September 8, 2009 / 8:59 PM / 10 years ago

Salazar says U.S. climate bill high on agenda

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite Washington’s nearly single-minded focus on healthcare reform, the Obama administration still expects the U.S. Senate to pass climate change legislation, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said on Tuesday.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar sits for an interview as part of the Reuters Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit in Washington September 8, 2009. Despite Washington's nearly single-minded focus on healthcare reform, the Obama administration still expects the U.S. Senate to pass climate change legislation, Salazar said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Stelios Varias

“Right now we are focused on this crusade for healthcare reform for the country and that’s where our time and energy will go for the days ahead,” Salazar said during an interview at the Reuters Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit.

Even so, he added, “We want both (healthcare and climate bills). The president has been very clear that these are two big issues for the United States and for our time.”

The U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed legislation in June to put domestic utilities, oil refineries and other factories on a path toward reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants associated with global warming.

As head of the Interior Department, Salazar oversees the development of oil and gas on federal lands and offshore waters and he has been active in expanding renewable energy sources.

The controversial House bill calls for a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and an 83 percent cut by 2050 — from 2005 levels.

But with a difficult fight over healthcare reform taking up so much of Congress’ time and with many Republicans and moderate Democrats balking at the environmental bill, the Senate already is about two months behind schedule in advancing a climate change bill.

Senators Barbara Boxer and John Kerry might unveil a bill in late September that uses central elements of the House-passed bill, but with revisions.

Still unclear is whether the Senate will give away 85 percent of the pollution permits that companies will need under a “cap-and-trade” regime to lower emissions, as the House bill does. Under that system, companies that pollute less than their allotments would be allowed to sell permits to companies that are exceeding their limits.

Salazar would only say that at an “appropriate” time, the Obama administration will weigh in on the question of selling versus giving away pollution permits.

If Congress fails to produce a climate bill for President Barack Obama to sign into law, Salazar noted, the White House could direct executive-branch offices to go ahead with new regulations controlling carbon pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency already has started that process.

But Salazar also pointed out: “It (climate change) will not be addressed in a complete and long-term manner unless there is congressional action.”

While public support for healthcare reform has slipped in recent weeks, polls indicate that the public still backs Obama’s efforts to expand solar, wind and other alternative energies and to wean the United States off its reliance on foreign oil.

Obama wants more progress from Congress before mid-December, when a United Nations meeting will attempt to win international agreement on new goals for reducing carbon emissions, building on the Kyoto Protocol that expires in 2012.

Without tough new steps, environmentalists fear worsening droughts and floods, the spread of disease and melting ice caps that would contribute to dangerously rising sea levels.

Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Gary Hill

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