Is Senate Nearing a Bipartisan Climate Bill?

On April 22, 1970, millions of demonstrators across the United States took to the streets for the first annual Earth Day, a protest against what some called environmental deterioration.

Since then, Earth Day has become an international event, celebrated by millions to remind the world of the urgency of saving the environment. But as the 40th Earth Day approaches this week, the movement's momentum has yet to deliver new comprehensive energy legislation from the United States Congress.

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The House of Representatives in June passed the "American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009," a controversial cap and trade bill that imposed restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants.

Cap and trade rules let companies legally exceed emission limits by letting them trade or buy credits from other companies who pollute less.

A more stringent yet bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate, however, got little traction, and was eventually sidelined by the health care debate.

Now, senators are hoping to pick the momentum back up with a new set of proposals that addresses some of the criticisms of the earlier bill, and could nix cap and trade altogether.

Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., will release a new climate bill a week from today that aims to implement a national program to reduce carbon emissions by around 17 percent in the next ten years, and 80 percent by 2050. The bill will go sector by sector, starting with utilities that will have to phase out emissions by 2012, manufacturing by 2016, followed by transportation and other industries. Tax credits and rebates will be provided based on the state and its socio-economics.

Details of the tightly sealed program remain murky. Supporters are hoping the bipartisan effort will jolt enthusiasm on the much-awaited climate bill.

The bill is a "missing piece. It puts a whole infusion of new energy into the legislative process. We are very excited about it," said Maggie L. Fox, president and chief executive of Alliance for Climate Protection, an environment organization founded by former vice president Al Gore.

But Democrats -- fresh from their decisive battle over health care overhaul and now facing hurdles in financial reform -- may have little political capital left to spare for this hot-button topic.

"The whole issue of cap and trade has become this symbolic kind of silliness. When issues get into that mindset on the Hill, it's easier not to do something than to do something," said Steven Cohen, executive director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University. "I don't know that they're going to get the attention they need and the political emphasis to get this through."

Even if the bill were to pass the Senate, it would have to be voted on again by House members if changes are made. Many of the Democrats who voted for the climate legislation last year are much more wary now in the face of tough reelection battles in their home states. And at a time when climate change may not be as high on Americans' agenda as other worries, some may choose to avoid this sticky issue altogether.

The urgency of the global warming threat has waned slightly among Americans. A poll by Gallup last month showed that 48 percent believed that the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated, up from 41 percent in 2009 and 31 percent in 1997.

However, Americans are worried about domestic jobs, and supporters say the bill will help boost the economy and employment.

"I think that's what's really going to excite people," Kerry told Politico.

"When you take care of these kinds of issues you create wealth that creates economic opportunity," Cohen said. "This idea that somehow global warming is going to be good for the economy is silly."

Bipartisan Senate Climate, Energy Bill to be Introduced Monday

The bipartisan Senate bill, details of which are still being worked out, looks like it will be more than just a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, but an effort to forge a more comprehensive approach to energy policy. It seemingly avoids the pitfalls that sealed the fate of the unsuccessful bill introduced in September with much pomp, but it also opens up doors for new criticism.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the bill being drafted is its mandate to curb the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency. The bill will not eliminate the Clean Air Act of 1970, which gives EPA the power to regulate emissions of gases that it deems poisonous and harmful. But according to some reports, it will limit the EPA's powers, specifically to regulate greenhouse gases.

A year ago, the EPA determined that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases endanger public health, paving the way for them to place caps on their emissions. Environmental activists have been actively lobbying members of Congress to prevent language that limits EPA' authority from making its way into the bipartisan bill or other proposals that are currently on the table in the Senate.

Another thorny issue is a fee to be placed on refineries that emit carbons.

Some environmental activists are also likely to be unhappy with the decision to expand offshore drilling and nuclear power. President Obama announced this month to open up more offshore areas for exploration and drilling, and the Senate bill may need the same kinds of concessions to garner Republican support.

Critics of the Senates approach say the long-term emissions targets are not viable altogether, and that lawmakers should place more focus on investing in basic energy science research.

The emissions targets would require an "enormous amount of capital in the next 40 years to fix things that are not broken yet. This is pie in the sky talk," said Steven Hayward, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Others say the real focus needs to be on investing in renewable energy and carbon sequestration, long-term storage of carbon dioxide and other poisonous gases.

The president on Friday urged Senate to move quickly on climate legislation.

"This is one of these foundational priorities from my perspective that has to be done soon," he said.

The details of the bill remain to be seen, but as supporters gear up to celebrate Earth Day many say they are excited about the idea that at least this will keep the discussion on climate legislation going.

"In every other place where innovation is occurring in the 21st century, the United States is in the lead, except here," Fox said. "We're in a race and politics has prevented us from being first. As soon as we move through with this, we're back in the race. ... I think we're seeing that moment of breakthrough possible."