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The climate may be right for a warming bill

Interest is growing in Congress, but the first measure to advance since Democrats took control is in trouble.

February 06, 2008|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Scores of climate change bills are stacking up in the legislative queue. Numerous hearings, the most recent on the polar bear, are highlighting the issue. And some regulation-averse corporate executives have even called on Congress to step in.

But despite the dramatic shift in the Capitol in favor of doing something to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, global warming legislation remains a long shot for this year.

Proponents always knew it would be tough to get a bill with mandatory limits through a narrowly divided Congress and past President Bush. But the first bill to advance since Democrats won an effective majority in 2006 has run into unexpected roadblocks.

Some environmentalists are complaining that it isn't strong enough, and they worry that it may even be watered down. They want to wait to take up a bill after the November election, when Democrats might capture more seats in Congress, as well as the White House.

Many business groups are no more enthusiastic, saying the bill would drive up costs and make it harder for them to compete globally at a time of anxiety about the economy.

And if the criticism from both sides isn't enough, this is of course an election year -- a time when partisan tensions heighten in Congress, making it difficult to pass anything controversial.

Still, congressional leaders are determined to press ahead.

"We must pass the strongest bill we can," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, "but we must remember that the perfect cannot be the enemy of the very good."

Those hoping to pass the bill point out that just a year ago it was unimaginable that environmentalists would win a decades-long fight for tougher fuel economy standards. After the auto industry relented, the measure passed and Bush signed it.

Environmentalists hope that scenario will be repeated with global warming.

"You now have a big chunk of industry saying, 'Let's just get this done,' " said Manik Roy, director of congressional affairs for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

The Senate has moved faster than the House. Boxer's committee has approved a bill by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.) that would cap greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, factories, oil refineries and other polluters.

The bill, called America's Climate Security Act, would require companies that exceed the limits to buy credits from other companies that more than meet them.

The House is still working on its bill. Its leaders say they are determined to try to send a bill to the president before Congress adjourns this year, but they acknowledge that it will be difficult.

More senators support mandatory emission reductions than the last time the issue came up for a vote. That was in 2005, when a bill drew the support of 38 senators.

With Democrats holding a narrow working majority in the Senate (the two independent senators generally vote with them), the bill's supporters need Republican votes to reach the 60 required to overcome a filibuster. But when the measure passed the Senate's environment committee, it received the support of only one Republican: Warner.

And a prominent Republican who was an early advocate of mandatory emission reductions opposes the bill. Sen. John McCain of Arizona objects that the measure doesn't promote nuclear power, a low-emission energy source he sees as a crucial part of the solution.

The bill has generated concern from industry groups such as airlines and oil and gas producers. The American Iron and Steel Institute said the bill would make U.S. businesses less competitive, saying that it "applies an uneven standard to American manufacturers, while not addressing the carbon footprint of our major foreign competitors."

William Kovacs, vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, dared Democrats to pass a bill he said would drive up utility costs at a time of high economic anxiety.

"Go for it," he said, warning that lawmakers could expect their votes to become a campaign issue.

In a sign of the difficult road ahead, Duke Energy Co., one of the companies that has supported an emissions cap, objects that the measure "unduly penalizes consumers in the Midwest, Great Plains and Southeast who depend on coal for much of their electricity."

Opposition from coal-using utilities is important because a large number of senators hail from states that produce coal or rely on it to produce electricity.

Still, there are companies, including Alcoa, that see the bill as a way to end the uncertainty over regulation they think is inevitable. The aluminum producer called the bill a "strong enough start."

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