Senate panel hears climate bill concerns

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The difficulty the U.S. Senate faces passing climate change legislation was evident on Tuesday when a powerful Democrat expressed serious concerns about the proposed pace for cutting carbon emissions and Republican opposition was on full display.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held the first of three days of hearings on a Democratic plan to tackle global warming with a bill that would force U.S. utilities, factories and refineries to cut carbon dioxide pollution by 20 percent between 2012-2020.

Moderate Democratic Senator Max Baucus, a member of the panel who also chairs the Senate Finance Committee, warned: “I have serious reservations (about) the depth of the ... reduction target in the bill.”

Speaking to reporters outside the hearing, Baucus would not say whether he would support the more modest 17 percent carbon reduction by 2020 included in a House-passed bill. Both targets would make the cuts from 2005 levels.

Republicans portrayed the legislation as a complicated plan that would be tantamount to a jobs-killing tax increase.

Baucus, who has been a central player in writing healthcare reforms this year, also made clear he wants climate change legislation to rescind any powers the federal Environmental Protection Agency might have to go around Congress and begin regulating carbon emissions from stationary sources.

A failure to address concerns, Baucus said, risked “wasting another month, another year, another Congress without taking any steps forward for our future.”

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U.S. President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress had hoped for quicker progress this year on a climate bill, aiming for enactment in time for early December’s international global warming summit in Copenhagen.

Those hopes were fading, along with chances that the Copenhagen summit will produce a deal on new international carbon reduction goals.

If finishing a bill isn’t possible this year, there are other steps the Obama administration can take to reduce the country’s carbon footprint. The Transportation Department is revising auto fuel standards to improve efficiency of the U.S. fleet by 40 percent by 2016, a move that could cut greenhouse gas emissions 19 percent by 2030.

And on Tuesday Obama announced $3.4 billion in grants to help build a “smart” electric grid that can carry power generated by solar and wind energy.

“The world now realizes that its current level of greenhouse gas emissions is unsustainable,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the Senate environment panel.

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Instead of mandating pollution reductions on industry, Republicans called for expanding U.S. nuclear power, a move Chu supports, and developing clean coal technology. The energy secretary noted it could take a decade to accomplish either. In the interim, he said alternative energy like wind power can be further developed and “energy conservation is the lowest-cost option,” providing immediate payoffs.

While the Senate environment committee might approve a climate bill next month, that could be the extent of the Senate’s progress until at least next year.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the two authors of the Democratic bill -- Chairman Barbara Boxer and Senator John Kerry -- were given scant hope that committee Republicans might help them.

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“America’s families, farmers and workers deserve to know how Kerry-Boxer will impose trillions of dollars in higher energy taxes, kill millions of jobs and treat unfairly entire regions of the country such as the Midwest, South and Great Plains,” said Republican Senator Christopher Bond.

Another Republican, Senator George Voinovich, whose coal-reliant state of Ohio also suffers severe unemployment, suggested more detailed analysis of the Kerry-Boxer bill was needed. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said that could take four or five more weeks to accomplish, which could further delay the bill.

“Why are we trying to jam down this legislation now,” Voinovich asked, if full Senate passage of a bill was unlikely this year.

Amid the criticisms from Baucus and Republicans on the committee, Boxer talked up the legislation, saying it would only cost consumers about “30 cents a day,” while making the United States the “world’s leader in clean energy technology.”

Meanwhile, a major U.S. corporation on Tuesday joined a coalition of industry and environmentalists clamoring for action. Honeywell International Inc, a manufacturer of aerospace products and energy-efficiency technologies for buildings, said it was joining the U.S. Climate Action Partnership.

Additional reporting by Tom Doggett, Timothy Gardner and John Crawley; Editing by Cynthia Osterman