Senate Democrats seek tougher limits on greenhouse gases

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post / October 1, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats introduced legislation yesterday that would establish mandatory nationwide limits on greenhouse gases, hoping to spur political momentum on the issue before negotiators meet in Copenhagen in December to try to forge a new international climate pact.

The bill would cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2020 and cover roughly 7,500 coal-fired plants, oil refineries, and other facilities across the country. But the bill leaves many key questions unanswered, such as how the system would distribute carbon allowances to polluting industries and what support the federal government will provide for the development of nuclear power.

And it faces opposition from many Republicans and some Democrats, along with a crowded legislative calendar that could prevent it from reaching the Senate floor before the United Nations-sponsored climate talks begin in December.

“This is the beginning of one of the most important battles we will face, as legislators and as citizens,’’ said Senator John F. Kerry, one of the bill’s authors, standing outside the US Capitol before a huge American flag and a group of veterans, clean-energy entrepreneurs, and state and local lawmakers. “It is time to reinvent the way America uses energy.’’

The bill itself represents some reinvention - to “pollution reduction and investment’’ from “cap and trade,’’ a term derided by Republican critics who say it will increase energy prices as “cap and tax’’ - and a proposal that Democratic polls have suggested is faring poorly with voters.

Kerry, who has taken on global warming as a defense issue as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, came up with the rebranding about a month ago to refocus attention on what the bill would do, not how it goes about doing it.

“Cap and trade doesn’t mean anything to people, ’’ Kerry said in an interview, insisting that “this is an actual description of what’s happening here.’’

Kerry and Senator Barbara Boxer of California, chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee and the other key sponsor, titled the bill “The Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act.’’

The measure resembles a bill passed by the House in June in many respects, though it is slightly more ambitious in terms of its environmental targets and fleshes out aspects of the carbon trading market that would be created under a system where carbon emitters will buy and sell pollution allowances.

Representative Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, a main sponsor of the House bill, said that with the Senate bill, “there is now Congress-wide movement to pass a comprehensive clean energy and climate bill.’’

“We are one step closer to putting America in control of our energy future and making America more energy independent,’’ President Obama said a statement yesterday praising the Democrats’ effort.

Also yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency took steps to control the emissions blamed for global warming from power plants, factories, and refineries for the first time.

The EPA proposal would require polluters to reduce six greenhouse gases by installing the best available technology and improving energy efficiency whenever a facility is significantly changed or built. The rule applies to any industrial plant that emits at least 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year. These large sources are responsible for 70 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions, the EPA said.

“By using the power and authority of the Clean Air Act, we can begin reducing emissions from the nation’s largest greenhouse gas-emitting facilities without placing an undue burden on the businesses that make up the vast majority of our economy,’’ EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said. “We know the corner coffee shop is not the meaningful place to look for carbon reductions.’’

Earlier this year, the Obama administration announced that it would start developing the first-ever greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and trucks. Those regulations, which would take effect in 2010, compel the EPA to control greenhouse gases from large smokestacks as well, the agency said.