Published online 1 October 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.968

News: Briefing

US Senate gears up for climate debate

Cap-and-trade bill largely mirrors legislation passed in the House of Representatives.

After months of back-door talks with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, Democrats in the US Senate released a cap-and-trade climate bill on Wednesday. The legislation is by no means complete and as such represents little more than a starting point in the Senate debate, which is expected to continue at least through December and probably into next year. Nature takes a closer look.

What's in the bill?

Based in large part on the version passed by the House of Representatives in June, the bill would establish a cap-and-trade system to reduce covered greenhouse-gas emissions by 20% by 2020 and 83% by 2050, compared with 2005 levels. House lawmakers started out with similar emissions targets but ultimately relaxed their version to require only a 17% reduction by 2020; the same thing could happen in the Senate as lawmakers search for votes. The Senate bill has a few new components, including incentives for natural gas and nuclear power, but leaves many of the biggest issues — including how to structure the initial allocation of emissions permits, and how to regulate carbon trading — largely unanswered.

Who is running the show? And where do we go from here?

California Democrat Barbara Boxer has primary jurisdiction over the issue as chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which is expected to vote on the bill next month. That said, Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry has taken the lead in drafting the bill. Kerry chairs the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which is likely to hold its own vote on provisions that have international implications, such as adaptation and forestry provisions.

SmokestackThe US Senate has drafted its version of a climate bill, which includes legislation for a cap-and-trade system to reduce emissions.Alamy

But by some estimates the bill covers roughly 75% of the economy, and that opens the door to legislation by numerous other committees. The energy and natural resources committee, for instance, has already passed energy legislation that will be wrapped into the bill, and other committees could do the same. It will then fall to Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to pull everything together for a vote before the full Senate.

Given the ongoing debate about health care and other competing priorities, could the bill make it through the Senate before the United Nations climate summit in December?

Conventional wisdom suggests that it won't, but nobody really knows. Clearly, Democratic leaders understand the frustration of the international community and are pushing to get a bill out the door before then. Asked on Tuesday whether he plans to seek a vote on climate before Copenhagen, Reid responded with one word: "Yup."

But the Senate has never been known for speed. Timelines aside, Democrats will continue brokering deals until they have the support of at least 60 of the 100 senators, which is how many they need to overcome cumbersome legislative procedures in the Senate.

Although always difficult and slow, major environmental legislation in the past has tended to end up with bipartisan support on final passage. Could this be the case with climate?

Probably not. Leaders are currently fighting for the support of more conservative Democrats from states with strong industrial bases and energy production, and perhaps a handful of Republicans. Although Democrats claim the bill will create 2 million new clean-energy jobs, lawmakers from mining states fear job losses as the US economy shifts away from cheap coal. And many fear that higher energy prices could affect heavy industries, pushing jobs overseas if countries such as China and India are not held to similar standards. Summing up the feeling on Wednesday, Frank Lautenberg, a Democratic Senator from New Jersey, kindly asked supporters to reserve a few of those new jobs for "those of us who vote for this bill".

What about industry?

The business community is split on the issue. The US Chamber of Commerce continues to oppose the current legislation, but several high-profile utilities have withdrawn from the chamber in recent weeks over the issue. Coal-fired power companies are pushing for as much protection as possible, but the nuclear industry, and to a lesser extent the natural-gas industry, see opportunities in the push toward low-carbon energy. Similarly, major companies such as The Dow Chemical Company and General Electric are pushing for legislation as part of the US Climate Action Partnership.

Could President Barack Obama still act through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)?

Yes, and he has already opened the door to direct regulation under the Clean Air Act. That began earlier this year with a proposed finding that carbon dioxide endangers human health and the environment, and the administration formally proposed the first greenhouse-gas regulations for vehicles earlier this month. And that opens the door to regulation of industrial polluters.

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Speaking at the Governors' Global Climate Summit in Los Angeles on Wednesday, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson announced a new proposal to require all major industrial facilities to obtain permits and use the "best available control technologies" to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The agency limited the rule to new facilities that produce more than 25,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year; existing facilities would be affected if they propose major modifications. And these are just initial steps: the administration has repeatedly said it wants to see Congress enact a bill, but it could also roll out its own regulatory programme to reduce greenhouse gases if lawmakers fail to act.

Assuming the Senate does pass a bill, what happens next?

The House and Senate would appoint members to a conference committee to negotiate a compromise between the two chambers. That bill must then go back to both chambers for a final vote before landing on Obama's desk. 

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