Greens Give Lukewarm Embrace to Draft Climate Bill

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U.S. Reps. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey released a draft of their comprehensive climate legislation today – a 648-page proposal that plays to the political center, particularly the Midwest and coal state Democrats whose votes will be necessary for the legislation to pass.

The draft hits the president’s greenhouse gas reduction targets with cap-and-trade, sets a strong national renewable electricity standard, and proposes new energy efficiency requirements. At the same time, though, it allows for extensive industry offsets, and it could ultimately undermine the EPA.

In a conference call today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Markey reached out to environmental leaders and asked them to support the proposal.

The lukewarm embrace it received indicated that the centrist legislation hit its mark.

The leading environmental groups were polite in their responses – they praised Pelosi for moving climate to the top of the agenda, and they acknowledged the challenge of bipartisanship and the need for Congressional action ahead of international climate treaty talks in Copenhagen. But most were clearly underwhelmed by the draft legislation.

Greenpeace’s U.S. global warming campaign director, Steven Biel:

“The draft bill is a good first step in the right direction, but the bill must be strengthened to ensure that it will achieve the goals of transitioning to a clean energy economy and solving global warming."

Environment America’s Emily Figdor described the draft as

“a pragmatic bill that tries to balance a historic opportunity to unleash clean energy in order to rebuild our economy and stop the climate crisis, with the diversity of views on the Energy and Commerce Committee.”

“We’re disappointed that the bill includes sky-high levels of carbon offsets, which provide less-certain reductions in emissions, and large subsidies, including funds from ratepayers, for still-unproven carbon capture and storage technology.” However, “We look forward to working with the entire committee and the rest of Congress to pass a strong bill that repowers America with clean energy, helps rebuild our economy, and solves global warming.”

Gillian Caldwell of 1Sky said her group’s members and their allies would be meeting with House committee members and "asking them to make the bill stronger when it comes to provisions regarding offsets, global warming pollution reductions under the domestic cap, and coal." She encouraged supporters to do the same during the April congressional recess and "advocate for a bold transition to a new green economy."

The draft was based on a compromise blueprint presented two months ago by the corporate giants and environmental groups involved in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership. In a letter to President Obama last week, Markey (D-Mass.), Waxman (D-Calif.) and Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.) highlighted that plan in talking about the importance of any climate legislation taking into account regional differences, such as industry- and coal-based economies.

Markey and Pelosi suggested today that this is the strongest proposal they believe they’ll be able to get through Congress this year. They hope to start hearings April 20 and have the House pass it by July.

“The mastery of the chairman in putting this together is having legislation that is fair and available to the American people and that can get the votes to pass without getting watered down,” Pelosi said. “Some people will never accept this, and that’s unfortunate, because everyone has the chance to be part of the solution.”

When Waxman previously announced his plan to have a climate bill to the House floor by summer, he promised to follow the science. That was the first disappointment in the draft climate legislation.

The science, even using the IPCC’s conservative assessment, calls for a minimum 25 percent reduction of greenhouse gases below 1990 levels by 2020 to prevent a 2-degree rise in the global temperature. The draft released today uses 2005 as a starting point for its 20 percent reduction by 2020 – greenhouse gas emissions were nearly 20 percent higher in 2005 than in then 1990.

On top of that, the draft would allow for 2 billion tons of offsets annually to help industry meet its emission reduction targets. Two billion tons would be close to a quarter of all U.S. emissions. Biel pointed out that if all the offsets were used, the emissions reduction targets could still be met without any actual reduction in fossil fuel emissions for more than 20 years.

“We cannot solve global warming by simply planting trees and continuing to pollute forever,” Biel said.

The draft got high marks for setting strong renewable portfolio standards that require utilities to get 25 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025, and for energy efficiency measures that include requiring utilities to demonstrate that their customers are becoming more efficient relative to business-as-usual projections. The efficiency standard would start with a 1% electricity savings in 2012 and gradually increases to a 15% cumulative electricity savings by 2020.

Missing, however, were details about how a carbon cap-and-trade auction would work – would polluters get free allowances? how would the auction revenues be divvied up? The draft also contains a section that would keep greenhouse gases off the list of pollutants regulated by the EPA. 

Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said his group would work with the committee "to flesh out the remaining details and move the strongest possible bill to the House floor.”

Environmental groups are caught between two desires on this bill. While they want stronger legislation than the draft they saw today, they know that greenhouse gas emissions need to start falling immediately to avoid the most serious climate changes, and they know Congress needs to give President Obama strong evidence of the U.S.’s intentions to take with him to Copenhagen.

Markey said Pelosi requested the draft legislation “so Obama can go to Copenhagen a leader, not a laggard, which President Bush was.” The bill would certainly give momentum to an international climate treaty, said Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen.

Union of Concerned Scientists Strategy and Policy Director Alden Meyer, who is attending a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Bonn, Germany, this week, said the bill was already sending a message to delegates.

"As opposed to the experience in Kyoto in 1997, other countries now are seeing real support in the Congress for binding limits on heat-trapping emissions. This improves the prospects for a new global agreement,” Meyer said.

Many elements of the proposal can and likely will change between now and when the House votes. Markey said he and Waxman are talking with Republicans and stakeholders on all sides, from utilities to the United Mine Workers to the steel industry to environmental and social justice advocates.

The good news is that at least for now we still have EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson laying down the law for climate abusers while Congress figures out what to do.


See also:

EPA Sends Endangerment Finding to White House

Senator Boxer Plays the EPA Card

House Climate Bill a Centrist Balancing Act


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