Climate Advocates on the Defensive as Congress Returns

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After a year of hope, 2010 is starting out with proponents of action on climate change facing an uphill battle.

In 2009, a new president moved into the White House, Congress inched toward passing a bill to cap U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and the Copenhagen climate summit waited as a hopeful coda to a year of climate action. It ended up being a year of mixed results, however, and the prospects for climate action this year appear equally mixed.

Congress gets back into full swing next week, and several senators have made assurances that climate change will be one of the first issues they discuss.

For Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), that means a new attempt to block greenhouse gas regulation by the EPA.

Comprehensive climate change legislation, called for by President Obama called a year ago, may find itself just one more fish in a rather full legislative pond this year. Health care and financial reform are expected to be the main priorities for Congress this year, with issues like immigration policy and lowering greenhouse gas emissions fighting for the remaining attention.

"I think there is still definitely a shot for getting a climate measure this year," Manika Roy, vice president of federal government outreach at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, told SolveClimate.

"One essential ingredient is the president’s commitment to this issue. If the president says an energy bill is one of his top two or three priorities this year, then there is a good chance.”

But the discussion on Capitol Hill will not just be about how best to fight climate change.

In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that greenhouse gases were a danger to public health and welfare. To comply with a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, the agency said it would have to act to regulate them if Congress failed to take action.

Murkowski (photo) decried the EPA’s move as "backdoor climate regulation," and she is now proposing an amendment that would block the EPA’s capacity to regulate greenhouse gases.

Proponents of climate action say the ones attempting backdoor regulation are the Alaska senator and her supporters with their effort to undermine the Clean Air Act and distract from legislative efforts to regulate greenhouse gases from Capitol Hill.

In recent days, proponents have also uncovered unsettling links between lobbyists and Murkowski’s first try at an amendment to strip the EPA of any future greenhouse gas-regulating power, in September.

One lobbyist, a former official in the Bush administration, Jeffery Holmstead, acknowledged to the Washington Post that he was involved in writing the amendment.

Holmstead has represented AMEREN Corp, Arch Coal, CSX Transportation, Duke Energy, Edison Electric Institute, Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, Energy Future Holdings, Mirant, Progress Energy, Salt River Project and Southern Company, according research by Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington. In all, Murkowski’s campaign committee and political action committee have received at least $126,500 from Holmstead’s firm, clients and clients’ employees since 2004, the group finds. It notes that Southern Co., which has donated $38,000, owns the top three most-polluting power plants in the nation.

Roy does not see anything too out of the ordinary about the lobbyist involvement.

"In fairness to Sen. Murkowski, I think every member of Congress reaches out to experts in writing legislation," he says.

Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which is exploring the issue, has a slightly different take.

"Generally speaking, there are plenty of instances where, to one degree or another, lobbyists help craft legislation that then goes before Congress as a whole. The question is, are special interests having too much influence," he told SolveClimate.

"What can be of concern is when special interests are influencing the legislation that could regulate their own actions. You have to ask the question, is that in the public interest?"

There are also fears Murkowski’s efforts could also have a Pandora’s box effect in terms of unraveling some key federal regulations. If Congress voted no-confidence on the EPA’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, that could open the door to further limits on the EPA’s ability to protect the environment, explains Earthjustice’s Sarah Saylor.

"Taking away those tools sends the wrong message to the world and would definitely be moving us in the wrong direction," she told SolveClimate.’s Clean Energy Campaign Director Steven Biel says the biggest effect of the amendment would be the "direct attack on the Clean Air Act on the part of opposition groups and polluting industries." If allowed to succeed, he says, this attack could further depress the already disappointed progressive base of the president and Democratic policymakers.

"At the very minimum, to keep progressive activists from rebelling, rolling back the Clean Air Act is off the table," he told SolveClimate, alluding not only to the Murkowski amendment but also to some Senate climate bill proposals that he sees as being too friendly to those who would like to weaken the act. Democrats "cannot make change in America with progressive activists sitting on their hands," he cautions.

Prospects and Proposals

Murkowski’s expected amendment is just one of many obstacles Republicans have laid or are planning on laying in the way of climate legislation. Despite a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress and a Democrat in the White House, the political conditions for passing a climate law may still not exist in Washington.

The prospects for such a bill "haven’t changed one bit since election day 2008, regardless of who the president is and who is in congress," says Roy. "People who thought it would be otherwise were mistaken."

Roy said he was impressed that the House got its version of a climate bill through as quickly as it did in June. The Senate also launched hearings on its version of a climate bill, but progress stalled on the bill put together by John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Toward the end of the year, Kerry formed a coalition with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman to craft a bill that would strike a firmer middle ground between those advocating for and against climate action. This bill is expected to include concessions to climate action opponents, such as increased funding for nuclear power and expanded production of natural gas and offshore oil drilling.

Their proposal "seems to be built to get the most votes," Earthjustice’s Saylor told SolveClimate, comparing the package to other proposals that are being offered.

Among the other legislative options is the energy bill passed last summer by the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee. It would focus solely on energy, without including measures like an economy-wide cap and trade program. Proponents of climate action are less than enthused by this option.

"With health care, they threw out the public option and other aspects proponents wanted and still ended up with a partisan vote. I don’t necessarily accept the premise that an energy-only bill would just slide through" without facing the same challenges, says Roy.

The committee’s energy bill, intended to be incorporated into larger climate legislation, does not go far enough in terms of renewables, and it includes things like expanded oil drilling, which would take climate policy in the "wrong direction," Saylor says. Even worse, she says, it "would take away the momentum" toward significant climate legislation.

More likely to please climate advocates is a proposal from Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). Their "cap and dividend" approach would avoid concerns over offsets and speculation that some fear might arise from creating a carbon market in the U.S.

Saylor says she hopes "it’s an idea that is discussed in moving forward," but that even this version is far from ideal.

"From what I’ve seen, the near-term targets aren’t strong enough to solve the problem," she says.

"The bottom line," says Roy, "is does the measure reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create a price on emissions and, in so doing, provide incentives to investors and inventors?"

The debate should start soon, but the year may be well under way before a bill is finalized. And whether whatever does get passed meets Roy’s criteria remains to be seen.


See also:

Clean Air Jump-Start

Senate Urged to Protect Clean Air Act from Climate Bill

Clean Air Act Trips Up Sunflower’s Coal Plant Deal in Kansas

How Congress Threatens to Undermine the Clean Energy Future: The Clean Air Act

(Photo: Greenpeace)