Senate committee passes climate bill putting US back in the Copenhagen game, but broad compromises predicted

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Publish date: November 4, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

WASHINGTON – A controversial US climate bill, a version of which cleared the House of Representatives in June, was been passed by a US Senate committee today by a vote of 11 to 1, allowing it to move forward through other senate committees before a vote, and for President Barack Obama to gain some momentum in the days leading up to next month’s climate negotiations in Copenhagen.

Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee ignored a Republican boycott of discussions of the bill and used their majority to approve the legislation that would require US industry to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases 20 percent by 2020, from 2005 levels.

Boxer’s is just one committee among five other Senate committees, which also will weigh in with their draft bills on slowing the pace of climate change before any bill receives a vote in the full chamber, possibly next year. But the mood on Capitol Hill was still exuberant for the Democrats.

"I think this is a great signal for Copenhagen that there’s a will to do what it takes to advance this issue," committee Chairman Barbara Boxer told reporters after her panel voted.

Jonathan Temple, Director of Bellona USA praised the Democratic members of the EPW committee for moving forward with the drat legislation, but cautioned that there is a long way to go before the passage of a final bill.

“There are many conflicting interests that need to be satisfied if this legislation is to pass,” Temple said.

“It is encouraging that the Senate Committees understand the urgency of the situation. It is an opportunity for the US Congress to lead the debate as we go to Copenhagen,” he said.

Bill passes committee as EU dashes hopes of climate agreement
After gloomy prognoses coming out of Barcelona today, where the last climate negotiations before Copenhagen are wrapping up, an injection of enthusiasm from the American side will be welcome.

In Barcelona, UN Chief Climate Negotiator Yvo de Boer said today he is not expecting the much anticipated international meeting next month to culminate in a sought after worldwide climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

European observers have long been sceptical that the US climate legislation would pass Congress for Obama’s signature in time for the pressure-packed Copenhagen talks.

But US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Assistant Air Administrator Gina McCarthy called today’s vote “exciting.” She said that climate change “will be increasingly an issue that we must face, whether or not the legislation moves forward – and we have great hopes that it will.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Republican, said that the committee’s action today “was a critically important step toward crafting a good strong clean energy and climate bill. There is much more work yet to do,” he added.

Was it wise to move forward without the Republicans?
That the bill was passed in committee during the Republican walk out is bound to be an injury requiring long term treatment.

US Democratic Senators are acknowledging that they will likely fall short of their goal of passing the legislation – something seen as further hampering the chances of a climate agreement in Copenhagen  – before the Conference of Parties 15 (COP 15) beings on December 7th as Boxer’s bill lacks support for full approval.

Several moderate Republicans on Boxer’s Committee who were taking part in the boycott – including Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Richard Lugar of Indiana and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine – were angered that the bill moved forward in their absence. When it comes to a final vote on the floor of the Senate, the support of all of these senators will be critical to reaching the necessary 60 votes.

The Senators who boycotted the EPW committee’s deliberations on the legislation for three consecutive days, said they would oppose the bill until they had a "comprehensive analysis" of the economic impact of the legislation from the federal watchdog agency, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

But Boxer told reporters that further analysis by the agency was not necessary, and maintained that the EPA’s environmental impact assessment of a similar bill approved in June by the House of Representatives, was sufficient, said AFP.

"We found that, after questioning the EPA extensively, that the Republicans’ demand for another EPA analysis now would be duplicative and a waste of taxpayer dollars," she said.

Senator Collins said, “ The members of the EPW Committee have got to make decisions on the bill that’s before them. And to require them to make decisions on incomplete information strikes me as foolhardy and as foreclosing any possibility of Republican support.”

But Pennsylvania Democratic Senator Arlen Specter argued that it was important to pass the climate bill out of committee now, given the international spotlight on the Obama administration’s role during the forthcoming Copenhagen climate negotiations.

“Copenhagen is very important symbolically,” Specter said. “And Copenhagen would have been more impressed had we moved further. But Copenhagen will be impressed at least that we have the resoluteness to move ahead now.”

Compromises on the horizon
The balancing act between impressing delegates to Copenhagen by moving the committee bill forward, and doing so in the absence of Republican participation, will likely serve up plenty of humble pie for Democrats when they are forced to forge bilateral alliances in the months to come.

With this in mind, Senator John Kerry, who co-authored the committee-approved bill with fellow Democrat Boxer, is leading an effort with some Republicans and the White House to draft a compromise, Reuters reported.

With all seven Republicans chairs on the Senate Committee empty, 11 Democrats voted to approve the bill. Only one Democrat, Senator Max Baucus, who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee that also will review climate legislation, voted no.

Some areas where compromise is expected to enter into deliberations over the final form of the climate legislation include lowering its commitment to cut emissions from utilities, factories and oil refineries by 20 percent by 2020.

Baucus instead said he would endorse a goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent if other countries that gather in Copenhagen pony up with their own emissions cuts.

The June climate bill that narrowly passed the House of Representatives had set that 17 percent target.

Senators, many of them Democrats from the coal-dependent American Midwest and West will also seek their own changes in the legislation.

Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who ran against Obama for the presidency, is a strong supporter of climate legislation. He also said yesterday that he opposes any draft legislation that does not support the expansion of nuclear power.

The received wisdom in the Senate is that in order for any climate legislation to pass, it will have to forward new government incentives for expanding nuclear power and offshore oil drilling, as well as funding to support clean methods of burning coal, among them carbon capture and storage.

Jonathan Temple, director of Bellona USA, contributed to this report.