Senators, EPA Push to Regulate Emissions

Sens. Boxer and Kerry released their climate change bill the same day the EPA announced a new rule.

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Last week, Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California released a climate change bill, designed to limit greenhouse gas pollution over the next few decades. It was a significant announcement, the culmination of months of behind-the-scenes work. But they weren't alone. The same day, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule to do basically the same thing, but on its own terms.

The EPA's proposal, which would curb emissions from the country's biggest industrial polluters, is just a draft, nothing final, so it still has to go through a public review that could take more than a year to complete. But the move underscores a major source of tension over how to limit domestic greenhouse gas emissions. That the United States will regulate these emissions at some point now seems likely. The uncertainty is over who will control how it's done: Congress or the EPA.

Most politicians prefer that Congress lead, since that approach would give them a chance to craft legislation to protect their state's interests. But because the EPA declared greenhouse gases a health hazard last spring, it's required to regulate them under the Clean Air Act, unless Congress passes a climate bill to override the EPA's authority. The House, in a tight vote, did that this summer when it passed its big climate and energy bill. Now the Senate, thanks to the Boxer-Kerry effort, has something tangible to work on. But the Senate is also busy wrestling with healthcare and financial regulatory reforms.

In some respects, the Senate climate bill is more ambitious, and more politically fraught, than the House one. It calls for emissions cuts of 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, compared with the 17 percent cut in the House. But it also leaves many questions unanswered, including how to structure a cap-and-trade scheme. (In fact, the bill deliberately avoids the phrase "cap-and-trade," using the vague "pollution reduction" instead.) That topic will be handled by the Senate Finance Committee, which has been consumed by health reform.

Over the next month, insiders say, small groups of senators will continue talking with colleagues and industry representatives to tweak the bill to address concerns. At the moment, the bill is short of support to pass the Senate, with at least a dozen Democrats and several Republicans on the fence. "Do we have to work hard to win 60 votes? Sure," says Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Environment Group's global warming campaign. "But part of the way to get those votes is to try to negotiate with members around what they need to protect their citizens."

Case in point: Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, warned last Thursday that industry jobs could be threatened if the Senate passed a climate bill that lacked protections against foreign competitors that do business more cheaply without emissions limits. Democratic leaders say they will try to accommodate those requests.

But the clock is ticking with the EPA moving forward. "We are not going to continue with business as usual," EPA chief Lisa Jackson said last week. Meanwhile, Carol Browner, President Obama's top climate adviser, indicated last week that she does not expect a cap-and-trade bill to reach the president's desk by December.

The EPA's rule, if it takes effect, would regulate facilities that emit more than 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year. That's about 70 percent of the country's emissions.