Senate Climate Bill Wars Begin: What to Expect in the Next Round

For climate legislation, clearing the House last month by a slim seven-vote margin marked a major step toward passage of the first comprehensive regulation of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. But as we wrote after the vote, it was only the beginning — with a series of hurdles and open questions remaining. This week, the Senate begins in earnest the slog to produce its own version of the legislation with a set of hearings that will help shape key, controversial issues in the draft — including the role of agriculture in offsetting carbon emissions and producing alternative fuels, how to control emissions while competing in a global economy, and how to manage international trade.

To kick things off, lawmakers on the Committee on Environment & Public Works heard testimony Tuesday from the Obama administration’s energy, environment and agriculture chiefs in a general hearing on legislative tools for “moving America toward a clean energy economy and reducing global warming pollution.” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in her opening testimony, “I know there are a variety of proposals pending in the Senate that have the same goals,” namely: decreasing reliance on oil imports, creating jobs in “emerging clean energy technologies,” and reducing pollution. But at this point, lawmakers are finding plenty to disagree about.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the committee and will be the lead author for the core components of the bill, said that when it comes to climate and energy solutions, Republicans have established “a pattern of no — no we can’t. No we won’t,” as the Green Inc. blog notes. That’s a pattern Jackson sought to help break, focusing much of her testimony on the question of cost, one of the major sources of opposition to the cap and trade system and renewable energy mandates approved in the House version — and something that backers in the Senate will have to address further in order to win enough votes for a green light.

Jackson cited support for legislation like the version passed in the House from some labor unions, manufacturing companies, electric utilities, environmental groups and consumer advocates. Noting that the Congressional Budget Office expects the legislation to cost households less than a dollar a day by 2020 (50 cents for an average household, 70 cents for the wealthiest fifth, and a net gain of at least 10 cents for the poorest fifth), she asked:

Can anyone honestly say that the head of an American household would not spend a dollar a day to safeguard the well-being of his or her children, to reduce the amount of money that we send overseas for oil, to place American entrepreneurs back in the lead of the global marketplace, and to create new American jobs that pay well and cannot be outsourced?

Jackson’s counterparts at other agencies reiterated support for a bill similar to the one that passed the House. They do have different priorities, however, and each reflects a point of contention for lawmakers in the bill. DOE Chief Steven Chu, meanwhile, emphasized the need for additional investment in “truly transformative solutions,” beyond those that we can deploy today or even see coming on the horizon. “To achieve our long-term goals in a more cost-effective way,” he said, “we will need a sustained commitment to research and development. Only R&D can deliver a new generation of clean technologies.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose agency won authority over carbon offsets from agriculture-based projects in a coup for farmers late in the House negotiations last month, urged Senators to work with “rural America” and the agriculture industry. He said, “A viable carbon offsets market — one that rewards farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners for stewardship activities — has the potential to play a very important role in helping America wean itself from foreign oil.”

From here, the Senate’s attention will shift from the overview — which makes sense for an early hearing chaired by the lead author — to more narrowly focused hearings. On Wednesday, as Greenwire notes, the Senate Finance Committee will consider international trade issues that complicate this kind of domestic climate policy and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will look for lessons about “industrial competitiveness” from Europe’s implementation of climate policy over the last several years. (You can check out the webcast of that hearing at 2:30 p.m. EDT here). By September 18, all committees are supposed to finalize their sections of the bill. Then it’s on to a full session markup for more compromises, carve-outs and political jujitsu.