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Draft of Senate climate bill tougher than House’s version

Calls for 3% higher cut in gases by 2020

Senator Barbara Boxer, the environment committee’s chairwoman, will sponsor the bill with Senator John F. Kerry. Senator Barbara Boxer, the environment committee’s chairwoman, will sponsor the bill with Senator John F. Kerry.
By John M. Broder
New York Times / September 30, 2009

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WASHINGTON - A draft of a climate bill that Senate Democrats will formally introduce today suggests that the legislation will include a more ambitious greenhouse gas emissions target than one passed by the House.

The measure, sponsored by Senators Barbara Boxer of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts, seeks to achieve by 2020 a 20 percent reduction from 2005 levels of carbon dioxide emissions, compared with 17 percent in the House bill, according to the 801-page draft, which circulated yesterday. The House and Senate bills both include a long-term target of an 83 percent reduction by 2050.

The Senate bill will be the focus of a broad political and lobbying struggle, as industry groups, environmental lobbies, local government officials, universities, and advocates for the poor all scramble for advantage in legislation that would rewrite the rules of the domestic energy economy. Groups are already spending millions of dollars in organizing, mailing, and advertising campaigns to influence the legislation.

The battle has exposed deep rifts within the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and other business lobbies, with companies leaving their trade organizations almost daily in disputes over climate change legislation. The Chamber of Commerce opposed the House bill and will almost certainly work to weaken or defeat the Boxer-Kerry measure.

The Senate debate will also significantly affect the US negotiating position at climate talks, sponsored by the United Nations, that are scheduled for December in Copenhagen.

The bill would set up a cap-and-trade system to achieve the emissions targets, allowing industry and other entities to buy and sell permits within an overall emissions ceiling. The House bill, which narrowly passed in late June, would establish a similar program.

But the Senate measure so far leaves a number of crucial questions unanswered, chief among them how the permits to emit carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases would be distributed to utilities, manufacturers, agribusiness, and other interests. The allocation of such permits, worth billions of dollars annually, was a subject of intense horse-trading in the House and is certain to touch off a major battle as the Senate debates its own version of the bill.

The Boxer-Kerry bill will be considered in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which Boxer heads. Several other Senate panels, including the Finance Committee, led by Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, will also play a major role in whatever climate change debate the Senate engages in this fall. A Boxer aide cautioned that the bill is still evolving.

While Boxer is promising to begin hearings on her bill on Oct. 20, there is no certainty that other committees will act as quickly. The Finance Committee, where the permit-allocation issue and trade questions will be decided, is in the middle of the difficult health care debate and appears to be in no hurry to take on another hugely contentious matter.

The Senate bill reflects months of discussions among Democratic members to address their concerns with the House measure, sponsored by Representatives Henry A. Waxman of California and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, both Democrats. The latest draft of the Senate legislation includes a system somewhat different from the House bill’s to ensure that the price of emissions permits does not rise or fall too quickly. The Senate measure provides what one senior aide called a “soft collar’’ to keep permit prices within a specified range from year to year.

The Senate bill would also alter the House approach to so-called offsets, which are ways that polluting industries can get credit for emissions reductions by paying others, like farmers or timber growers, to adopt practices that reduce the overall level of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere.

In addition, the Senate bill would provide greater incentives for construction of nuclear power plants and for low-emissions transportation systems, an aide working on the measure said.

David Doniger, climate policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the introduction of the Boxer-Kerry bill today will signal the beginning of Senate debate on climate change.

Despite predictions that health care and other matters will consume all of the Senate calendar, Doniger said: “The Senate can engage and get it done this fall. There’s still time.’’