The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last Wednesday voted out legislation to restrict greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, setting the stage for a major fight between Democrats and Republicans on the floor next year.

By 11-8, the bill (S. 2191) was approved, with Democrats and Independents on the committee voting in favor of it and only one Republican — Sen. John Warner of Virginia, one of the bill’s sponsors — supporting it. The other sponsor of the legislation is Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT).

The measure, which was introduced in October, proposes to cut U.S. GHG emissions by as much as 19% below the 2005 level in 2020 and by as much as 63% below the 2005 level in 2050, according to the sponsors (see NGI, Oct. 22).

Democrats fought back efforts by Republicans to make substantive changes to the bill. Most of the GOP amendments were defeated along party lines or were withdrawn to be considered when the bill reaches the floor, while Democratic amendments — which were more minor in nature — had a more favorable outcome.

A number of the Republican amendments addressed the potential economic impact of the bill on energy consumers, as well as the potential adverse effects on natural gas supply. Republicans also were concerned about the impact to the economy if developing countries, such as China and India, refuse to follow the U.S. lead in reducing carbon emissions. A committee spokeswoman said the bill was not expected to make it to the Senate floor until sometime next year.

One proposal, sponsored by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), called for four states — Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia — to open their coastal areas to natural gas drilling if the governors and legislators of those states approved it and gas prices more than doubled as a result of the climate change legislation.

“This bill is going to dramatically increase [gas] prices,” Vitter said. Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), however, countered that the amendment did not belong in the Lieberman-Warner measure, but rather fell under the jurisdiction of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Moreover, she said the Vitter amendment would be a “deal breaker” for the bill, which proposes to cut U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by as much as 19% below the 2005 level in 2020 and by as much as 63% below the 2005 level in 2050.

In offering the proposal, Vitter resurrected — almost word for word — a measure that Sen. John Warner (R-VA) had previously offered in the Senate, with unsuccessful results. “I commend you for bringing this up,” Warner told Vitter, but “it would…pose a serious block” on the floor.

“I heard the chairman say this is not an energy bill. I am terribly confused,” observed Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID). Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) echoed the sentiment, saying that “this committee has an obligation to look at this [amendment] very seriously.” He noted that the U.S. is going to see major fuel switching to natural gas after the bill is passed. As a result, lawmakers need to take steps to increase gas supply to keep costs down, Voinovich said.

Another contentious Republican amendment, which was defeated 8 to 11, called for the bill to establish an automatic cost-relief program for low and fixed income consumers if energy prices soar as a result of the climate change legislation. Boxer called the amendment unnecessary, noting that the bill already would allow the president to suspend provisions in the event electricity and natural gas prices become burdensome.

The bill anticipates there will be an increase in natural gas prices, said Voinovich, so the nation will need more funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP).

“Let’s not suddenly discover that there are poor people,” Boxer shot back, noting that many of the Republicans had voted against increased funding for LIHEAP in prior years.

Another controversial proposal, offered by Voinovich, would have allowed for the repeal of the act if it was found to be inconsistent with the provisions of the World Trade Organization (WTO). This would halt the U.S. emission-reduction efforts until it got commitments from China, India and other developing countries to reduce their emissions.

“I don’t think we can operate in a cocoon” to reduce carbon emissions, Voinovich said. “We got to bring in the rest of the world.”

This amendment would open the door to the WTO vetoing the entire legislation, Lieberman argued. If there is a penalty, it should be on the countries that are not performing, not the United States, added Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

Voinovich in the end withdrew the amendment after receiving assurances from Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, that he will hold a hearing on the issue.

Craig offered a similar amendment that would have required the bill to sunset in 10 years if China and India did not follow in the United States’ footsteps. “This…neutralizes any advantages China may have if they do not” act to reduce their carbon emissions, he noted.

Boxer adamantly opposed the amendment, saying, “We’re not going to let China lead on this; we’re going to lead on this.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) sought to add a nuclear title, which would add incentives for domestic manufacturing of nuclear equipment, streamline the licensing process and promote the construction of new nuclear facilities. The proposal was ultimately rejected, but not before several committee members said they would work with him to offer it on the Senate floor.

Warner said he opposed Isakson’s amendment “at this juncture,” but would join him on the floor. “This is more than I am prepared to support at this time,” said Lieberman, but he added he was willing to work with Isakson as well.

Voinovich proposed an amendment, which was defeated 8 to 11, that would have mandated industries to invest in new technologies to achieve the GHG emission-reduction targets, rather than relying solely on natural gas. Boxer dismissed the measure, saying the climate change bill already creates major financial incentives for the development of new technologies.

Another Voinovich proposal, which was rejected, would have required the Carbon Market Efficiency Board to act when prices to consumers rise 25% for gasoline, 15% for electricity and 10% for natural gas over three consecutive months. If this emission reduction bill “goes off the cliff,” then the proposal would provide a way to stop it, Voinovich said, adding that the bill “is going to cost a ton of money.”

Lieberman objected to the amendment, saying there already were a lot of mechanisms in the bill to protect consumers from price hikes. This could be a “killer amendment” to the whole cap and trade system, Boxer said.

Also shot down was an amendment proposed by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) that would have required the secretary of the Department of Commerce to report on whether the bill would result in job cuts in the automotive industry. Boxer called the amendment “unnecessary,” noting that the climate change bill addresses possible job losses in all industries.

While the Lieberman-Warner bill focuses on reduction of carbon emissions, Sen. Thomas Carper (D-DE) proposed that it also impose strict caps on sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury emissions by 2015. “My hope is [that] this legislation can be a four-pollutant bill,” noted Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN). Boxer agreed to revisit the issue on the Senate floor.

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