Trying To Change The Senate Climate: Reid ‘Wants Bill Soon,’ But Carbon Regulation Plans Still Stalled

If healthcare reform is shaping up as the equivalent of political combat in the Senate, then consider the issue of climate change as its Cold War.

Legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions through a new cap-and-trade system has languished in the Senate for the better part of a year. The bill has gone nowhere, despite the best efforts of supporters who keep the flame alive, and occasional assurances of progress from the lawmaker taking the lead on the bill this year, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Meanwhile, things are just about as much a stalemate over on the second climate front that’s opened up in the Senate over the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to limit emissions under the Clear Air Act.

Clean energy and Fortune 500 executives arrived in Washington Wednesday for the latest in what’s been a series of occasional efforts by cap-and-trade supporters to try to shake something loose.

This week, it’s the fifth and final leg of “Race for American Jobs: Clean Energy Leadership,” a coast-to-coast “virtual race” designed to drive home the economic and job-creation benefits of national climate and energy legislation. The “race” baton, calling for swift passage of comprehensive climate legislation, was to be hand delivered to Congress at briefings today on Capitol Hill.

The baton was signed by executives from Best Buy, Nike, Starbucks, Levi Strauss, Jones Lang LaSalle and Stonyfield, as well as clean energy companies, union leaders, investors and youth groups.

Comprehensive climate and energy policies such as those that passed in the House last year could create up to 1.9 million jobs nationally from 2010 to 2020, according to the group of businesses, which goes by the name We Can Lead, citing a study by the University of California.

“The time to act is now,” says Sarah Severn, director of stakeholder mobilization for Nike Inc., which hosted the first leg of the cross-country race Feb. 16 at its Oregon headquarters. “The U.S. needs legislation that gives clean energy entrepreneurs an even playing field to compete globally for innovation and job creation.”

John Kerry couldn’t agree more, promising that Senate approval of a climate bill is just around the corner — while acknowledging the fight has taken longer than supporters of the bill had hoped.

Each year that the Senate takes up a climate bill, it seems to fall to a different senator to take the lead to attempt to pass it. This time, it’s Kerry’s turn.

Speaking at a conference a few weeks ago, Kerry talked about President Obama’s commitment to the issue, and the fact that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “wants a bill soon.” He notes that he is negotiating with conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on a climate bill, and that Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) has supported similar legislation in the past.

“So, I hope we’re going to get real. I can tell you we’re excited about putting the bill on the table,” Kerry says. “It will be different from anything that has been put on the table in the House or the Senate to date. It will be more comprehensive and I think it can help change the debate and hopefully we’re going to have an intelligent and real debate in this country that’s long since overdue.”

‘The wrong approach’
Meanwhile, a group of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have joined together to defuse, at least for now, what had been the Obama administration’s secret weapon — the authority handed to the EPA in a 2007 Supreme Court decision that allows the agency to unilaterally regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from the coal-mining state of West Virginia, has objected to the EPA regulating carbon, as has Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and others.

“There are those who choose to question EPA’s decision to follow the law,” says Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee subcommittee on the interior, environment and related agencies. “In particular, a number of my colleagues are working to pass legislation that would strip EPA of its obligation and ability to determine whether greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare as the Clean Air Act requires.

“I think this is the wrong approach,” Feinstein adds. “Legislation overturning the endangerment finding countermands the Supreme Court’s landmark decision and contradicts scientific consensus about global warming.”

Specifically, that legislation would jeopardize groundbreaking efforts to harmonize EPA’s tailpipe emissions standards with the Department of Transportation’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, Feinstein says.

Feinstein, however, holds out hope that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson can assuage her colleagues’ concerns.

“As EPA explains its plans, I believe my colleagues will increasingly realize that the agency is proceeding in a deliberate and legally defensible fashion, beginning with facilities already subject to regulation, tackling only the very largest polluters at this time, and developing a long term approach to emissions that is as cost effective and flexible as the law permits,” she says.

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