Senate finally taking up cap-and-trade bill

After a long delay, legislation to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions is announced; passing it might not be easy

Published September 30, 2009 7:20PM (EDT)

During the summer of our healthcare discontent, the issue global warming was largely pushed to the backburner in Washington. The House passed cap-and-trade legislation designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions and hopefully slow the process, but that was back in June. Only now, at the end of September, is the Senate finally taking up a similar bill.

At an event on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., announced their version of the cap-and-trade legislation.

"We know clean energy is the ticket to strong, sustainable economic growth," Boxer said. Kerry echoed Boxer's optimism about the measure. "Ultimately, this bill is about keeping Americans safe," he said. President Obama lauded the tandem, saying in a prepared statement, "With the draft legislation they are announcing today, we are one step closer to putting America in control of our energy future and making America more energy independent."

The Boxer-Kerry bill, which is formally titled the "Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act," seeks a 20 percent cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, using the levels of emisssions in 2005 as a benchmark. This is more ambitious than the House plan, which aimed to reduce emissions by 17 percent. Both plans seek an 83 percent reduction by 2050. (Both are also weaker than planned reductions in Europe and Japan, as both of them are using 1990 levels as their baseline.)

Boxer and Kerry aim to meet these targets through a "Pollution Reduction and Investment" program. Essentially, the two Senators have just given a new, less recognizable and hopefully, for them, less controversial name to the idea of cap-and-trade. Essentially, this provision places a fixed limit on carbons emissions, but leaves businesses some wiggle-room in how they will comply. The emissions cap in the Boxer-Kerry bill will only effect the 7,500 largest polluters in the country, or about 2 percent of American businesses.

While the bill seeks to protect the environment, it also touts energy conservation as a way to spark the American economy. Interestingly, the measure also includes a lot of enticements for centrist Democrats and Republicans, with generous funding provisions for nuclear power, natural gas and even coal -- though it leaves many of the specifics ambiguous so that details can be decided within the Senate.

The New York Times estimates that the bill currently has 45 supporters in the Senate, with many more members on the fence. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. has said Democrats hope to have Congressional approval of climate change legislation passed by the time the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark rolls around in December.

Not surprisingly, many Republicans aren't fond of the bill and hammered it as a new energy tax on Americans. One of the Senate's most notorious global warming deniers, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., has already compiled a list of questions for Boxer about the legislation. And in a statement, House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said, "The national energy tax was a terrible idea when it passed the House, and it is an even worse idea now. Middle-class families and small businesses struggling to make ends meet shouldn't be punished with costly legislation that will increase electricity bills, raise gasoline prices, and ship more American jobs overseas."

By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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Barbara Boxer D-calif. Environment John F. Kerry