Cantwell-Collins bill attracts support from some, loses others

One of the ironies in the debate over climate legislation, arguably the most significant environmental measure Congress has ever considered, is that some environmental groups don’t much like the bill that’s been at the center of the legislative push.

The view is not universal, but groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace attacked the House climate bill for not forcing utilities and other industries to cut their emissions more steeply, more quickly.

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An outline of a proposal released on Thursday in the Senate, which also relies on a cap-and-trade system but features more support for nuclear power and more offshore drilling, has drawn more negative reaction.

But now some critics may have something to rally around: a bill introduced by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) on Friday that would regulate far fewer segments of the economy and offer direct rebates to households to offset higher energy costs.

Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch said the Cantwell-Collins bill is more “climate-friendly and consumer-friendly” than a compromise framework from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) unveiled on Thursday.

If Cantwell-Collins has attracted support from some new quarters, however, it could lose support from segments of the business community that have helped propel the climate legislation with successful votes in the House and a Senate committee.

Climate legislation co-sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) was based in part on a series of principles embraced by the United States Climate Action Partnership, a collection of energy companies and environmental groups that have striven to strike a balance on climate legislation.

Wall Street may be particularly disappointed in the new bill. The Cantwell-Collins bill, known as the Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal (CLEAR) act, would restrict trading in a new carbon market to entities regulated by the act, a move that may have more populist appeal.

“This is so much clearer, so much more transparent,” said Ted Glick, policy director for Chesapeake Climate Action.

Banks like Goldman Sachs that looked forward to new profits under the giant secondary trading market created under economy-wide cap-and-trade legislation are unlikely to get on board, however.

Kevin Book, a market analyst with Clear View Energy Partners, said Cantwell and Collins could end up imposing a higher cost on the economy because their measure doesn’t allow speculators to hedge against price increases.

“It is a well-thought-out way to avoid market manipulation,” Book said. “It is not clear that it is a well-thought-out way to avoid price spikes in the economy as a whole.

“You won’t get 100 bankers lined up behind 60 senators in support of the bill.”

The Cantwell-Collins bill differs from the Waxman-Markey bill and legislation that passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in other key ways.

It would require fuel producers, rather than fuel users like electric utilities, to hold credits. The credits all would be sold at an auction. The cap-and-trade bills Congress has considered would distribute emissions allowances for free during the initial phase of the program in order to keep energy prices from rising too quickly.

Under Cantwell-Collins, revenues from the auction would largely go back to low- and middle-income households to offset higher energy costs the new carbon regulations are intended to cause. An average family of four would receive $1,100 annually in rebates, according to Cantwell’s office.

In total, 75 percent of the auction proceeds would be returned to low- and middle-income households. The remainder would be distributed to a clean energy investment trust fund.

The Waxman-Markey bill would also offer big rebates to consumers, distributed through local utilities. But some critics worry not all the money would be returned to consumers.

The goal of the Cantwell-Collins measure is to cut U.S. emissions by 20 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.

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The Cantwell-Collins bill also does not allow companies it would regulate to reduce their carbon footprint by investing in programs to reduce carbon elsewhere or remove it from the atmosphere, efforts that are known as offsets. An offset could include a program to plant trees, because trees absorb carbon dioxide.

Some environmentalists worry offsets won’t lead to meaningful reductions in the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

Still, some critiques of the bill that emerged Friday came from environmental groups, an indication that the measure could serve as a wedge that drives environmental activists further apart.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, said the bill was “too weak to meet its purported goals.”

And the Environmental Defense Fund said the measure would not do enough to control costs.

“We think the sponsors could significantly improve the environmental and economic outcome of their bill if they used a cap that reduced the cost of compliance and increased the amount of pollution reduction,” said Mark MacLeod, EDF climate and air program director. “This bill discards too many cost-effective reductions.”