US House of Representatives passes climate bill in squeaker vote late Friday

Publish date: June 26, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

In one of the narrowest votes in recent history, the US House of Representative Friday evening passed a sweeping energy and climate-change bill that supporters say will revolutionize the way the United States uses energy.

The bill still faces many hurdles as it is passed on to the Senate, but the historic vote was the first time either house of Congress had approved a bill meant to curb the heat-trapping gases scientists have linked to climate change. The legislation, which passed despite deep divisions among Democrats, could lead to profound changes in many sectors of the economy, including electric power generation, agriculture, manufacturing and construction.

The 219-212 vote represented a major victory for President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), both of whom invested significant political capital in ensuring the success of the ambitious measure.

At the heart of the legislation is a cap-and-trade system that sets a limit on overall emissions of heat-trapping gases while allowing utilities, manufacturers and other emitters to trade pollution permits, or allowances, among themselves. The cap would grow tighter over the years, pushing up the price of emissions and presumably driving industry to find cleaner ways of making energy.

"This is the most important environment and energy legislation ever passed in America,” said Jonathan Temple, Director of Bellona USA.

“We urge the Senate to follow up with a strong climate change bill in the Autumn".

What’s under the legislation’s hood
The final legislation has a goal of reducing greenhouse gases in the United States to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent by mid century.

When the programme is scheduled to begin, in 2012, the estimated price of a permit to emit a ton of carbon dioxide will be about $13. That is projected to rise steadily as emission limits come down, but the bill contains a provision to prevent costs from rising too quickly in any one year.

The legislation would also grant a majority of the permits free in the early years of the programme, to keep costs low. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the average American household would pay an additional $175 a year in energy costs by 2020 as a result of the provision, while the poorest households would receive rebates that would lower their annual energy costs by $40, the Budget Office said in statement.

But Democrats said that the legislation would cost the average household the price of "a postage stamp" per day and that a massive investment in renewable energy would create jobs and reduce the need for oil.

The legislation sets a national standard of 20 percent for the production of renewable electricity by 2020, although a third of that could be met with efficiency measures rather than renewable energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal power.

Other key features of the legislation include mandates for renewable electricity use and strict energy-efficiency requirements. It also calls for billions of dollars to fund research into technology for carbon capture and storage (CCS) which traps carbon emissions from coal and stores them underground.

A late amendment to the legislation would force major emitters, such as power plants and factories, to either obtain permits for their emissions or to "offset" them by investing in carbon-reducing projects such as tree-planting.

This late amendment included new authority for the federal government to speed construction of interstate power lines in the West and a variety of concessions to agriculture groups. Those concessions were key to winning the support of farm-district Democrats.

The amendment also included a provision that would impose a tariff on imports from nations such as China that fail to cut their emissions in concert with the United States.

Obama pleased as last minute lobbying pays off
President Obama hailed the House passage of the bill as “a bold and necessary step.” He said in a statement that he looked forward to Senate action that would send a bill to his desk “so that we can say, at long last, that this was the moment when we decided to confront America’s energy challenge and reclaim America’s future.”

Obama had lobbied wavering lawmakers in recent days, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore had made personal appeals to dozens of fence-sitters.

Representative Henry Waxman, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which initially released the bill from committee to vote and Pelosi also put their last minutes striking deals to woo farmers and push the bill onto the floor during a period of fragile consensus, spokesmen for Waxman and Pelosi told Bellona Web Thursday evening.

“Today the House has passed the most important energy and environment bill in our nation’s history,” said Waxman.

“Scientists say that global warming is a dangerous man-made problem. Today we are saying clean energy will be the American-made solution. This legislation will create jobs by the millions, save money by the billions and unleash investment in clean energy by the trillions,” said Waxman.
Political divides among Democrats and Republicans
There were political defections on both sides of the aisle: 44 Democrats voted against the bill; eight Republicans voted for it. The legislation pitted liberal Democrats from the East and West Coasts against more conservative Democrats from areas dependent on coal for electricity and on heavy manufacturing for jobs.

As difficult as House passage proved, it is just the beginning of the energy and climate debate in Congress. The issue now moves to the Senate, where political divisions and regional differences are even starker.

Supporters of the legislation say it would stimulate the economy by creating new "green" jobs, encourage investment in alternative sources of power and help wean the nation off its dependence on foreign oil.

Opponents say the bill would place a new tax on energy that would stunt economic growth, raise gas and electricity costs and do little to affect climate change globally.

Europe says bill falls short – but Germany still hopeful
The 1,500-odd page legislation – indeed a patchwork of compromises –  falls far short of what many European governments have said is needed to avert the worst effects of global warming.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in Washington on Friday for meetings with Obama, however, strongly endorsed the bill despite its shortcomings in European eyes.

Merkel, a long time advocate of strong curbs on emissions, has been pushing the United States to take a leading role before the climate negotiations, set for December in Copenhagen.

After meeting with Mr. Obama, she told reporters she had seen a “sea change” in the United States on climate policy that she could not have imagined a year ago when Preisdent. Bush was in office.

US environmental support
While the majority of US environmentalists enthusiastically supported the legislation, others, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, opposed it. Industry officials were split, with the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers opposing the bill and some of the nation’s biggest corporations, including Dow Chemical and Ford, backing it.

The US National Resources Defence Council (NRDC), one of American’s most powerful environmental organisations supported the passage of the bill.

 “America needs strong climate and energy legislation to protect our planet, to ensure a clean energy future, and to make us leaders in the 21st Century,” NRDC chair Frances Bieneke said in a video statement.

“Today we took a giant step forward in making this a reality. Passing the American Clean Energy Security Act marked the first time that clean energy legislation has been enact by the house of representatives,” she said,

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a telephone interview that, “(The legislation is) the most important environmental and energy legislation in our nation’s history – a huge achievement."

Republicans cry ‘tax’
Republican leaders called the legislation a national energy tax and predicted that those who voted for the measure would pay a heavy price at the polls next year.

“No matter how you doctor it or tailor it,” Representative Joe Pitts, Republican of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times, “it is a tax.”

Bill still an achievement
Yet by any mark, Friday’s vote was a surprising and welcome achievement for the US environmental community, which for years had endured the shunning of the rest of the developed world as the Bush Administration killed one international and domestic environmental initiative after another.

And it certainly faced troubled waters under Obama.

Weeks ago, it appeared the legislation would fall victim to disagreements between environmentalists and industry, between lawmakers from rural and urban areas, and between moderate and progressive Democrats.