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As the World Burns

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Energy lobbyists found a willing ally in the Republican Party, which had decided to deny any legislative victory to President Obama — even if it meant cooking the planet in the process. Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas who had been replaced by Waxman as chair of the House energy committee, pledged to launch "crafty" attacks on the climate bill, comparing the GOP's battle plan to "guerrilla warfare."

"I talked to Joe Barton as this process began, expressing a desire to work together with him on this," recalls Waxman. "He told me he didn't believe in the science of global warming, didn't think it was a problem and didn't want to try to solve it."

A key element of the "crafty" tactics employed by the Republicans involved a simple approach: lying. Cap-and-trade, they argued, should really be called "cap-and-tax." Throughout the debate, GOP members of the House cited a study by MIT that, they claimed, showed the climate bill would "cost every American family up to $3,100 per year in higher energy prices." John Reilly, an MIT professor and one of the authors of the study, called House Republicans and protested that they were distorting his findings. But a week later, House Minority Leader John Boehner used the $3,100 figure again, and the National Republican Congressional Committee employed it in dozens of press releases. Reilly sent a blunt letter to Boehner and Markey's committee, noting that $3,100 was actually "ten times the correct estimate, which is approximately $340."

But deception wasn't the only card that House Republicans had to play. As the climate bill moved through Waxman's committee, Barton and his troops fell back on tactical games to stall the measure. Before the committee voted, Barton threatened to have the entire 900-plus-page bill read aloud, hoping that Democrats would get sick of the delay and simply walk out. When Barton discovered that the committee had brought in a speed-reader to tear through the bill, he relented. But as the ranking Republican on the committee, he tied up the process by introducing 400 amendments designed to weaken or stall the bill. By the time the measure came to a vote last June, however, it had become clear that Barton and his fellow Republicans weren't the only ones listening to lobbyists from the energy industry.

Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat from the coal fields of southern Virginia, is a dapper little guy with a large forehead and big round glasses. He wears nice suits and well-polished shoes — you could easily mistake him for a Wall Street analyst. With Boucher, however, the smell of money comes not from swapping derivatives but from burning carbon. Boucher is the House's top recipient of cash from Big Coal, raking in nearly twice as many contributions — more than $144,000 last year — as any other congressman. The climate bill was his moment to shine. "The negotiations between Boucher, Waxman and the coal industry were the crucible in which this deal was done," says Jason Grumet, Obama's energy adviser. "Without it, there would be no legislation."

For the Democrats, passing the climate bill came down to a simple equation: how many favors they were prepared to shovel out to Boucher's pals in the coal industry. Without support from Democrats in key energy states, the bill didn't stand a chance. Waxman and Markey, both of whom had recently backed what amounted to a moratorium on new coal-fired plants, were hardly friends of the industry. But now they were willing to cut a deal — and so was Big Coal. Instituting a system to curb carbon pollution, the industry knew, would reveal coal for what it is: the nation's single biggest contributor to global warming, and a source of air pollution that kills 24,000 people each year.

To shift the focus of the debate, the industry launched an all-out effort to rebrand its product, spending $18 million on a high-profile ad campaign to sell Americans on the virtues of "clean coal." The campaign — paid for by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a front group for coal companies and utilities — was vague about how coal could actually be cleaned up, relying instead on images of hip hardware like Mac computers to suggest that technology could somehow solve the problem. What the ads failed to note was that the technology behind "clean coal" — known as carbon-capture-and-sequestration — is still a pipe dream. There is not a single commercial coal-fired power plant in the world that captures and buries its carbon emissions, for a very simple reason: The process is far too complicated and expensive. But the coal industry knew it didn't need to have a real solution — it could just tout the promise of new technology, without actually changing a thing.

To drive home its message on Capitol Hill, the coal industry spent $10 million on lobbying — far more than any other special interest devoted to climate change. (ACCCE says the figure includes advertising and grass-roots advocacy that most groups don't report.) And to make sure congressmen were paying attention, ACCCE's member firms and their employees, including top executives, contributed more than $15 million to federal campaigns.

The money proved to be well-spent. Shortly after the climate bill was introduced in the House, Boucher spent six weeks locked in backroom negotiations between his friends in the coal industry and key members of the House energy committee, where the bill was being marked up. Boucher had been chair of the energy subcommittee during the previous Congress, and he knew where the bodies were buried. "Boucher is a very tough, very smart negotiator," says a committee staffer who participated in the negotiations. "He knew exactly what he could get and what he couldn't from both sides."

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