Climate change policy high priority with Congress, the administration

May 1, 2009 By and    

President Obama continues to make good on his promise to take action, simultaneously, on many of the big issues facing our country – economic recovery, overhauling healthcare, revamping education, and tackling energy challenges and opportunities.

In the area of climate change, significant policy changes are in motion. Whether readers believe climate change is naturally occurring and benign, man-made and catastrophic or a combination, federal policies on the issue are moving forward.

Green technologies
As mentioned in an earlier column, the president’s stimulus plan did not directly address regulating carbon dioxide (CO2) and the greenhouse gases that affect climate.

The plan, however, did address “green” technologies and allotted $6 billion for green energy loan guarantees; funds have already begun to be released in this area through the Energy Department. The initial funds, $535 million, are being used to support the construction of a solar panel manufacturing plant in California. These funds are the first ever released under a program originally approved by Congress in 2005.

EPA ruling
On April 17, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a significant rule that CO2 and five other greenhouse gases are a danger to the public health and welfare.

This ruling requires the EPA to use its powers under the Clean Air Act to curb CO2. This “findings” ruling, in response to a Supreme Court case regarding tailpipe emissions, is seen by environmentalists as a victory to allow the EPA to curb carbon pollution from vehicles, power plants and other industrial sources. In addition, the EPA has proposed a new reporting system to require refineries, power plants, coal mines and auto manufacturers to report how much greenhouse gas they release into the air.

Other agencies, like the Interior and Commerce Departments, are involved in climate change policy, too. These departments are reviewing a Bush administration rule that prohibits the Endangered Species Act from being used to address climate change. Many other stakeholders, including the Agriculture Department, Transportation Department and business and interest groups, continue to meet with the White House’s “energy czar,” Carol Browner, to address climate change issues. (Browner was the former EPA administrator under President Clinton.)

White House weighs in
While agency action proceeds, the White House signaled its continued priority on energy and preference for congressional action on climate change. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel recently said, “At the end of this first year of Congress, there will be an energy bill on the president’s desk.” Whether the legislation will include a cap and trade system, Emanuel says “our goal is to get that done.”

Congress acts
In the House of Representatives, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Air Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey, D-Mass., have introduced a comprehensive energy and climate change bill that includes a carbon cap and trade system. The legislation limits greenhouse gas emissions and requires companies to get permits to release carbon in the air. Waxman wants to have his bill through his committee by Memorial Day. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., says she wants to move legislation through the House by the end of August.

In the Senate, where much attention is being given to winning over Republican and Democratic opponents to reach a filibuster-proof majority on legislation, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wants to pull together energy and climate change legislation by August; the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee has yet to introduce legislation.

Questions loom
Obviously, large questions remain on the details of legislation. Will there be enough political support for a cap and trade bill during a recession? How will the inevitably higher energy and economic costs to consumers be lessened? If the United States passes climate change legislation, how will this position our economy with regard to the rest of the world?

Democratic leaders also have to address their own party opponents, many of whom are from the Rust Belt and coal-producing states that are critical of cap and trade legislation. In addition, congressional leaders are still hearing from legislators (like House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.) who believe a carbon tax is simpler to implement and more effective for consumers at a time when consumer confidence in markets in general is weak.

Any way you feel about the science of climate change and the players involved in the process, this important debate has begun.

Lisa Bontempo was a longtime energy lobbyist, including 13 years with NPGA. She remains involved in national politics and can be reached at

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