Sen. Barbara Boxer's (D-CA) decision to push back the introduction of climate change legislation until later this month, combined with the Senate's intent to focus on health care legislation when its returns this week, is raising some doubts about the fate of a climate change bill this year.

"It does raise questions about whether there will actually be a bill on the Senate floor. It may only get as far as the committee this year," said Martin Edwards, vice president of legislative affairs for the Interstate Natural Gas Association. And the "health care debate is going to kind of delay things anyway" or, even worse, completely drown out climate change this year, he noted.

Boxer, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW), is expected to hold hearings and move to mark up climate change legislation in early October, assuming the measure is drafted and introduced by then. Boxer and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), sponsors of the Senate bill, originally had planned to introduce the measure this week. They attributed the delay to the recent death of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Kerry's hip surgery in August and the Senate's "intensive" work on the health care bill.

"Given the delay, we believe there may be little clarity on when and how the full Senate plans to address climate/energy legislation on the floor until late October or early November," said energy analyst K. Whitney Stanco of Washington Research Capital last week.

Even if EPW and other jurisdictional committees, such as Senate Finance, "make substantial progress on climate change legislation this fall, we believe the timing and politics of the health care debate will ultimately affect the politics, timing and prospects of climate/energy legislation," Stanco said.

"The delay is emblematic of the division and disarray in the Democratic party over cap-and-trade and health care legislation...Cap-and-trade has pitted Democrat against Democrat," said Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate panel.

In late June the House voted out by a slim margin climate change legislation (HR 2454) that seeks to cap heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming (see NGI, June 29). Climate change legislation, if passed by both houses, would substantially change the direction of the energy industry from conventional oil and natural gas to renewable fuels. It was speculated at the time that the closeness of the vote in the House could portend problems for the bill in the Senate.

The centerpiece of the House legislation is a system that would cap carbon emissions and allow polluting industries to purchase and trade emission credits to comply with the cap (cap-and-trade). Large industrial corporations, however, may have to choose between the devil (climate change legislation) and the deep blue sea (Environmental Protection Agency regulations). While the administration and the EPA head have said they prefer a congressional resolution, EPA has a mandate to step in to regulate carbon dioxide emissions if the Congress falters (see related story).

A couple of observations: enforcement of an EPA mandate would likely be delayed by court challenges; Congress took four long years to come up with the comprehensive Energy Policy Act of 2005. Possible scenario: Congress might pass a bill by the time EPA's mandate has made its way through the courts.

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