U.S. Climate Bill Stalls in Senate amid Controversy

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Kerry and LiebermanIn a new blog entry, Worldwatch Research Intern Shakuntala Makhijani reports on the cold political climate in the United States for passing legislation that addresses global warming.

After much anticipation, U.S. senators unveiled a cap-and-trade bill earlier this month to reduce greenhouse gases 17 percent by 2020 and more than 80 percent by 2050. The House of Representatives already passed a similar bill about a year ago, but many remain pessimistic that a climate bill can pass through the Senate this year, especially with midterm elections looming in November.

U.S. Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) released their climate bill, the American Power Act, earlier this month. As expected, the bill immediately met resistance from conservatives and criticism from some environmental groups. The controversial nature of the bill and competing political priorities for the U.S. Congress have resulted in little progress in pushing the bill forward.

Senate Republicans have cited traditional concerns, ranging from fear of negative economic impacts to lingering skepticism that climate change is human-caused at all. On the opposite end of the spectrum, environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Sierra Club, while in general supporting the bill, critique certain provisions, including subsidies for nuclear plants, promotion of offshore oil drilling, and measures that would limit state climate programs and the authority of the Clean Air Act. NRDC also criticized the bill for proposing to auction only one-quarter of emission permits in the initial years, giving away the rest for free to major emitting sectors such as electric utilities, heavy industry, and transportation. Permit allocation under the bill would gradually transition to full auctioning by 2030.

Some environmental groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and Friends of the Earth, had hoped that more permits would be auctioned from the start and that a greater proportion of auction revenues would be dedicated to renewable energy investment and international climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Environmental advocates fear that lawmakers will further reduce the bill's effectiveness in efforts to garner 60 votes, the threshold needed to avoid lengthy filibusters that can delay voting on the bill. Reaching the 60-vote plateau would require the support of moderate Democrats and Republicans, yet there are not many to enlist.

Meanwhile, more promising news came last week with the release of a nonpartisan study that concluded that the climate bill would create 200,000 additional jobs each year. The Peterson Institute for International Economics study found that the Kerry-Lieberman bill would encourage US$41.1 billion of annual investment in the energy sector, more than half of which would be additional to business-as-usual projections due to the bill requiring a shift from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources. These findings refute the traditional conservative argument that a climate bill would lead to an increase in unemployment. Nationally, unemployment was at 9.9 percent in April.

Similar studies from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Information Administration are expected next month. Senator Kerry has also been quick to point out that the emission permits would support economic recovery by returning a significant portion of the auction revenues back to consumers in an effort to ensure that consumers do not bear the economic burden of the energy transition. The revenue distribution plan mimics a proposal introduced by U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins in their cap-and-dividend approach, known as the CLEAR Act.

Visit Worldwatch's Re-Volt blog to learn more about strategies for low-carbon development around the world and the latest revolutions in energy production and consumption.

This article originally appeared on the Worldwatch Institute blog Re-Volt. For permission to republish this report, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org