WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. senators writing a massive climate-change bill struggled on Thursday over how to reduce carbon dioxide pollution in the transportation sector, Senator Lindsey Graham said, adding that he did not yet know whether a measure would be ready by Monday.
“The transportation sector is a problem,” Graham told reporters. “We’re just dealing with that.”
Graham, a Republican, has been collaborating with Democratic Senator John Kerry and independent Senator Joseph Lieberman on a bill they hope to sketch out on Monday, but which will face an uphill fight this year.
Asked whether the trio will be able to meet that deadline, Graham responded, “I don’t know yet.”
The fight over how Congress should reduce pollution that scientists blame for global warming was unfolding as environmentalists celebrated the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.
“Earth Day 2010 must be a reflection point that helps make this the year the Senate passes comprehensive climate and energy legislation,” Kerry said in a statement.
He called it “our last and best shot” at finding 60 votes needed in the Senate for controversial bills such as this one to clear procedural hurdles.
Kerry, Graham and Lieberman had been looking at a “linked fee” on motor fuels, applied after oil is refined, as a way of handling the transportation part of the climate bill.
That fee would have been linked to the price of carbon pollution permits for electric power utilities that would be traded on a regulated market.
But according to sources, there was strong backlash from other senators to the idea of a “fee,” which opponents would label a tax on consumers that they would pay at the gasoline pump.
Some environmental sources have told Reuters that the three senators have been looking at a substitute idea — one that would have oil refiners buying pollution “allowances” that are based on the carbon content of their fuels.
Senators would not confirm that and Graham refused to discuss any new details.
But he said, “we’re looking at other ways,” instead of the linked fee.
“It’s one thing for oil and gas companies to be OK” with a transportation sector pollution-reduction scheme, “but what if you’re actually driving a truck and that’s the way you make a living. How does it effect you,” he said.
Lawmakers are always gun-shy about any legislation that is perceived to be raising taxes, especially as they face elections in November for one-third of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives.
Carol Browner, President Barack Obama’s top energy and climate adviser, said in a discussion on the White House website that Kerry, Graham and Lieberman will “present” their bill on Monday. “We are working with them and are very encouraged by this bipartisan group and the progress they are making,” she said.
Whenever the compromise bill is unveiled, it is expected to spark a spirited discussion among senators, corporate lobbyists and environmentalists.
Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California, who helped write a climate change bill last year that Kerry, Graham and Lieberman are building upon, was asked whether she could support the new proposal if it does not protect climate-control initiatives already in place in her state.
“We’re very optimistic about how the bill will look vis-a-vis my state,” Boxer said, but adding she had not yet seen the text of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill.
Sources have told Reuters that the bill will preempt some of the climate-control efforts of states and regions, while giving them latitude to continue their own energy-efficiency efforts.
But Democratic Senator Carl Levin, who represents the automobile manufacturing state of Michigan, told reporters that his support for a compromise climate bill would vanish unless there is a strong federal standard for controlling carbon pollution emissions.
If California gets an exemption, Levin told reporters, “That’s the end of it for me ... that’s not a national standard” if California wins a waiver, he said.
Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Eric Beech