Climate push sputters
Despite mid-term political deadlock, looming EPA rules may galvanize legislators
By WES SANDER
It's anyone's guess when Congress may pass climate change legislation or what form that measure will take.
Popular wisdom says a proposal in the U.S. Senate won't go far this year because increasingly partisan politics won't accommodate a complex issue before elections in November. The uncertain prospects for an altered Congressional membership next year makes the picture all the hazier.
Pressure to pass legislation is said to be building from several sides, including industries poised to capitalize on alternative-energy markets and environmentalists who want tough rules. With the Environmental Protection Agency poised to issue its own rules under the Clean Air Act regulating greenhouse gases, industries that expect to be hit by those caps would rather see legislation that attacks the issue more comprehensively.
Even as the EPA is crafting its proposed rules, President Barack Obama has said he favors legislation over regulation.
While Congress moves gradually, observers give it little chance of passing the Senate before November elections. But the looming threat of new EPA rules could create enough political pressure to push the matter in 2011.
But what the legislation might contain is up for debate.
Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., have published a draft of their American Power Act, a comprehensive bill to address climate change and curtail emissions through a cap and trade program.
A cap and trade system would limit greenhouse-gas emissions while allowing emitters to meet a portion of the cap through government-supplied allowances and offsets produced by third parties.
Critics point out that any emissions cap would create costs, which would ultimately fall to consumers and industries, including agriculture, that purchase products from capped industries.
The bill is largely an amalgam of previous measures passed by various Senate committees, with elements taken from a bill narrowly passed by the House of Representatives a year ago. Agencies are still analyzing it, and Senate leadership has signaled that the Senate could address it this summer.
"I wouldn't bet the farm that something would pass this year," said Manik Roy, vice president for federal government outreach with the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "But I wouldn't bet the farm against it either."
And if Republicans control Congress next year, as many observers predict, they will likewise face pressure to show progress, Roy said.
That's in part because there is support among various industries for climate legislation, he said. Companies are anticipating the public investment in alternative-energy technologies that legislation is expected to bring, along with the emissions rules that will lay the groundwork for markets, Roy said.
"There is a strong business constituency that believes that if given the proper signals, they can do tremendously well in the clean energy economy," Roy said.
But Rick Krause, senior director of Congressional relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation, said a Republican Congress would likely address climate issues without a cap and trade system.
EPA rules loom
Krause said lawmakers must address the looming specter of regulations by the EPA to curtail emissions of carbon dioxide, a mandate that stems from a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Agriculture interests fear the strict limits that could eventually befall many producers and processors.
"It's a lot easier to stop these regulations before they get going in the first place," Krause said. "The preferred alternative is to preempt EPA, which Congress can do."
Although EPA intends to start at low restrictions and ratchet them up over the coming decades, interest groups say the rules will eventually cap small businesses. Legislation is expected to target large emitters while providing avenues for softening impacts.
A resolution by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, could nullify EPA's authority to regulate carbon dioxide, thus blocking its new rules. But Murkowski's measure is given little chance of succeeding, because the resolution needs passage from both houses of Congress along with Obama's signature.
Issue driven by public
Circumstances could intensify public support, Roy said. Popular opinion against the nation's reliance on oil has grown in recent years, and the ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil spill is bolstering that atmosphere, he said.
Legislation like the House bill and the Senate proposal answer those concerns by boosting alternative energy development.
But recent polls suggest that Americans are growing less concerned about global warming and more skeptical about its causes. A Rasmussen Reports survey released April 19 showed 54 percent of respondents thought global warming was a serious problem, down 8 percentage points from the previous year.
That same poll showed that 48 percent said global warming was caused by natural trends, while only 33 percent said it was man made. That's in sharp contrast to a similar Rasmussen survey in 2008 that showed 47 percent believed global warming was man made, as opposed to 34 percent who said it was the result of long-term, natural trends.
A Gallup poll released in March found that 50 percent of those surveyed said global warming was man made, while 46 percent said it was not. That compared to 58 percent and 38 percent respectively in a similar poll in 2008.
Gallup also found 53 percent believe economic growth should trump environmental protection when those objectives conflict.
Rick Frank, director of the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at University of California-Berkeley, says political energy will move Congress next year, not the profile of its membership. That means lawmakers will enact some means of regulating emissions if public opinion pushes it.
"These issues of climate change are not going away," he said.