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Climate Bill Underlines Obstacles to Capping Greenhouse Gases

By Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson

Washington Post Staff Writers

Sunday, June 1, 2008; A12

When the Senate takes up landmark climate legislation this week, its backers can be sure of just one thing: The obstacles they face show how hard it will be to enact a meaningful cap on greenhouse gases -- probably under the next administration.

The next administration, not this one, because even supporters of the complex, extensively negotiated 494-page bill say that there is little chance that it will win Senate approval, less chance that the House will agree on a similar measure and perhaps no chance that President Bush will sign it if it reaches his desk.

"In some ways, this is a dress rehearsal for next year, but I still think it will be a useful thing for the Senate and Congress, because at some point we have to deal with it," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who says he has yet to decide how he will vote.

For the moment, supporters of establishing a federal cap-and-trade system to curb emissions linked to global warming say they hope to put down a marker in the national debate over climate change. And lawmakers from both parties are eyeing how their votes might become fodder in this fall's presidential and senatorial elections.

The bill -- which would require that U.S. emissions be cut 18 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and nearly 70 percent by mid-century -- has picked up support in recent weeks from 13 unions in the AFL-CIO's building and construction trades department, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and many faith groups. It is also backed by companies such as General Electric and Alcoa and utilities such as Exelon, PG&E, FPL Group and Public Service Enterprise Group.

But it has run into opposition from some energy titans who say they favor a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions but argue that this version is the wrong one and will cost consumers too much.

"This is just a money grab," said James E. Rogers, the chief executive of Duke Energy. Rogers says he supports a cap-and-trade system but argues that this bill raises too much revenue from coal users while diverting too much of it to other purposes. "Only the mafia could create an organization that would skim money off the top the way this legislation would skim money off the top," he said. Duke, with customers in Ohio, Indiana and the Carolinas, relies heavily on coal-fired plants.

More than a dozen key senators -- including freshmen Democrats Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) -- have yet to endorse the bill. And Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who supports the bill, is staying neutral rather than pushing recalcitrant members of his caucus to back it.

"Generally, I believe that global warming is a serious issue and that we need to address it," said Dorgan, whose state produces lignite coal as well as wind power. But he added that he is still "digesting" the complicated bill, which he fears would not do enough to spur technology that would enable the country to continue burning coal.

"We thought and hoped we'd be in a more serious place, but most people are using it as an opportunity to vet ideas and advance ideas for the debate to come in the next Congress," said Tim Profeta, who directs Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. "Not many people see this as a serious piece of legislation that will become law this year."

That doesn't mean a lot of work hasn't gone into the bill. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who has led the fight for the bipartisan bill by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.), said in a statement that it is understandable that she and her colleagues are encountering resistance.

"This is landmark legislation, and enacting landmark legislation is never an easy task," Boxer said. "There is always an excuse not to act -- but in this case, the longer we wait, the harder it gets to solve this problem. Time is our enemy, and every expert has told us we face dangerous consequences from unchecked global warming if we do not address this problem now."

Still, most of the advocates who have spent years pushing for climate legislation said they hope that this week the Lieberman-Warner bill will get more than the 38 ayes a similar bill got in 2005 and the 43 received in 2003. A coal industry source said their lobbyists counted 45 senators favoring the bill and 47 definitely or leaning against it.

"The question is: Are you building for the future, or are you sending a signal this is just too hard to do?" asked Steve Cochran, who directs the Environmental Defense Fund's national climate campaign. "As long as we get our electricity where we get it from, our gas where we get it from, the same interests are at play, whether you have Democrats or Republicans in charge of Congress and whether you have a Democrat or Republican in the White House."

Some of the bill's strengths -- the most detailed framework yet for how to distribute pollution allowances to emitters, how to determine what offsets polluters can buy and how to contain potential spikes in carbon prices -- have sparked opposition from industry interests as well as politicians concerned about the bill's ultimate price tag.

Duke Energy has been urging its commercial and industrial customers to lobby senators. One is Nucor, a steel company with plants in Indiana and other states whose chief executive is also on Duke Energy's board of directors. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a coal industry group, has been running ads in a dozen states with senators believed to be undecided. One ad warns that "we may have to say goodbye to the American way of life we all know and love."

Political and personal differences, as well as policy ones, remain. Some Democrats, according to both Senate aides and environmental activists, resent having to vote for anything authored by Lieberman in light of his active support of the presidential bid of GOP Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). And several senators are questioning why they are being asked to vote on a lengthy substitute version of the bill that Boxer and her allies just introduced a week and a half ago.

Other Democrats question why the leadership is holding a vote that could bolster the environmental credentials of McCain and some Republicans in swing states. Yet even McCain, who co-sponsored earlier climate bills with Lieberman and who talks daily about the need for a cap-and-trade system as he campaigns, said last week that he will miss the vote and opposes this bill because it does not do enough to promote nuclear power. The remaining Democratic candidates, Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), both support the bill but might not leave the campaign trail to vote for it.

All of this has left opponents of the bill, such as Environment and Public Works ranking member and global warming skeptic James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), gloating. Andrew Wheeler, the panel's GOP staff director, said in an interview that Republicans will not filibuster the bill this week because they relish the chance to offer amendments highlighting the bill's effect on energy costs.

"People are looking at this; they're seeing that it's going to do destructive things to energy prices and gasoline prices," Wheeler said.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of McCain's who is considered a swing vote on the issue, said the fact that Boxer just reintroduced the bill makes it difficult to judge, and he added that he shares McCain's concern about its failure to help the nuclear industry. Still, he said some of his fellow senators need to realize that even if they oppose legislation this year, they cannot delay acting on it indefinitely.

"For my congressional colleagues, I would say the president's going to go down this road and the public's ready to be led down this road," Graham said Wednesday, while riding on McCain's campaign plane. "I don't see an alternative to cap-and-trade."

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