WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When Democrats in the U.S. Senate unveil their version of climate change legislation on Wednesday, they face great difficulties: an already crowded 2009 agenda, doubts from some members of their own political party and opposition from most or all Republicans.
At the same time, environmental experts on Capitol Hill and beyond are warning that key details will be left out of the bill being introduced. For example, the way in which carbon pollution permits will be shared among various industries likely will have to be worked out by senators in coming weeks.
“The most important thing that can happen tomorrow is that people view this as a starting point for negotiations” on a bill senators “can tailor and ultimately vote for,” said Tony Kreindler of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Assuming a bill passes committee in coming weeks, it is not clear whether the full Senate will have time to debate and pass it before global climate change talks in Copenhagen in December, as healthcare and U.S. financial system reforms are seen as being first in line on the Senate’s schedule.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer had originally set a late July deadline for introducing legislation mandating reductions in industry emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases blamed for global warming.
The idea is to build on the goals of the 12-year-old Kyoto Protocol, an international deal the United States never fully embraced, that called on industrialized nations to reduce their collective greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent from 1990 levels.
But as a separate debate over reforming the U.S. healthcare system consumed senators’ time this year, Boxer is now hoping the bill she will introduce can clear her panel sometime in October.
Senate Republicans on Boxer’s committee, in a letter obtained by Reuters, already were calling on Democrats to take the time to fill in the details before submitting legislation.
“We understand that your bill, as currently drafted, is incomplete in several important respects,” the letter stated, referring specifically to the allocation of permits. “Leaving out these and other key provisions makes it impossible to get an objective estimate of the economic impacts of your bill on consumers.”
A further complicating factor is that many moderate Democrats loathe the idea of having to cast votes on a bill that Republican opponents will frame as setting the stage for higher energy prices when people already are reeling from a sick economy.
Despite the difficult odds, Boxer and her colleague John Kerry hope that the bill they show the world will signify a step forward — building on June’s passage of a climate change bill by the House of Representatives and bolstering the talks that aim for a December deal in Copenhagen.
While Boxer has kept a tight lid on elements of the legislation, here are some initiatives experts anticipate:
— In an attempt to shore up support from fellow liberals, Boxer and Kerry might set a 20 percent target for reducing carbon emissions by 2020, up from the 17 percent in the House-passed bill. That goal, based on 2005 U.S. emissions, is much more modest when using the Kyoto Protocol’s 1990 baseline. But longer-term, Congress has been talking about an 83 percent cut in emissions by 2050, from 2005 levels.
— There have been reports that the Democratic bill will place a “price collar,” or limit on the price of carbon permits that would be traded by companies under a “cap and trade” system that brings down emissions.
— Unlike the House-passed bill, the Senate bill could reserve space, with details to be worked out later, on more aid for the nuclear power industry, which Republicans want to expand.
— Similarly, domestic natural gas producers also could get a nod with incentives for the energy source that is cleaner than coal.
There are many other difficult questions the bill will have to tackle, including whether domestic energy-intensive industries, such as steel, glass and paper, will get border protections that could anger U.S. trading partners.
All of these decisions will have a bearing on whether — be it this year or next — Democrats can win the 60 votes in the 100-member Senate needed to pass major legislation.
Additional reporting by Deborah Zabarenko; editing by Mohammad Zargham