Bali, Hi! U.S. Congress Acts on Climate, Energy

Dec. 6, 2007--As representatives of the world's nations meet in Bali to discuss how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, the U.S. Congress is taking actions that will significantly enhance the credibility of American negotiators. Last night, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a bill that would establish a cap-and-trade system to cut emissions and accelerate adoption of new technology. By the end of this week, the House is expected to vote on an energy bill that would boost average fuel efficiency standards for vehicles from 25 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

Even if adopted by Congress, to be sure, both bills may end up getting vetoed by President George W. Bush. But they still will establish a legislative agenda for the coming years and outline a platform on which the Democratic Party's candidate for president¬¿whoever that turns out to be--surely will stand.

The House energy bill raising fuel efficiency standards, which may also include a renewable energy mandate requiring the nation's utilities to generate some fraction of their electricity from green sources by some year in the next decade, is considered a victory for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat. Though the House and Senate leadership has dropped sharply in the public's estimation since Democrats took control at the beginning of last year, Pelosi had to overcome substantial opposition in her own party to obtain the higher fuel efficiency standards--in particular, opposition from Rep. John D. Dingell Jr. of Michigan, an ardent and very powerful advocate of the U.S. auto industry's interests. In recent years, efforts to increase fuel efficiency standards have been stymied as much by jobs-oriented Democrats as by profits-minded Republicans.

The climate bill, America's Climate Security Act or S. 2191, also is a substantial legislative accomplishment. Co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, the bill emerged last summer as the favored compromise among a handful of similar proposals. The bill covers all sources that emit more than 10,000 tons of carbon in the electric power, industrial, and transportation sectors, and would cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020 and by 65 percent by 2050. Though the immediate targets fall far short of Kyoto, which required the United States to cut its emissions by 7 percent from their 1990 level by 2012, the bill would commit the country to the principle of binding emissions reductions. With many countries failing to meet Kyoto targets, sincere intentions now count for as much or more than actual immediate success.

Useful summary materials describing S. 2191 can be found at Lieberman's website, including semi-independent assessments. An important issue to watch as the bill wends its way through Congress is how existing big emitters of carbon are handled when emissions allowances are distributed and auctioned: experts like Granger Morgan, a professor of electrical engineering and public policy, have warned that "grandfathering" big coal plants built in recent years--that is, giving them emissions allowances for free, based on their historic emissions--would reward their owners for having made short-sighted investment decisions.

For background on U.S. bills--some 200 in all have been introduced in the last couple of years--Google on Congressional Research Service, climate, and the names Jonathan L. Ramseur and Brent D. Yacobucci. Though CRS reports are done strictly for Congress and are not meant for public distribution, many of them get leaked and end up being accessible online.

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