-ramp. “We need to get started,” he said.

Inhofe, now the ranking member on EPW, will remain a critic of all four approaches. In his letter, he said the science was not settled. Even if it were true that humans are causing global warming, he added, efforts in the United States to curb greenhouse gas emissions would be fruitless unless China, India and other developing countries follow suit.

China builds a coal plant every three days, Inhofe said, and will overtake the United States as the largest greenhouse gas emitter in 2009.

Given the activity out of the gate, however, supporters of climate action increasingly believe that a cap on greenhouse gas emissions is inevitable, if not this year, then in the near future.

“Inhofe seems a little like the legendary King Canute, standing at the beach and demanding that the tide stop rolling in,” said O’Donnell of the Clean Air Watch.

“Canute’s feet got wet. So will Inhofe’s.”