Crunch time for climate change bill

It’s crunch time for the climate bill in the Senate.

As Congress returns from recess, the Senate trio crafting a compromise global warming bill are under pressure to gain the traction needed for floor action this year.

ADVERTISEMENT
Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) plan to unveil their long-awaited energy and climate bill the week of April 19. Earth Day is April 22.

From there, they have just weeks to build momentum and show Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that it has a strong chance of surpassing 60 votes, observers say.

“Reid can make the go or no-go decision no later than mid-May in practical terms,” said Kevin Book, an analyst with the consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners. 

The Senate faces other election-year priorities – such as Wall Street reform – and will be consumed with replacing retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who announced Friday that he’s stepping down.

Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle said Reid wants energy and climate on the 2010 agenda. “Senator Reid is still hoping that the Senate will be able to take up bipartisan, comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation this year,” she said.

Book doesn’t believe that Reid needs a guarantee of more than 60 votes to put the bill on the floor, but thinks the majority leader will need evidence of strong prospects. “He needs to see a comfort zone to know that it is worth the time,” Book said.

Republican strategist Ron Bonjean agrees that Kerry, Graham and Lieberman must show quickly that they have the right recipe, given the time the Senate will spend on the Supreme Court replacement and other issues.

“In order to get a climate bill through the Senate, they would have to be ready to ... get that plane off the legislative runway pretty quickly, and it doesn’t look like they are ready at the moment,” said Bonjean, a former aide to GOP leadership in both chambers.

“They need to act fast and try to gain consensus almost immediately upon return, because the Supreme Court vacancy will slow momentum for other legislation this spring and summer,” he added.

Kerry, Graham and Lieberman – christened “KGL” in energy circles – hope to win over centrist Democrats and some Republicans, whose views on cap-and-trade (or any emissions limits) generally range from skepticism to strong opposition.

The Senate trio is breaking with the House, which passed a sweeping cap-and-trade bill last year that is viewed as a non-starter in the upper chamber.

Instead they plan to propose a more limited cap-and-trade system (which they’re no longer calling cap-and-trade) applied to power plants, with other industrial plants phased in after a multi-year delay.

In a bid for oil company support – or at least neutrality – they’re planning to address transportation with a fee on motor fuels, rather than requiring refiners to obtain emissions allowances for tailpipe pollution.

KGL are also including provisions to boost nuclear power construction, wider offshore oil-and-gas drilling, and low-emissions coal projects.

The White House announced two weeks ago that it will allow expanded offshore oil-and-gas exploration – including eventual leasing in regions off the East Coast – but the administration plan leaves a role for Capitol Hill.

The Senate trio will likely include measures that give more coastal states a share of the revenue from offshore energy development, and the White House plan to shrink the no-drilling buffer in the eastern Gulf of Mexico would also require congressional approval.

Also, Graham said President Obama’s offshore drilling proposal is not expansive enough, so lawmakers seeking a deal on a climate and energy bill could require broader leasing than Obama’s Interior Department envisions.

However, that could further alienate environmental groups and liberal Democrats who are already dismayed with the White House’s drilling decision.

Paul Bledsoe of the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy said the White House embrace of drilling – and Obama’s support for building new nuclear plants – could help win bipartisan support for a broader climate and energy bill.

Earlier this year the administration announced federal loan guarantees to help utility giant Southern Company build new reactors, and is also asking Congress to greatly expand the nuclear loan program.

“It is providing some political opportunity. The question is whether moderates in both parties are comfortable enough with a more limited cap-and-trade approach combined with a more robust supply agenda,” said Bledsoe, the group’s director of communications and strategy. “That is really the crux of it.”

Senate Democratic leaders have indicated in recent weeks that they might take up a more limited package of energy measures if a climate bill can’t gain traction.

But the Obama administration wants something more ambitious. White House officials are working with KGL on their legislation and pressing the Senate not to abandon emissions caps.

“We are very clear that we want comprehensive legislation,” White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner said April 6. “Every now and then you will hear talk about maybe an energy-only bill. We think that would be unfortunate.”

More in E2-Wire

Five threats to the EPA’s climate rule

Read more »