House Democrats Choke on Cutting Greenhouse Gas Pollution

Main sources and sinks of CO2It’s starting to look like the best shot we have at passing meaningful global warming legislation this year may be doomed.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), a bill co-sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), is the most comprehensive global warming legislation ever introduced in either house of Congress.

When it was first revealed, many environmental groups, including Greenpeace (where I work), cautiously deemed it a “good first step,” but warned that it had many fatal shortcomings. But given how it’s been attacked by shady fossil fuel industry front groups and held hostage by alternative proposals, the bill’s problems may never be solved.

For one thing, the legislation is stuck in subcommittee. According to E&E Daily (subscription required, sorry), there is still some deep-seated unease among some Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee about implementing solutions to global warming:

So far, the committee’s Democrats have struggled to reach consensus as about a dozen moderate and conservative lawmakers from the South, Rust Belt and Intermountain West resist the aggressive path that Waxman and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, set out in a 648-page draft proposal.

President Obama met with House Democrats on Monday. Not many details have been made public about the meeting, but it’s been reported that Obama asked them to reach consensus and bring the bill out of committee by Memorial Day, so that they could turn their attention to health care. [Which I covered in this blog post earlier in the week. – Emily]

But the Democrats are so far from getting this bill right that I, for one, hope they spend as much time as they need to make sure it is actually an effective piece of legislation before it hits President Obama’s desk.

ACES would create a cap-and-trade scheme to lower our greenhouse gas emissions, and spur investment in renewable energy. Capping emissions and selling emissions permits would force industries to pay for their pollution.

The revenue from the sale of these pollution permits could then be invested in renewable energy generation and infrastructure, like a new “smart” electricity grid. It could also go toward helping developing nations bypass the dirty energy economy altogether in favor of a clean energy economy.

One of the main problems with the ACES bill upon initial release was that it did not have much to say about where revenue from the cap-and-trade scheme would go.

Rep. Van Hollen (D-Md.) has introduced a new bill based on a different idea that addresses the question of where the revenues from a carbon market should go. His approach is being called “cap-and-dividend,” because it would give all of the proceeds from the sale of pollution permits directly back to taxpayers, essentially as a dividend on the investment of taxpayer money into America’s energy infrastructure.

A cap-and-trade scheme would require us to ratchet down the number of pollution permits available, to eliminate emissions as much as possible as quickly as possible. So over time the cost of the permits will increase, and utilities and other greenhouse-gas producing industries will want to pass these costs on to consumers. President Obama’s budget calls for 100% of pollution permits to be auctioned off, and proposes to use as much as 83% of the revenues to pay for a middle class tax cut to help offset higher energy costs.

Hollen’s proposal to pay Americans back directly is an intriguing notion, perhaps easier to sell to the American people than a tax cut because of its simplicity.

Cuz one thing is clear: Cap-and-trade needs to be sold to the people, so that the people in turn demand it from their elected representatives. If the people don’t rise up and demand it, the fossil fuels industries will get their way — and that most certainly won’t be “what’s best for the planet.” Indeed, they already appear to be getting their way.

Not surprisingly, there are many industries trying to get a piece of the cap-and-trade revenue pie as well. Less of a surprise, there’s already a shady, deliberately non-transparent industry front group, the “American Energy Alliance,” running radio ads in opposition to ACES in the districts of several Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. (Least surprising of all? This group is affiliated with another group that gets funding from ExxonMobil.) Check out Climate Progress for all the details, insofar as they have emerged, about this group, which is repeating debunked lies about the likely costs to taxpayers of a cap-and-trade scheme.

Industry attempts to water down the bill endorse free distribution of some of the emissions permits, rather than a 100% auction, so that polluters can “adjust” to the new reality of actually paying for the real costs of business as usual (i.e. the pollution they emit and the toll it takes on local communities and the atmosphere). Ridiculous, right? If we give the permits away for free, how will we pay for the overhaul to our energy generation systems that we so desperately need?

Well, yesterday Bloomberg News reported that Rep. Waxman is offering utilities and polluting industries free permits “The free permits may be worth as much as $40 billion a year, according to Mike McKenna, president of MWR Strategies, a policy consulting firm based in Washington.”

Waxman’s offer marks a major break from President Obama’s original proposal to auction off all permits to pay for a middle-class tax cut, a significant concession to the businesses, and lawmakers of both parties, that opposed the president’s approach.

Enviros are understandably aghast. “Polluters should have to pay for the privilege of dumping their stuff into the atmosphere,” Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington environmental group, told Bloomberg News. “The problem is purely a political one as they try to round up votes in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.”

This debate happening right now over ACES is possibly the most important debate we have ever had. Heading into the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen this December, where the successor to the Kyoto Protocol on cutting global greenhouse emissions will be crafted, America must have the strongest carbon-control legislation possible if it’s truly to lead the world’s response to global warming.

We know for certain that Congress is hearing from the dirty energy and fossil-fuel dependent industries.

We need to make sure Congress hears from us that these businesses cannot continue polluting the planet for free, and making huge profits from it at everyone’s expense.

That’s why it’s so important that you get involved. You can use the Union of Concerned Scientists-sponsored action here on to “Tell Congress to Pass a Strong Climate Bill.”

And don’t worry that you’re alone: Greenpeace is gathering personal stories from people all over the country about why they’re part of the movement to stop global warming. What’s yours?

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