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US Senate punts on climate legislation

After a long and torturous debate that has worn on for the past year and a half, Harry Reid, the Democratic Majority leader in the US Senate, finally acknowledged this week that he doesn’t have the votes to proceed with global warming legislation. At least not now. And the future doesn’t look terribly bright either.

Reid made the announcement with President Barack Obama’s top energy advisor, Carol Browner, at his side, signaling that the White House, too, has acknowledged which way the wind is blowing. The finger-pointing has begun as has the latest Washington parlor game, which involves providing clever and insightful answers this question: what comes next?

So that’s it? Pretty much. Diehard hopefuls have finally given in to a string of bad news that included an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the defection of the lone Republican working with Democrats on the legislation. It’s still technically possible that a climate bill could emerge in the fall, and already people are talking about that possibility. But it’s a long shot: conventional wisdom posits that nothing significant can happen from here on out because lawmakers will be focused entirely on the pending elections in November. And if Republicans gain seats – or even take over the House of Representatives – the task will get even more complicated next year.

As we have discussed in the past, the most likely course now becomes a period of top-down regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency. The administration has already moved on automobiles, and major polluters such as power plants could follow next year. States are also pushing forward with their own climate initiatives, and there are some indications that simply tightening the screw on conventional pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides and mercury, in order to protect health will put pressure on the utility industry to begin closing down the oldest and least-efficient coal plants in the coming decade. Indeed, that might be why utilities recently signaled they would be willing to accept a cap on carbon if only Congress would give them a breather on other pollutants.

Could all of this be enough to meet President Barack Obama’s international commitment to reduce emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020? The World Resources Institute took a look at this question in a well-timed analysis and found that the short answer is no. On the other hand, existing regulatory programmes could easily bend the emissions curve into negative territory and in an optimistic scenario could come within striking distance of Obama’s pledge with a 14 percent reduction by 2020. That would at least buy some time.

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    Bruce said:

    A top-down (non-legislative) approach from the US EPA vis a vis CO2 endangerment ruling (making this gas a pollutant under the US Clean Air Act) will not work, ultimately. This ruling presently undergoes multiple court challenges on different grounds at up to the State level (part of the Abbott, TX AG, is esp. significant as it will impose an empirical requirement that the EPA will be obliged to produce to support the rationale for the same ruling). The executive, beyond EPA admin., clearly have not pulled their weight on this, and this is signifiacnt (cf. the quite different quality of the Obama action on AZ State “immigration law”, which cuts against major political forces of resistance). I suspect US political changes will negate even these rules, even if Obama stays in power, if not in 2010, then 2012. Not a period of any real significance. Not only the Obama non-involvement on this (cap-and-trade), but recent D of E moves are suggestive an increasing reluctance to pursue a CO2 endangerment agenda in the (Federal) executive branch. In his heart, I suspect the President simply does not believe in this policy on carbon.

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