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First U.S. Climate Emissions Control Bill Heads to Senate Floor

WASHINGTON, DC, December 6, 2007 (ENS) – A Senate committee approved a landmark global warming bill Wednesday night, calling on the nation to cut greenhouse gas emissions some 70 percent by 2050. Although the measure faces an uphill battle in the full Senate, proponents say the vote signals a growing consensus within Congress and among the American public that the United States needs to take more aggressive action to tackle global warming.

“This is a historic moment for this committee and for this country,” said Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “What happened here today will not go unnoticed. The whole world is watching.”

The committee passed the bill by a vote of 11-8 at the close of a contentious hearing that lasted more than nine hours and included consideration of more than 40 amendments.

The lone Republican supporting the measure was Senator John Warner of Virginia, who coauthored the bill with Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Independent.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee debates the Warner-Lieberman bill. December 5, 2007 (Photo courtesy EPW)

“The United States simply has to lead on this issue,” Warner told colleagues. “We are the superpower in the world and we’ve got to use our status.”

The bill would establish a complex trading system for emissions credits with the goal of reducing total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions some 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 and 70 percent by mid-century.

The trading system, similar to one in the European Union, would allow companies to buy tradeable allowances to emit the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to ensure the overall reduction targets are met.

An amendment to the bill also requires a national low carbon fuel standard, calling for a five percent cut in the carbon content of transportation fuels by 2015 and a 10 percent cut by 2020.

The bill stands in contrast to the policies of the Bush administration, which has steadfastly opposed any mandatory limits on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

“This bill is the most far reaching global warming bill in the world,” said Boxer, who said proponents of action now have “the wind at our backs.”
The Independence coal-burning power plant operated by Entergy Arkansas. (Photo courtesyEntergy Arkansas)

The California Democrat said the bill meets two primary goals – to make meaningful cuts in U.S. emissions while keeping the economy strong – but acknowledged that she would favor more aggressive action.

“I don’t think this is a perfect bill,” Boxer said. “So why am I so strongly in favor of keeping our coalition together to move this very strong bill forward, even though it’s not perfect? Because, ladies and gentlemen, we are facing a crisis that will hit our children and our grandchildren the hardest if we don’t act aggressively. Not to act would be wrong, cowardly and irresponsible.”

But Warner’s fellow Republicans remained unconvinced of the plan’s merits, and their comments indicate a partisan divide still lingers.

Republicans on the panel argued that the bill would cause undue harm to the U.S. economy, increase energy prices and do little to address the global issue of rising greenhouse gas emissions.
From left: Senator John Warner, Senator James Inhofe, Senator Barbara Boxer debate amendments to climate emissions control bill. December 5, 2007 (Photo courtesy EPW)

“This bill is all pain and no gain,” said Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, who promised “an enormous floor fight” when the full Senate debates the measure.

Inhofe has pledged to filibuster the bill, ensuring it will need 60 votes to pass the narrowly divided Senate. That means proponents must gain the support of at least nine Republicans, a hurdle that could prove difficult.

Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig offered several amendments to provide “off-ramps,” allowing the cap and trade plan to be modified or abandoned if it is shown to be harming U.S. economic competitiveness or failing to reduce global temperatures.

He also proposed a sunset clause be inserted, mandating China and India adopt similar plans within a decade.

“If we are going to send this country into a long march into the future, let us take everyone with us,” Craig said.

The panel rejected those amendments, which proponents said would effectively kill the plan.

“Allowing China or India to pull down our legislation through inaction is something I simply could not accept,” said Warner.

There are already mechanisms within the bill to encourage China, India and other nations to follow U.S. leadership. One clause calls on the United States to impose tariffs on nations who fail to adopt similar policies.
The Shiheng coal-burning power plant in China’s Shandong province. (Photo courtesy CLP Group)

Republicans claim that language is too weak and likely to set up international trading disputes.

“You’re naive if you think this bill will have some sort of impact on China through osmosis,” said Senator George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican. “They won’t do it.”

The bill’s supporters countered that China, India and others are waiting for the United States to lead and argued that the nation has a moral responsibility to act.

“If we are going to get China to move, we have got to show leadership,” said Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat.

Warner added that if the United States fails to act, “China and India will hide behind America’s skirts of inaction and take no steps of their own.”

Committee members also clashed over amendments to open additional offshore areas to natural gas production and to expand nuclear power.

Boxer argued those are energy production issues not under the jurisdiction of her committee, but it is expected that both issues will reemerge on the Senate floor as senators from all parties raise concerns about how the nation will generate enough clean energy to meet the bill’s targets.

“We’re not going to reach the goal of reducing greenhouse gases that this bill makes without nuclear power,” Lieberman said.

Criticism of the bill was not limited to the Republican side of the aisle. Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, who voted for the bill, urged his colleagues to tighten the emission targets to 80 percent by 2050.

Scientists are now saying the problem of global warming is “even more severe than previously believed,” Sanders warned colleagues.

New evidence indicates that if industrialized nations do not cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050 “there is a 50 percent chance we will reach a tipping point at which time massive damage will become unavoidable,” he said.

Sanders’ amendment failed, with Lieberman, Warner and Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, joining nine Republicans to kill the provision.

Lieberman expressed understanding for Sanders’ concern but emphasized he is focused on moving the bill forward, saying, “The most important thing is to get something passed, to get something started.”

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