WASHINGTON President Barack Obama's dream of passing a big bill to battle global warming is likely dead for the rest of his term, according to a leading Democrat and long time backer of climate legislation.
"I don't see a comprehensive bill going anywhere in the next two years," Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman told the Reuters Washington Summit on Wednesday.
Bingaman's comments are the most frank to date from a Democratic senator on legislation that Obama has said was key to giving the United States a lead role in global efforts to fight climate change.
Republicans, who mostly oppose climate change legislation that mandates reductions in greenhouse gases, are expected to gain congressional seats in the November 2 elections.
"I'd be surprised if that kind of a comprehensive climate and energy bill could pass both houses of Congress in the next Congress, since they've been unable to pass in this Congress" with big Democratic majorities, Bingaman said.
In the absence of climate legislation, Obama's Environmental Protection Agency is expected to move ahead with regulations in January that target the largest factory polluters for greenhouse gas emissions reductions -- a move Bingaman said he supports. But that effort could be slowed by legal challenges.
The Obama administration and most Democrats in Congress think legislation is a more powerful and effective way to deal with global warming, which is expected to bring more severe weather and rising sea levels, threatening millions of people.
A failure by the U.S. Congress to pass a comprehensive climate bill would be seen as a blow to international efforts aimed at lowering carbon dioxide emissions that scientists view as nearing dangerous levels.
The United States is the world's second largest polluter of greenhouse gases behind China and the largest on a per capita basis.
The House passed legislation in mid-2009 requiring factories, electric power utilities and oil refineries to achieve a 17 percent reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 2020, from 2005 levels.
But similar legislation stalled in the Senate this year, amid election-year partisanship and a weak economy that made it more difficult for politicians to argue for expanding the use of more expensive alternative energy sources.
Instead of a comprehensive approach to tackling climate change, Bingaman said that more narrowly targeted steps were more likely at the end of this year and going into next year.
For example, on Tuesday a bipartisan group of senators led by Bingaman introduced a bill requiring utilities to generate 15 percent of their electric power from renewable sources by 2021 -- a step that many environmentalists say is too modest to make much of an impact on global warming problems.
"I do think there are a variety of areas where we have agreement and the RES (renewable electricity standard) is one of those," Bingaman said, noting there are 23 co-sponsors of the measure in the 100-member Senate.
Bingaman said the bill would likely be taken up during the Senate's post-election "lame duck" session if he can round up the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles.
A broader energy bill containing RES easily passed the Senate Energy panel last year.
Another possibility would be to add a narrower cap-and-trade program on carbon dioxide emissions from utilities to a bill controlling pollutants that lead to smog and acid rain, fellow Democratic Senator Tom Carper told the Reuters summit.
"Our one hope and our best hope for making some progress on this next year," is to take this approach, said Carper. He has worked for years on a pollutant bill with Republicans such as Lamar Alexander and Lindsey Graham.
Carper shelved his bill on traditional pollutants this week as Congress was running short of time to take on big issues.
But Carper has high hopes for 2011. By then utilities may pressure lawmakers to support his bill because, in the absence
of a climate bill, they face rules from the EPA that they have little power to shape, he said.
CAP AND TRADE
For the past few years, supporters of climate change legislation have focused on a "cap and trade" system requiring polluters to obtain an ever-decreasing number of permits for every ton of carbon dioxide they release into the atmosphere.
The permits would be traded on a regulated market, thus setting a rising price on carbon so that alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, become more attractive.
Republicans have dismissed cap and trade as little more than a complicated energy tax.
Given cap and trade's failure in the Senate, Bingaman, a five-term senator from New Mexico, said, "I guess my thought is that we need to probably go back to the drawing board and identify whether there are ways we can make serious progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions."
Asked whether a straight-forward carbon tax or other pricing scheme should be tried in Congress, Bingaman would not endorse anything specifically, saying it depended which initiative could attract enough support.
"I think we definitely should be trying to put a price on carbon. That is an important signal in the marketplace. There is some very real value in doing that -- it's just a question of how you get it done," Bingaman said.
Senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman earlier this year floated a plan that would have imposed a cap and trade system on electric power utilities while phasing it in for large manufacturers further down the road.
It is unclear whether such a plan could gain support next year once the threat of EPA regulation becomes a reality.