At White House: 14 senators discuss climate-energy legislation

The White House hosted a meeting Tuesday with 14 key senators, many from coal- and oil-producing states, who oppose curbs on carbon emissions. Obama appears to be making a big push to win Senate passage of revamped climate-energy legislation.

Harry Hamburg/AP/File
Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, and Joseph Lieberman, who have been working on new climate-energy legislation and who met today at the White House for a discussion on the proposed bill.

The fate of President Obama's plan to shift America toward renewable energy and away from fossil fuels may depend on the outcome of a crucial White House meeting Tuesday with 14 key senators, many from coal- and oil-producing states, who have long opposed curbs on carbon emissions.

Mr. Obama – often criticized for being too hands off on complex and controversial climate-energy legislation after it became stalled in the Senate last year – now appears to be making a full-court press to win the 60 votes he needs for Senate passage of revamped climate-energy legislation, several observers agree.

Sens. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina have quietly cobbled together a new plan that would broadly limit carbon emissions in just three big sectors – electric utilities, transportation, and industry. (For more about the plan, click here.)

If the president could win just a handful of additional votes for that deal, it could pave the way for a surprise victory in the Senate – and for congressional passage later this year of a comprehensive plan that would meet Obama's goal of slashing carbon emissions 17 percent by 2020, political analysts say.

But to do that will require horse trading and the wooing of senators from states that represent 25 percent of America’s coal production, 29 percent of its oil production, 13.5 percent of its natural-gas production, a quarter of its refining capacity, and just over a quarter of its carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, says Kevin Book, a partner with ClearView Energy Partners.

That’s where the Tuesday meeting comes in.

"You have six key Republicans and most of the big decisionmakers in the Senate and most of the fossil-fuels portfolio represented in person – someone that represents every affected energy sector," he says. "They are all there. If you were going to try to make a deal, this is who you would invite to dinner."

Besides Senators Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham, other expected senators at the meeting include these Democrats: John Rockefeller of West Virginia, Max Baucus of Montana, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Barbara Boxer of California, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Maria Cantwell of Washington. On the Republican side will be George LeMieux of Florida, Richard Lugar of Indiana, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.

Also expected to attend the meeting: Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Mr. Book tallies about 58 senators already that he thinks might support the new version of climate-energy legislation. If he's right, that leaves only two more votes to gather. A tally by Energy & Environment Daily has about 41 "yes" votes in the Senate – with another 20 coal-state senators, 18 nuclear power-favoring senators, and 13 oil and gas senators "in play."

So what might be on the list of energy chits that might become the subject of a little horse trading? Senator Murkowski, who has long sought drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, might not get her wish, since that would cause a meltdown among Democratic supporters. On the other hand, she might win federal funding to help move Alaskan indigenous peoples away from crucial coastal areas, Book says.

Would some senators – like Gregg or LeMieux, for instance – be willing to support a bill that permits offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, in return for expanded federal loan guarantees for nuclear power?

"Offshore drilling and energy independence is essential to any bill I would support," Graham said last week. "There's a way to drill for oil and gas offshore that will really lead to energy independence."

What would the president give? The administration has proposed a budget that eliminates roughly $40 billion in tax breaks for the oil and gas industry. The coal industry alone faces a repeal of $2.3 billion in tax breaks over 10 years. So what would a coal-state senator want in return for his vote?

"It's really just three letters – CCS: more money for carbon capture and sequestration," Book says. "If you're from a coal-producing state like Rockefeller, what you are interested in is a future for coal. That's what CCS represents."

For environmentalists like David Doniger who want a bill that will curb carbon pollution, cut oil dependency, and create green-energy jobs, the White House conclave is a tense wait-and-see game.

"We don't know what the product of this meeting will be," Mr. Doniger says. "But we're very hopeful a compromise bill that deals with climate and energy will emerge. Then we'll see if it's something that we can support, too."

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