Ditching the cap-and-trade piece to pass a so-called renewable electricity standard and stronger energy-use standards could give Democrats a partial win and President Barack Obama at least something to show off at the climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December.
But it would also threaten to fracture Democrats and their base of support, in much the same way the public option is threatening to split the party in the healthcare fight.
Environmental advocates say they plan to keep lawmakers’ feet to the smokestack, as it were, and press for caps on carbon dioxide emissions that would do more to moderate the effects of global warming.
“President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOur remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Chelsea Manning tests positive for COVID-19 MORE and [Senate] Majority Leader [Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] have made pollution reductions a central part of their clean energy plan because they drive the investment in technologies that create jobs, reduce our dependency on oil and protect our environment,” said Jeremy Symons of the National Wildlife Federation.
“Trying to create clean energy jobs without new standards to reduce global warming pollution would be like trying to win a football game without a quarterback.”
Right now, the game in the Senate is without a playbook, or at least a bill.
Sens. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerFormer California senator prods Feinstein to consider retirement Trump decries 'defund the police' after Boxer attacked Former Sen. Barbara Boxer attacked in California MORE (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and John KerryJohn Kerry Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington Biden confirms 30 percent global methane reduction goal, urges 'highest possible ambitions' 9/11 and US-China policy: The geopolitics of distraction MORE (D-Mass.) put off releasing their version of global warming legislation until later this month. The two, who had planned to release a bill this week, blamed both Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) death and Kerry’s sore hip for the delay.
Lobbyists and staff on Capitol Hill saw it as another sign of the difficulties in crafting a compromise among Democrats on climate change.
Josh Freed, who directs the clean energy program at The Third Way, a Democratic-leaning think tank, said the climate bill may be even trickier to get through than health reform, which has been delayed numerous times by party leaders.
That’s because where members fall on energy policies is sometimes more dependent on where they are from than to which political party they belong.
But Freed believes the lingering debate over healthcare may prove to be a positive development for climate, even though it shortens the legislative calendar for energy legislation.
“The delayed introduction … gives more time to hash out the differences of individual senators that need to be addressed,” Freed said.
Kevin Book, of ClearView Energy Partners, also doesn’t think the healthcare debate will grow so bitter that Congress will not be able to do anything else. He puts the odds at 60 percent that the Senate will pass a modified version of the cap-and-trade bill that got through the House in June.
He expects new protections for energy-intensive industries will bring skeptical industrial-state senators on board.
But Michael McKenna, a Republican lobbyist and pollster, said the appetite for big-government fixes is eroding, which threatens both of Obama’s legislative priorities.
“The multiple stimuli and bailouts have really sensitized voters to spending and government expansion. Part of what you are seeing in healthcare is that concern,” McKenna said.
“Assuming Congress can pass something on healthcare, it probably will absorb all the remaining voter appetite for significant government interventions.”
The cap-and-trade bill, McKenna said, may be “just too much of a reach right now.”
With healthcare sucking up time and energy, what Congress ends up doing on climate legislation is a matter of conjecture.
Climate bill advocates note that Reid has said he wants to move forward with a bill that combines both energy and climate efforts by the end of the year.
But some say Democratic leaders, frustrated by Republican opposition on healthcare and climate and in need of a victory, may decide to pass a renewable-energy bill they can advertise as a green job promoter and a down payment on climate action.
By supporting the development of non-emitting solar and wind power and energy conservation efforts, the bill would cut emissions naturally. The Environmental Protection Agency could then later cap carbon dioxide emissions through a rulemaking under the Clean Air Act.
“If [Reid] can’t get the votes, there probably is something you can do to salvage something from the effort,” said Steve Nadel, executive director for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE). “If all they can get through is a down payment, then it is probably worth doing.”
Rob Gramlich, policy director of the American Wind Energy Association, said it is up to lawmakers to determine the best course of action. But delaying a renewable energy standard (RES) may mean wind-energy jobs move elsewhere. An RES would require utilities to produce a certain amount of power from renewable energy sources.
“There is requisite support for a meaningful RES, and we can show numbers about how an RES is one of the best greenhouse gas policies available and one of the best jobs policies available,” Gramlich said.
Supporters of congressional action on climate change argue that regulating carbon through the Clean Air Act will be difficult and lead to court challenges that would take years to settle.
Politically, they fear there will be little incentive to take a tough vote to cap carbon in 2010, an election year, after Democrats pass a renewable energy bill.
Beyond the emissions reductions it requires, the cap-and-trade bill also will provide billions of dollars in revenues that would go in part to energy-efficiency programs. ACEEE estimates the House bill would provide $50 billion cumulatively to energy conservation efforts by 2020.
The group released a study on Wednesday that found that the House bill, with a few improvements like a stronger efficiency standard, would create more than 560,000 jobs in the next 10 years and provide annual savings of $283 for the average household.
“We’d prefer they do both,” Nadel said.