Reducing the US carbon footprint, toe by toe

The best hope for a climate-change bill this year is one that would mandate use of alternative energy sources for electric utilities. Many states are already doing this, and Congress should follow – especially when it can't lead on global warming.

After years of hot debate about global warming, Congress may finally act in July. But it would only be an opening act. Lawmakers are weighing only whether to order electric plants to generate power from renewable or “clean” energy sources.

Any bolder moves on climate change – a carbon tax, a cap on greenhouse-gas emissions, or a target to cut carbon levels in the air – have been benched because of high joblessness and election-year jitters about raising energy costs on consumers.

Power utilities, on the other hand, are easy pickings. They account for roughly 40 percent of emissions that contribute to climate change. And in 30 states so far, electric plants already face a variety of mandates to use alternative sources such as solar and wind. Washington may find it easier to build on these efforts than to lead a drive against global warming.

Utilities can also cushion the blow of pricier electricity because they have strong balance sheets, access to inexpensive capital, and can plan investments for the long term.

Congress may also want to take a “utilities-first” approach to climate change in hopes of preempting tougher action by the Environmental Protection Agency.

In May, the EPA took concrete steps to limit emissions of greenhouse gases among big emitters. It threatens unilateral action as a way to pressure Congress to act. Unless checked, however, the EPA could end up regulating all sources of carbon dioxide – from cows to barbecues to small businesses – a move Congress wants to block.

The White House favors passage of an energy bill focused on utilities this year. But finding a consensus will require arm-twisting by President Obama. Southern states, for instance, are relatively weak on renewable energy sources and thus need concessions. States with coal mines or coal-fired plants want to define “clean energy” to include ways to bury carbon emissions underground. The nuclear-power industry wants its plants to be tagged as clean.

A Senate panel has already passed a bill mandating utilities generate 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2021. Such a measure can serve as one small step toward reducing America’s very large carbon footprint.

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