Climate control debate heats up in the Senate

WASHINGTON Wed Sep 30, 2009 8:47pm EDT

President Barack Obama makes remarks about climate change legislation at the White House in Washington, June 29, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young

President Barack Obama makes remarks about climate change legislation at the White House in Washington, June 29, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Young

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's drive to fight global warming got a boost on Wednesday as Democrats in the U.S. Senate unveiled a bill aimed at slashing greenhouse gas emissions in the next four decades.

The plan aims to cut carbon dioxide and other pollutants by encouraging broader use of solar, wind and other renewable fuels in place of dirtier ones such as oil.

It also would invest U.S. funds in finding cleaner ways to burn coal and other fuels.

Written by liberal Senators Barbara Boxer and John Kerry, the proposal would achieve a 20 percent reduction in smokestack emissions by 2020 from 2005 levels.

That is greater than the 17 percent cut set in a bill passed by the House of Representatives but less than what the European Union says it will achieve.

Obama applauded the bill, saying "we are one step closer to putting America in control of our energy future and making America more energy independent."

It is not clear whether the full Senate will have time to debate and pass the bill before global climate change talks in Copenhagen in December.

The hard political road ahead was evident on Capitol Hill, where Boxer, Kerry and other senators held a rally to promote the legislation and not a single Republican joined them.

Even some Democrats were quick to criticize.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, who represents the coal-producing state of West Virginia, called the proposal a step in the wrong direction with goals that are "unrealistic and harmful."

Rockefeller, as chairman of the Senate Commerce panel, will have a role in shaping the legislation.

Kerry, in a telephone interview with Reuters, said "stay tuned" for some Republicans to announce their support of the bill as more details are filled in.

But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell gave no indication his party would cooperate on climate change any more than it has helped Democrats in the long fight over healthcare reform.

"The last thing American families need right now is to be hit with a new energy tax every time they flip on a light switch, or fill up their car -- but that's exactly what this bill would do," McConnell said.

Instead of mandating reductions in carbon emissions, many Republicans want a bill that would encourage more U.S. oil and gas production, something that would do nothing to combat global warming. They also want to foster alternative energy use, especially nuclear power, which would cut harmful emissions.

CAP AND TRADE

Like the bill passed in the House in June, the 800-page Boxer-Kerry measure would establish a "cap-and-trade" system for replacing fossil fuels with alternative energies to power factories and produce electricity.

Besides weaning the United States off of foreign oil and creating domestic energy jobs in the drive to head off the effects of global warming, the measure would enhance U.S. national security, Democrats said.

"We don't need to be sending billions of dollars overseas, some of which finds its way to support jihadists; terrorists of various countries," Kerry said.

Even without any curbs being imposed, U.S. carbon emissions are expected to fall 6 percent this year from last year, as electricity demand falls in the recession-hit economy. That would be 8.8 percent lower than in 2005, which is the base year under the U.S. emissions-cutting program.

Many U.S. environmental groups joined Obama in welcoming the Senate Democrats' bill, but some said it would not take enough carbon out of the air.

The 20 percent reduction by 2020 is "nowhere near what a fair U.S. contribution to a global emissions reductions should be to avert climate catastrophe," said Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica.

American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard predicted the legislation would make gasoline prices shoot up to as much as $5 per gallon, about twice their current level.

Governors of U.S. states, meeting in Los Angeles to coordinate regional climate change action, praised the Senate's work. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger warned of "pushback" from global warming skeptics.

"For them it's more important to keep going and polluting the world and just making some money, rather than cleaning the world," he said.

(Additional reporting by Tom Doggett and Peter Henderson)

(Editing by Xavier Briand)

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