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Climate-energy bill debuts in Senate, but prospects are dim

A climate-energy bill – one intended to appeal to enough factions to proceed through the Senate – was unveiled Wednesday after months of negotiations. But it recently lost its Republican sponsor, complicating its future.

By Staff writer / May 12, 2010

Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., at a news conference, with industry leaders, announcing their climate change bill on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 12, 2010.

Harry Hamburg/AP


Nearly a year after the House of Representatives approved a comprehensive climate-energy bill, two US senators on Wednesday unveiled their own plan for weaning America off fossil fuel and slashing carbon emissions tied to global warming.

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After intense behind-closed-doors discussions with fellow senators since last fall, Sens. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts and Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut released details of the bill to mixed reviews. Its sole Republican co-author, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, long under pressure from party leaders to withdraw from negotiations, dropped out of the trio last month.

The bill's prospects are uncertain, at best. Some analysts give it less than a 50 percent chance of passage now that Senator Graham has withdrawn his support. Moreover, it includes provisions for new offshore oil drilling – a concession meant to enlist certain senators' backing – but the Gulf oil spill has made that aspect of the legislation a "political toxin," says Kevin Book, an energy expert with ClearView Energy Partners.

Still, the bill's authors say they are hopeful, arguing that their legislation would help unhook the nation from overreliance on foreign oil, which costs the US $1 billion a day, and create a new energy infrastructure to add jobs and curb carbon emissions.

“The American Power Act will finally change our nation’s energy policy from a national weakness into a national strength,” Senator Kerry said in a statement. “We can finally tell the world that America is ready to take back our role as the world’s clean energy leader. This is a bill for energy independence after a devastating oil spill, a bill to hold polluters accountable, a bill for billions of dollars to create the next generation of jobs, and a bill to end America’s addiction to foreign oil."

Germane to Obama's energy policy

Passage of a climate-energy bill in the Senate is crucial to President Obama's energy plans, which push wind, solar, and other renewable sources. Unless a price is put on each ton of carbon emissions, many analysts say, the Obama plan won't gain traction.

Like the House bill, the Senate bill unveiled by Kerry and Lieberman is designed to win votes by doling out revenues from the sale of pollution permits. But even with all the ornaments on what Mr. Book calls a "Christmas tree" bill, he still writes in his analysis that "Senator Graham’s retreat from active support of the bill makes it harder for Senators Kerry and Lieberman to muster a bipartisan consensus."

In addition, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill "has turned offshore drilling – an issue that once greased the wheels of the grand bargain – into a political toxin," he writes. Yet because "political winds can shift quickly," he adds, the Kerry-Lieberman bill "appears far closer than any of its predecessors to a climate bill that corporate stakeholders might actually want to pass."

The bill aims for a 17 percent cut in carbon pollution from 2005 levels by 2020, by reducing emissions from power plants and other industrial facilities. It goes on to call for a 42 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and 83 percent by 2050. It sets a price floor of $12 for each ton of carbon emissions, growing annually at 3 percent over inflation – with a $25-per-ton price ceiling increasing 5 percent annually.

What will happen to permit fees the government collects? Just about everyone who might want to vote for this bill would have some of their constituents get a cut.