May 19, 2009 / 4:28 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. House panel tackles climate change bill

(Updates with start of committee debate, new EPA analysis)

By Richard Cowan and Tom Doggett

WASHINGTON, May 19 (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday began wrangling over a historic climate change bill aimed at reducing carbon dioxide and other pollutants, with Republicans objecting that the legislation would burden the economy with higher energy costs.

The House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee was digging in for several days of arduous debate over the Democrats’ 932-page bill. Chairman Henry Waxman has predicted his panel will have enough Democratic support for approval this week.

But first, Republicans are expected to try to surgically remove the heart of the proposal — the establishment of a "cap and trade" system that would gradually reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that utilities, steelmakers, oil refineries and other companies could emit.

Representative Joe Barton, the senior Republican on the committee, warned Waxman: "You are about to embark on an episode of putting the entire American economy, which is the world’s largest, through an absolute economic wringer."

President Barack Obama has put climate-control legislation high on his agenda and would like to see significant progress by December, when world leaders meet in Copenhagen to consider coordinated steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"Our economy is suffering, we are squandering billions of dollars to feed our addiction on foreign oil, and our environment is overheating," Waxman said during legislators’ opening statements on the bill on Monday.

With its mandate to reduce emissions 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels, Waxman said the bill would shore up the U.S. economy by encouraging new high-tech jobs while avoiding ecological disasters linked to global warming.

Republicans predicted energy costs would skyrocket under the bill, and they have reportedly prepared hundreds of amendments to try to modify the Democratic bill.

To illustrate how long it may take to modify the bill, the committee spent more than one hour debating just the first amendment that was offered to the legislation — and it was sponsored by a Democrat.

An updated analysis from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that if 30 percent of the emissions permits are given free to local electric distribution companies, as called for in the bill, then consumers would be protected from big increases in their power bills.

With a 36-23 majority in the committee, Democrats are likely to defeat Republicans’ moves to kill cap and trade.

Under cap and trade, an ever-decreasing number of carbon pollution permits would be available, and companies that still lack the technology to meet the lower pollution requirements could buy more permits from companies that no longer need their full quotas. (Additional reporting by Tom Doggett; Editing by Will Dunham)

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