Five national environmental groups declared the stalled Senate climate and energy bill "unacceptable" on Tuesday, saying the nation would be better off in the long run without it.
The current form of the bill is "too high a price" and "the solution is a fake one," said Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, a member of the coalition of groups opposed to the bill.
The disagreement between that coalition, members of Congress and 31 other environmental groups that came out in support of legislation this week highlights the battles to come as Congress attempts to work out a compromise climate bill this year or next.
Among the coalition’s biggest gripes is a provision that would jettison the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.
"Industry doesn’t like the Clean Air Act because it actually reduces pollutants," said Snape.
The groups also objected to the bill’s emissions reduction goals; the billions being thrown into cleaner coal and nuclear power; and language that would handicap the ability of states to curtail global warming pollution.
The analysis of the bill was based on what they "learned from the grapevine" — not the bill itself, which co-author John Kerry (D-Mass.) says is finished but has yet to be released. The groups said they were shut out of the closed-door talks, but they believe they know enough to be "very concerned."
According to the coalition — which includes Public Citizen, Friends of the Earth, Institute for Policy Studies and Friends Committee on National Legislation — the bill intends to cut emissions in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, in line with the Obama administration’s goal. That would be about 4 percent below 1990 levels.
"The Senate is very far away from what the science needs," said Snape.
The groups want to see a 40 percent reduction below 1990 levels by that same year, based on the 25-40 percent target recommended by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and what they see as the nation’s historic responsibility for climate damage.
A big concern with the low target is the "very problematic" role that carbon offsets could play in meeting it, said Devin Helfrich of Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker group.
Helfrich said this was the case with cap-and-trade legislation that passed the House of Representatives last June. The Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill has served as the basis for a number of essential features of its Senate counterpart, though the Senate’s use of cap-and-trade is expected to be far narrower.
Offsets give polluters the option to invest in projects that reduce greenhouse gases rather than cut their own.
Waxman-Markey allowed for 2 billion tons of domestic and international offsets each year — meaning offsets could become the primary vehicle by which the country could shrink its carbon footprint.
The Senate bill, Helfrich said, would likely allow 1.5 billion tons of international offsets annually.
"Using offsets threatens the integrity of the emissions reductions," said Tyson Slocum, director of the clean energy program at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington. The system is still "too exposed to fraud and abuse."
The groups also object to the bill’s expected breaks for nuclear power, citing concerns over skyrocketing costs and safety issues.
"The nuclear power industry stands to benefit tremendously," said Slocum. "And this is probably the most undeserving industry in the entire American economy."
In a preview of the bill last week, Kerry said it would deliver loan guarantees and risk insurance to build 12 new nuclear reactors. At a price tag of between $5 billion to $10 billion each, the total cost of that kind of nuclear ramp-up could be in excess of $100 billion, Slocum said.
The bipartisan Senate bill, being brokered by Kerry, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), appeared to be on life support earlier this week when Graham objected to the Democrats’ decision to push for immigration reform and threatened to drop out of the climate negotiations. His support, as the lone Republican voice on the bill, was considered key to its Senate passage.
The bill, however, is seeing some signs of life. It is now headed to the EPA for a regulatory review and an economic analysis of the costs to Americans. "I would put chances [this year] at less than 50 percent," said Snape.
Helping to buoy the bill is major fossil-fuel backing. Three out of five of the major oil companies are reportedly on board, along with most of the major electric utilities.
With that kind of support, "you have to question how effective it is," said Slocum.
Not all of the nation’s green groups agree with that assessment, however.
31 Green Groups Push for Bill’s Passage
On Tuesday, 31 environmental groups sent a letter to U.S. senators, asking them to pass the comprehensive climate bill this year and not squander more than six months of bipartisan progress.
The current legislative session, which ends on June 21, is seen by many as the last best chance to get a climate bill through Congress, since the November elections are expected to dilute the Democratic majority in both houses. All 435 House seats are up for election, along with 36 of 100 Senate seats.
"This must be the year that the United States passes comprehensive climate and energy legislation into law in order to create jobs, strengthen our national security, and reduce carbon pollution," the groups wrote.
The signers included the National Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, 1Sky, the National Wildlife Foundation and the League of Conservation. They also highlighted the financial urgency of carbon regulation.
"Without a bipartisan, comprehensive national clean energy and climate policy, America’s businesses are hamstrung and cannot make the investments that will create millions of jobs in the new clean energy sector," the groups wrote.