Is Congress Finally Moving on Climate Change?

New Senate legislation gives hope for better things to come

climate bill hearing
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer and Senate Veterans' Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders present their climate change bill in Washington, D.C.
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Just a few months ago, during an election-season drought marked by little rain and fewer mentions of climate change, it was hard to imagine that cutting greenhouse gas emissions would become a priority in Washington. But the last three days alone indicate that a shift is underway.

In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Obama threatened to take administrative action to curb emissions. On Wednesday, some 50 protestors were arrested for civil disobedience outside the White House, in a warm-up for a massive demonstration planned for Sunday against the Keystone Pipeline. And just this morning, two senators unveiled a "gold standard" climate package they say they will bring to the floor by summertime.

Introduced by Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-California) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), the legislation's centerpiece is a fee on carbon and methane emissions to be paid by the largest fossil fuel polluters – think Exxon and Shell, coal-fired power plants and oil refineries. While less than 3,000 companies would pay this fee, it would cover about 85 percent of total U.S. emissions, with the long-term goal of reducing emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050.

Speaking at a press conference this morning, Sanders said that the legislation will "actually address the crisis and . . . reverse greenhouse gas emissions in a significant way." Boxer called the bill a "win-win-win" for climate mitigation, job creation, and deficit reduction.

Marco Rubio's Weird, Defeatist Vision

Of the revenue raised by the carbon fee – $1.2 trillion over ten years, according to the Congressional Research Service – 60 percent would be rebated to all legal residents to defray increases in the price of fuel and electricity. The rest would fund investment in efficiency projects and sustainable energy, including a public-private partnership for alternative energy and transportation projects; home weatherization; and a program to train workers for the transition to a new energy economy. The final carrot offered by the fee is deficit reduction – about $300 billion over a decade.

The Sanders/Boxer bills also end fossil fuel subsidies, tax fossil fuel imports and close the "Halliburton loophole," which exempts natural gas companies engaged in fracking from Safe Drinking Water Act regulations. Frackers would be required to disclose the chemicals they inject during their operations.

As Bill McKibben said this morning, this could be "one of the most important weeks" in the history of climate action. But it will be a rough road to passage for the Sanders/Boxer bill. Of garnering bipartisan support for his proposal, Sanders said he'll "worry about that later," adding, "The issue that we are dealing with today is not political. It has nothing to do with Democrats, Republicans, Independents and all of the political squabbling we see here every day." Senator Marco Rubio, for one, is sure to disagree, having reasserted an entirely political position on climate change following the State of the Union, when he scoffed, "Our government can't control the weather."

Boxer said she planned to "go in earnest to this topic and this bill" after her committee deals with water resources legislation this spring. While neither she nor Sanders have spoken to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid about their bill, Boxer said she hopes to pass it out of committee and onto the floor this summer. David Vitter (R-Louisiana), the top-ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, has already offered his opposition.

During the last major push for climate legislation, a cap-and-trade proposal known as the Waxman-Markey Bill passed the House in 2009 and then died in committee in the Senate when the bipartisan coalition led by John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut), and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) fell apart. By that time, the bill was riddled with give-aways to special interest groups, and the energy industries had spent hundreds of millions lobbying against it.

Obama's Climate Challenge

While the chances of passing strong climate legislation remain slim in the Senate and slimmer still in the House, the proposal could be important as a rallying point for climate activists and in moving beyond political handwringing and denials and towards a consideration of specific policies. "It took more than 10 years to pass the Clean Air Act," noted Boxer. "We're going to keep doing this." President Obama has indicated his willingness to pursue further executive action, while the EPA has broad but largely unexercised powers under the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions from industrial polluters.

As the climate dry-spell eases in Washington, swathes of the grain belt remain desiccated. Glaciers continue to slip away, and parts of the east coast are still digging out from Sandy's wreckage. Climate disruption is building outside the Beltway regardless of the political stalemate within. So, too, should the demands for action from all of us out here.

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