WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congress has been struggling for years to pass legislation to reduce smokestack emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that scientists link to global warming.
Republicans have mostly opposed such efforts, so the Democrats’ takeover of the House of Representatives and Senate, as well as President Barack Obama’s 2008 election, gave environmentalists new hope of success.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is threatening to start regulating carbon emissions for the first time, if Congress fails to pass legislation.
Here is a rundown of congressional action on climate change legislation since last year:
On June 26, 2009, the House passed a bill setting new economy-wide pollution controls. The 1,500-page measure was narrowly approved, by a vote of 219-212. Forty-four Democrats voted against it and only eight Republicans supported it.
The centerpiece of the bill is an economy-wide “cap and trade” system that places continually-declining limits on carbon emissions. Utilities, oil refineries and factories would have to hold permits for every ton of emissions and those permits could be traded on a regulated market, thus creating a price on carbon.
By 2020, U.S. smokestack emissions would fall 17 percent from 2005 levels and 83 percent by 2050. Theoretically, cleaner, alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar power, would become more competitive with fossil fuels like oil and coal over the years.
Democrats and Republicans argued over whether the bill would create new jobs in the U.S. or the opposite.
House passage of a bill allowed Obama to attend last December’s Copenhagen summit on climate change claiming some progress on U.S. action, but far short of a law being enacted that many had hoped for before the annual international talks.
Last November 5, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed a bill, without any Republican support, that built on the House-passed bill. It was somewhat more ambitious, with its goal of a 20 percent cut in U.S. carbon emissions by 2020, from 2005 levels.
But the bill did not have enough support outside the liberal-leaning committee to advance in the full Senate.
Late last year, Democratic Senator John Kerry joined with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham in an attempt to craft a compromise bill that could gain enough support to pass the Senate this year. Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman joined in.
The three senators have struggled to strike the right balance, but there are plans to unveil their initiative next Monday, April 26.
To capture some Republican votes, they are expected to set up new government incentives for expanded offshore oil drilling and more nuclear power capacity.
Cap and trade would apply initially only to the electric power utility sector, with manufacturers starting to phase in later. A transportation sector fee — probably on motor fuels — would be linked to carbon prices in the utility sector.
Several Senate committees will take a look at the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman effort. It’s still unclear whether any of them will demand time-consuming hearings and rewriting of the proposal.
An economic analysis of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill will be conducted, which could take four or five weeks to conclude. The oil industry wants the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration to do its own analysis.
If the Kerry compromise bill gets enough support, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will schedule it for debate in the full Senate, which also could take several weeks.
This could occur in June or July, depending on how quickly support gathers for the bill and whether the Senate has made progress on other measures, such as banking industry reform.
The bill would be subject to amendments in the full Senate. One obvious one would be scaling back the 17 percent emissions-reduction target for 2020, say to 14 percent.
* SENATE-HOUSE COMPROMISE
If the Senate manages to pass a bill that no doubt would differ significantly from the House-passed bill, a new, unified measure would have to be agreed upon by negotiators. That compromise would then have to be approved by the Senate and House before it could be sent to Obama for signing into law. If things went well, that could happen in September or October, or possibly toward the end of the year, if there is a special session after the November congressional elections.
Failure to pass a comprehensive climate bill opens three possibilities:
— Congress approves a slimmed-down bill encouraging more alternative energy production, which would not be enough to tackle global warming in an effective way;
— Congress starts over next year, but Democrats would have less influence if they lose seats, as expected, in the November elections;
— EPA takes over and moves to begin regulating greenhouse gases, which would trigger industry lawsuits.
Reporting by Richard Cowan, editing by Jackie frank