Kerry, Boxer launch climate bill debate

Supporters of Senate climate change legislation introduced Wednesday rallied outside the Capitol to promote their bill as a lifeline for the planet and a way to protect both economic and national security.

The event effectively marked the start of what is expected to be a bruising battle in the Senate this fall over climate legislation leading into the global climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December.

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The legislation introduced by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) calls for a 20 percent emissions cut by 2020, tougher than the 17 percent cut the House bill that narrowly passed in late June called for, and a greater than 80 percent cut by 2050.

The measure was immediately criticized by Republicans as an energy tax that threatens jobs, and some Democrats also had harsh words, signaling the tough road ahead.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) called its requirements “a disappointing step in the wrong direction.”

“Requiring 20 percent emission reductions by 2020 is unrealistic and harmful — it is simply not enough time to deploy the carbon-capture-and-storage and energy-efficiency technologies we need,” Rockefeller said.

But President Barack Obama said the release of the draft bill moves the country “one step closer to putting America in control of our energy future and making America more energy-independent.”

“My administration is deeply committed to passing a bill that creates new American jobs and the clean-energy incentives that foster innovation,” the president said.

Separate from the Senate action, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposed rule to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from utilities and large industrial facilities for the first time. The rule, which is highly controversial, would apply to only those facilities that release 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year, which would exempt most businesses. But critics said the rule would likely be challenged in court.

Most lawmakers are more comfortable with Congress acting to address global warming. But it isn’t clear supporters have the votes, and in releasing the proposed rule the administration seemed to be indicating it would move forward on addressing climate change with or without congressional action.

Boxer said her legislation “addresses the major challenges of our generation” by curbing pollution, creating new green jobs and reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

She said the bill also addresses regional worries about the economic impact of a carbon cap. Boxer noted its inclusion of a “soft” collar that creates both a floor and a ceiling for emission-allowance costs to both spur investment in cleaner technologies and ease fears among businesses that energy prices will grow too high under the carbon cap.

Carbon allowances held in reserve would be released for purchase if the price per ton of carbon reached $28 during an initial phase, and then would be adjusted upward to account for inflation, under the bill.

The bill also includes new titles that will provide subsidies for the development of nuclear, natural gas and “clean” coal power in an effort to attract more backing from business and address regional concerns with a carbon cap.

Lobbyists for the natural-gas and nuclear-energy industries said they would push for more incentives for their industries in the coming weeks.

Boxer and Kerry were joined on the east front lawn of the Capitol grounds by nine other Democratic senators and a crowd of veterans, labor supporters and environmental advocates who cheered and waved placards urging action this year.

As they shouted for action, though, Senate advocates acknowledged the tough fight to come. Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Mark Udall of Colorado used metaphors of stormy seas and steep mountains to describe the arduous path ahead.

Kerry said the event was the “beginning of one of the most important battles we will ever face as legislators and citizens.”
Republicans said the bill amounted to an energy tax that would cost jobs.

“The Kerry-Boxer bill has fancy, complicated words that add up to high energy costs that will drive U.S. jobs overseas looking for cheap energy,” said Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

Although the bill calls for steeper initial emissions cuts than the House measure, a committee aide said it also makes it easier for companies to comply by expanding the definition of what qualifies as a carbon offset. An offset is an investment in a program that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Advocates say it may offer companies a cheaper way to comply with a cap than reducing their actual emissions at the smokestack or manufacturing facility.

Many details were left out of the initial draft, including how to divvy up emissions allowances that will be worth tens of billions of dollars a year.

Responsibility for that rests in part with the Senate Finance Committee, now tied up with the healthcare debate. But Boxer later indicated the bill to come out of her Environment and Public Works panel will also address the allowance allocation.
Industrial sectors will need to acquire these allowances to cover their emissions. Initially, most of the allowances will be given away for free to keep costs in check, but each year more and more will have to be bought through auction.

Environmental groups largely praised the bill, although Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth continued to say the measure would not reduce emissions quickly enough.

“Sens. Boxer and Kerry have blended some new and vital ingredients into the recipe for a truly meaningful and comprehensive energy plan,” said John Flicker, president of the National Audubon Society.

Joe Mendelson, climate director for the National Wildlife Federation, credited the bill for preserving the right of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide through the Clean Air Act. That gives federal regulators more tools to require utilities to close old coal plants, he said.

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Kerry and Boxer gave an upbeat prognosis for their bill’s passage. But Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was noncommittal when asked whether it could be squeezed into the Senate’s crowded calendar this year.

“If I had my druthers, I would move to it just as quickly as we could,” he said. “But we have a number of important issues. We have climate [legislation], we have regulation reform, we have immigration. I’ll work with the White House and my colleagues as to what should move forward. I’m very impressed with the fact that we need to do a climate bill just as quickly as we can.

“Our nation cannot survive without energy from coal, and any viable climate policy must solidify our future by focusing on technology to make coal cleaner faster.”