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Sweeping climate-energy bill clears first big hurdle in Congress

The compromise measure would mandate reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions and require greater use of renewable energy. The Senate could be a major stumbling block.

By Staff writer / May 22, 2009

Rep. Henry Waxman (r.), Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee talks with Rep. Rick Boucher on Thursday during markup of a climate change bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009.

Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom

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New climate-energy legislation approved by a key congressional committee marks what some are calling the most significant tipping point in US energy policy in 30 years, thrusting the economy toward renewable energy and away from fossil fuels.

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The American Climate and Energy Act of 2009 (ACES) bill, approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday evening, is the second major step this week by US political leaders to boost energy efficiency and curb global climate change.

The first step came a few days ago when President Obama toughened vehicle tailpipe standards. If the president is able to sign a climate-energy bill ahead of December climate talks in Copenhagen, as some suggest is now possible, the two measures would give the US – the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitter per capita – far more clout in shaping a multinational response to the climate problem.

“This is a historic breakthrough for clean energy and the environment,” says Dan Lashof, climate center director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “It’s now absolutely feasible to get this bill enacted into law this year – before Copenhagen – and to give the US renewed credibility going into those talks.”

Energy and climate change linked

Because stemming carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning fossil fuels is central to the climate conundrum, bill architects Reps. Henry Waxman (D) of California and Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts combined the twin puzzles of energy and climate into one piece of legislation.

Some see it as a recipe for disaster – too big for Capitol Hill to swallow. But it appears the 946-page bill may achieve safe passage this year. If it does, it may be because Mr. Waxman spent weeks behind closed doors compromising and doling out valuable emissions allowances to industry and consumers to soften the blow of higher electricity rates.

Some environmental groups, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and others say there has been one compromise too many.

“We’re disappointed we can’t support the bill,” says Nick Berning, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth. “There just was not enough in it to reduce pollution while billions were given to big oil, dirty coal.”

Yet others read the compromises as adding political strength, paving the way for tougher future measures.