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Of greenhouse gases and greenbacks

Senate debate on a proposal to impose pollution regulations is likely to center on the financial stakes.

June 02, 2008|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A major climate-change measure goes before the Senate this week for the first time since Democrats declared it a priority after taking control of Congress, but the long-awaited debate is ranging beyond the effects of global warming.

It also is focusing on Washington's most primal issue, money.

The bill would impose new pollution regulations on industries while significantly expanding another business, carbon "offsetting." Billions of dollars would potentially be available for farmers who offered polluters a way to make amends for excess emissions -- a provision that could attract crucial support from farm-state lawmakers.

"I definitely think this debate will be primarily about economics, because there are very few voices left who want to argue about whether or not global warming is really a problem," said Dan Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council climate center, a bill supporter.

Given the financial stakes, agricultural interests from Georgia pecan growers to Montana wheat growers are among those weighing in as lobbyists fortify their positions.

"The global warming fight is not only a battle over big pollution -- it's a battle over big bucks," said Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch.

The shift in the focus of the debate reflects two changes: The sense of urgency about climate change has grown, and businesses are more open to federal rules in order to avert future uncertainties.

A longshot, but odds rise

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.), seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 66% below 2005 levels by midcentury. Companies that cut gases even more than that could sell pollution rights to those having difficulty meeting caps.

Although the odds of passing such legislation climbed when Democrats won control of Congress in 2006, President Bush opposes mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The Senate measure is considered a longshot for passage this year.

Bill supporters say that even if they can't reach the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster, amassing majority support would provide momentum for next year. (In 2003, 43 senators voted in favor of an emissions cap, not enough for passage.)

All three major presidential candidates -- Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois -- support mandatory reductions, and the bill is expected to form the framework for action when a new administration takes over.

Backers and opponents have been turning up the heat.

If the U.S. imposes emissions caps when big polluters like China and India have not, critics contend, the American economy will be devastated, with more jobs heading overseas and energy prices rising further, especially in states that rely on coal power.

Lashof and other supporters counter that there is also "the cost of failing to address global warming."

Senate Environmental Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who will lead the fight for the bill, sought Saturday to rally public support.

"There are some in the Senate who insist that global warming is nothing more than science fiction," she said in the Democrats' radio address. "These are the same kind of voices who said that the world was flat, cigarettes were safe, cars didn't need air bags -- long after the rest of us knew the truth."

Cultivating farmers' help

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said sponsors were trying to "buy -- excuse me, win -- the support of groups all across this country."

"We should win support based on it being good policy," he said. "Instead, the authors of this bill have tried to win support by spreading money around."

For example: The auto industry would receive aid so it could build cleaner-burning engines, the coal industry to develop emissions-reducing technology.

For farmers, the bill offers a new opportunity to make money. After taking steps to keep carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere -- practicing no-till farming, for example, or planting trees on crop land -- they could sell so-called carbon offsets to polluters.

Sponsors hope those provisions will attract farm-state votes, much as an ethanol mandate generated pivotal Corn Belt support for 2005 energy legislation.

"We see the enthusiastic support of the ag community as being a critical element in piecing together the 60 votes we need," said energy lobbyist Eric Washburn, a former Senate aide.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said offsets were one reason he was now supporting the legislation, which would give Montana farmers "a chance to be part of the climate-change solution." He previously opposed emissions caps.

Businesses can already buy carbon offsets, but Washburn said mandatory reductions would "immensely" expand the number of industries involved.

In a sign of farmers' interest in offsets, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) himself registered as an offset provider on the Chicago Climate Exchange after planting more trees on his own farm.

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