The Can-Do Congress?

With Democratic Control Comes a Flood of Climate and Energy Initiatives

The word "logjam" was coined to address a problem that developed in the last century when loggers floated their timber downriver to be processed. It was a dangerous job to remove the "key log" holding the jam in place, allowing the rest of the wood to float free. Something similar existed in the Republican-controlled Congress: Bills on energy and climate change (unless they used those words as cover for fossil fuel extraction or oil drilling) became trapped in the legislative logjam.


But something altogether different is afoot in the 110th Congress. With Democratic control, a flood of new energy and climate legislation has been unleashed, and some of it has at least reasonable prospects for passage. And congressional hearings are uncovering information that was long kept secret. Sunlight, they say, is the best disinfectant.

"So much is going on," says Julia Bovey, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "There has been a backlog of questions concerning how the Bush administration and federal agencies under his watch have been treating the environment. Now, with new leadership, they want answers."

While clean energy advocates for groups like NRDC, Environmental Defense and the Sierra Club swarm Capitol Hill and try to influence legislators, the rest of us may be having trouble keeping score as new bills are being introduced almost daily, and all of them claim to be the key to cutting fossil fuel dependence and effectively reducing emissions (either because they’re hard hitting or, conversely, weak enough to win passage).

Lots of Legislation

Probably the strongest bill currently pending is the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act (S.3698) in the Senate, now known as Sanders-Boxer. (It was initially sponsored by Barbara Boxer [D-CA] and James Jeffords [I-VT], but since Jeffords" retirement new Senator Bernie Sanders [I-VT] has adopted it.)

Implementing Sanders-Boxer would require drastic reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, capping them at 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The House has a similar bill, the Safe Climate Act (H.R. 5642) sponsored by Henry Waxman (D-CA). It would also cap CO2 at 80 percent of 1990 levels.

Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) introduced a bill, the Global Warming Reduction Act of 2006 (S. 4039) with language slightly more palatable to industry, capping emissions at 65 percent of 2000 levels by 2050. And there are at least three other less-inclusive bills pending that address global warming, introduced by Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), Representatives Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) and John Olver (D-MA), and Representatives Mark Udall (D-CO) and Tom Petri (R-WI). The best-known bill, the Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act (S. 1151) was introduced by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT). The original McCain-Lieberman bill was regarded as a halfway measure by many environmental groups because it only required capping emissions at 2000 levels by 2100. A reintroduced bill in the current Congress has stronger caps: It requires that emissions be reduced to2004 levels by 2012, 1990 levels by 2020, and60 percent below1990 by 2050. But even this bill contains large subsidies for the nuclear power industry. "That’s a deal breaker for us," says NRDC’s Bovey. "We completely disagree that we need nuclear power to meet our global warming targets—we have biofuels, wind and solar. Nuclear is already over-subsidized, and they haven’t solved the waste and safety issues."

In an interview, Senator Lieberman said his bill has the most bipartisan support of the "economy-based" climate bills, but he declined to predict which bill would be approved. "The only prediction I am prepared to make is that before the end of this Congress, or early in the next one, a majority of the Senate will vote in favor of a strong climate bill," he says. Asked why his plan subsidizes nuclear power, Lieberman says that "nuclear power emits no greenhouse pollution. Twenty percent of America’s electricity is from nuclear power and we know that to meet the challenge of climate change we need to have all the tools at our fingertips, such as energy efficiency, renewable energy and zero-emissions coal."

In a Boston Globe op-ed article he wrote with Senator McCain, Lieberman says his bill "would harness the power of the free market and the engine of American innovation
to forestall catastrophic global warming."

But scientists say it’s impossible to say with certainty that any particular legislation would forestall catastrophic climate change. Dr. Gavin A. Schmidt, associate research scientist at Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems, says that the McCain-Lieberman targets are "ambitious, given the short time frame, but it is on the order of magnitude that is needed to reduce CO2 growth to very small levels. If the bill reaches that target it would help a great deal to reduce the scope of the problem. The important thing, however, is not the bill’s intent but its practical achievement. I don’t think we’re going to reduce our CO2 output that drastically by 2050, so it’s likely it would have to be achieved through carbon sequestration [the process whereby CO2 is harbored in plants or the ocean to prevent its release into the atmosphere]."

The problem, Schmidt adds, is that we don’t know with any precision at what level of emission the catastrophic tipping point occurs. "We don’t know if the carbon sinks in the ocean will start to fill up. We don’t know what carbon feedbacks will be added on land as the planet warms."

And then there’s the problem of defining just what constitutes catastrophic, or dangerous global warming effects. "Dangerous climate change would include a huge acceleration of sea-level rise due to the collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheets, or droughts in the sub-tropics that are more sustained than anything we’ve seen before," Schmidt said. "And the thresholds for these things are really uncertain. We just know that the further we push the system, the chances of bad things happening are greater."

A Sense of Urgency?

And we are pushing the system very hard. Texas alone had proposed building 16 new coal-fired power plants, until a groundbreaking agreement between environmentalists and the TXU Corporation cancelled eight of them. But the Texas plants are only part of the problem; an incredible 150 coal plants have been proposed by U.S. energy companies, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG).

A report in Strategy+Business magazine predicts that current car ownership growth rates in India and China could result in a doubling of the world’s auto population, to one billion, by as early as 2020. The New York Times Magazine reported recently that China now has 23,000 miles of roads, double what existed in 2001 and second only to the U.S. There were a relatively insignificant six million cars on the road there in 2000, but now there are 20 million. "The astronomic growth of China’s car-manufacturing industry will soon hit home for Americans and Europeans as dirt-cheap Chinese automobiles start showing up for sale here over the next two or three years," the magazine reported.

And, of course, even if the Kyoto Protocol (an international treaty signed by 160 countries) is successful (a big if, given the current state of compliance), it will only move the world a short distance on its path to carbon reduction. According to Margo Thorning, managing director of the International Council for Capital Formation (ICCF), "By 2010, the net reduction in global emissions from Europe meeting the Kyoto Protocol will be only 0.1 percent because of all the growth coming in places like India, China and Brazil."

A major problem in Kyoto compliance is that some governments in Europe and elsewhere (including the non-signing U.S.) equate reduced carbon emissions with declining economic growth. "No country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge," says British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Talk of targets, he said, "makes people nervous." Still, Britain is committed to a 60 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, and Chief Science Advisor David King calls climate change "the biggest problem facing us in the 21st century."

Will Europe as a whole work toward compliance? An ICCF report predicted that complying with Kyoto will reduce Spain’s economic growth by three percent, and that of Italy by two percent. But the European Union (EU) has agreed to an ambitious plan that would cut emissions to 20 percent below their 1990 levels (it could increase to 30 percent) by 2020.

The U.S., with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $12.37 trillion, is the largest single carbon dioxide emitter at 1.6 billion metric tons annually. But China, with a $8.158 trillion GDP and a billion metric tons of emissions, is catching up rapidly and will soon surpass the U.S. as the number one emitter. Obviously, both countries need to prepare for steep emission cuts, but neither one is doing so.

Getting Serious

One innovative approach to jump-starting the reduction process is being undertaken by the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which involves not only four major environmental groups—NRDC, Environmental Defense, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and the World Resources Institute—but also some heavy-hitting corporations. Alcoa, BP America, Caterpillar, Duke Energy, DuPont, General Electric, Lehman Brothers and PG&E are among them.

"We’re working substantively," says Carol Andress, a legislative policy analyst at Environmental Defense, "and are calling for a mandatory and fairly aggressive federal cap on CO2 emissions on the order of a 60 to 80 percent reduction by 2050. It’s a pretty big deal." USCAP believes that a carefully constructed policy, built around a cap-and-trade program for carbon, "can be economically viable, environmentally responsible and politically achievable." Under "cap and trade," companies that exceed the cap on greenhouse gas emissions can buy "credits" from companies with below-cap emissions. Some environmental groups don’t like cap and trade because big polluters will be able to escape regulation with a wave of the checkbook.

Andress says that Environmental Defense, one of the strategic partners in reducing the number of TXU coal plants in Texas, would like to see "a broad-based trading system to accompany the cap, with built-in flexibility to leverage the private sector on how they meet that goal. We want as efficient a market as possible." The group is supportive of several of the pending climate bills "so long as they have substantive carbon caps with long-term reduction goals."

The timing of the bills is crucial. The Democratic Congress moved quickly during its first 100 hours, and while it did not address climate change directly it did go after energy issues, passing a bill that will raise $14 billion for conservation and alternative fuels by repealing oil industry tax breaks and closing a loophole that allowed royalty-free offshore oil leases. "This measure is purely political with the goal of punishing an industry that has low favorability on Capitol Hill," says Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) wants to have a climate bill on the House floor by July 4, and the idea is getting a serious hearing in the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, which is holding two climate change hearings per week.

Passage in the House will likely be easer than in the Senate, where Senators can filibuster bills unless stopped by a 60-vote majority. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), who has called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," has promised just such a filibuster. He says, "The Kyoto Protocol is a lot of economic pain for no climate gain," and "legislation that has been proposed in this chamber would have even less of a temperature effect than Kyoto’s undetectable impact." Nodding his head in agreement is Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT), who said, "You remember the ice age? It’s been warming ever since, and there ain’t nothing we can do to stop it."

Tiernan Sittenfeld of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) says the group is "very excited" about what the Congress has already been able to accomplish. "It’s saying that enough is enough, that the days of padding budgets with subsidies to big oil are over. The first thing the last Congress did was pass a bill allowing more offshore oil drilling. Now we have huge challenges ahead of us, on clean energy and global warming."

Global warming legislation is certainly gaining traction. "It seems there’s a new bill introduced on global warming every day," Sittenfeld said. "It’s further evidence that the debate on global warming is finally over, and what we’re talking about now is what we"ll do to avoid the most catastrophic effects."

Not all the global warming naysayers are Republicans. Congressman John Dingell (D-MI) has a strong voting record on environmental issues (he received a 95 percent LCV voting score in 2004), but he has always backed his hometown auto industry positions on fuel economy and climate. Dingell is now chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, which gives him considerable leverage on climate change legislation. "Dingell been great on some environmental issues," says Sittenfeld, "and I don’t think he wants to go down in history as an obstructionist on climate."

In interviews, Dingell hedges his bets about energy and climate legislation in the new Congress. He points to the fact that China, classified as a developing country, gets a free ride in Kyoto legislation. He claims that the science isn’t fully understood, which may mean that he would use Congressional hearings to rehash an argument that is already settled. And he comes across as totally defensive about the U.S. auto industry, claiming—ludicrously—that American cars are better than Japanese when it comes to fuel economy.

Because of Congressional leaders like John Dingell, energy industry spokesperson Frank Maisano probably has a point when he says that "we are in a stage where there is a lot of irrational exuberance over what is possible. There will be a reality check at some point when we start talking about the specifics."

Not surprisingly, the energy industries prefer the Dingell go-slow approach. &quot

;Dingell wants to reduce climate change emissions in a way that is meaningful," Maisano says. He won’t ram a bill through just so Nancy Pelosi can say she passed something in time for the Inconvenient Truth Tour. It will take a long time, and it will be done in a collaborative manner with serious policy analysis. It’s no secret there is some tension there between Dingell and Pelosi over how to approach this legislation."

Maisano says that a strong mandatory global warming cap could send U.S. jobs to countries that "not only have done nothing to stop climate change, but fail to control the pollutants we’ve already regulated, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides."

CAFE Clash

Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s global warming program, calls John Dingell a formidable force who is nonetheless a "superb vote counter." Dingell equivocates, Becker says, because he will not stand in the way of a global warming bill if he thinks it has a chance to pass.

Unfortunately, Becker doesn’t think that a bill putting a broad cap on CO2 is going to pass anytime soon. "It’s more likely that this Congress will adopt a bill that curbs global warming emissions from a particular industry, not a broad brush approach," Becker says. "Only the auto industry opposes reform of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) laws; everybody opposes the cap. If it affects all industries, all industries will oppose it. Cleaner fuels, wind, solar, all of these create easier opportunities for Congress to contribute to a solution. When it comes to issues, Congress likes to find something that will address the problem and then move on."

Reforming CAFE would be a major coup, since it has stagnated for 20 years, with the requirement for cars stuck at 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg) and light trucks (the category including SUVs) increasing only slightly (up from 20.7 mpg to 22.5 mpg in 2008, and 23.5 mpg in 2010).

The highest level of U.S. fuel economy was actually achieved in 1987, when cars and light trucks averaged 26.2 mpg. Despite major technological gains in the subsequent two decades, actual fuel economy has declined two miles per gallon since then. And the average weight of new vehicles (especially SUVs) climbed from an average of 3,220 to 4,066 pounds.

Fuel economy is directly related to CO2 emissions, which is why recent California legislation, signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, links the two. Schwarzenegger is on record as calling for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2050. The statewide carbon cap he recently signed doesn’t go quite that far, but it does offer 25 percent reductions from current levels by 2020. Asked about CAFE by Grist, Dingell rhapsodized about our "way of life," saying, "Why do Americans buy SUVs? They buy them because they’re big, because they’re comfortable, because they feel safe, because they can haul six kids and a big load of groceries." He neglected to mention that SUVs are terrible on ice, have poor stopping distances and are no safer than cars when the rollover risk is included. In other words, many of the reasons Americans give for buying SUVs are based on misinformation.

Despite Dingell, Sittenfeld says she’s seeing increased momentum on reforming CAFE, with some members of Congress changing their position on the issue. There is also good progress, she added, on imposing a federal renewable energy standard, which would require utilities to generate a certain percentage of their electricity from clean, renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass. A bipartisan bill in the House, sponsored by Tom Udall (D-NM), Todd Platts (R-PA), Mark Udall (D-CO), Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Chris Shays (R-CT), Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Jerry McNerney (D-CA) would implement a 20 percent renewable energy standard by 2020.

And there’s also dramatic progress on convincing carmakers to adhere to a single strong clean emission standard. Maryland is the latest state to adopt the ultra-clean California emission rules, abandoning the dirtier federal laws. Becker now counts 13 California emission states, including all of the west coast and all of New England except New Hampshire. With even one more non-contiguous state (located, perhaps, in the Midwest), supply headaches would mean "we could force the auto companies to adopt a national standard," says Becker. "The handwriting is on the wall for them."

Despite the appearance of momentum, it’s still hard not to get discouraged about the huge obstacles in the way when confronting climate change and fossil fuel dependence. Even many of the countries that embraced Kyoto will fail to achieve their commitments. The Bush administration has two more years in office. Climate naysayers, from Rush Limbaugh to ExxonMobil, continue to put their clout behind disinformation campaigns, and they continue to convince people that there is an ongoing scientific debate. We’re not heading toward car-free societies; instead, as Asia embraces four-wheeled transportation, we could be looking at a billion tailpipes around the world by 2020. New coal plants are sprouting like weeds in the U.S. and abroad, and very few will be equipped to sequester carbon. And some environmentalists continue to reject almost any cleaner energy solution (including wind turbines and offshore liquefied natural gas platforms), trusting somehow that solar panels and battery-powered cars will lead us to a new age.

Robert J. Samuelson caught this pessimism well in a recent Washington Post column. "Don’t be fooled," he wrote. "The dirty secret about global warming is this: We have no solution. About 80 percent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), the main sources of manmade greenhouse gases….Until we can replace fossil fuels or find practical ways to capture their emissions, governments will not sanction the deep energy cuts that would truly affect global warming."

The paradox is that Samuelson is probably right, but we can’t allow him to be. Somehow, the men and women in our newly elected Congress are going to have to push past the phalanx of lawyers, lobbyists and corporate flacks and get to work. We may have no solution today but we need one by tomorrow.

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E