Senate Panel Adopts Emissions Curbs

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

A bill that would cut U.S. greenhouse gas pollution by 70% in 2050, relative to 2005 levels, was approved by a Senate panel last night in what supporters are hailing as a landmark vote in the fight to mitigate global warming. "Today, the Senate took a giant and historic step forward toward reversing a clear and present danger to our planet," said Senator Joseph Lieberman (I–CT) in a statement issued last night.

Yesterday's vote came after dozens of hearings by the Senate Environment and Public Works committee since Democrats took control of Congress in January. During a 10-hour session yesterday, members waded through dozens of amendments before adopting the bill by a margin of 11 to 8. The vote largely followed party lines.

Known as America's Climate Security Act of 2007 (S.2191), the bill would create a system in which businesses that create or deal with carbon emissions would be issued or sold allowances. This "cap and trade" system would allow them to emit greenhouse gases up to that level or trade the allowances if they could otherwise reduce pollution from operations with clean-energy technology. Introduced by Lieberman and Republican lawmaker John Warner of Virginia, who cast the only Republican vote in favor of the 303-page measure, the legislation affects everything from power plants to forests to elderly consumers facing rising electricity prices.

Yesterday's debate foreshadowed a number of hurdles that could prevent the legislation from ever becoming law. Republicans unsuccessfully offered amendments that would have automatically shuttered the system if more than 10,000 automaker jobs were lost or if experts found that it was not reducing world temperatures effectively. These failed on largely party-line votes, with panel chair Barbara Boxer (D–CA) repeatedly emphasizing that such "poison bill" amendments could upend the fragile coalition of environmental groups and selected industries that support the bill.

One significant provision that did pass was a fuel standard that would require a mix resulting in fewer greenhouse gas emissions by 2020--say, by increasing the percentage of biofuels. Other efforts to toughen the bill's provisions, led by senators Bernie Sanders (I–VT) and Hillary Clinton (D–NY), also failed. Their amendments would have increased the magnitude of the planned reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and reduced the size of initial allowances granted to fossil fuel industries. "This is what the science community wants us to do," said Sanders of a failed amendment that would have reduced emissions by 80% in 2050, relative to 1990 levels.

The Senate is unlikely to take any further action on the bill until next year, and getting the 60 votes needed to avoid an expected filibuster won't be easy. Beyond Warner, only a handful of Republicans are sympathetic to the bill, including senators Susan Collins (R–ME) and John McCain (R–AZ). But McCain demands more support for nuclear energy, an issue on which Democrats won't easily budge. Previewing what is expected to be a massive campaign against the bill, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently launched advertising on the Internet and in Washington, D.C.-area airports. The ads, featuring suburban professionals cooking with candles and jogging to work in suits, argue that the legislation would make energy too expensive.

Despite the remaining challenges, supporters see the committee vote as a victory. "Even if this bill doesn't pass the Senate and House next year, it is likely to be the blueprint for action early in the next president's term," said the Pew Environment Group in a statement.

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