Winter may be a tough time to think about global warming, but arguments are kindling for the return of Congress in January.
Larger GOP majorities in the Senate and House stoked optimism that Congress will revive a stalled energy bill opposed by Maine lawmakers. For example, a majority of senators seem poised to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the House has approved and which the president backs.
Other aspects of the energy debate remain too cloudy to predict. To start, different committees handle legislation to produce energy and to reduce pollution.
But everything will be on the table for the 109th Congress as Republicans press their advantage to secure energy and Democrats angle to reduce pollution.
“Political and regional polarization has produced an energy stalemate, preventing America from adopting sensible approaches to some of our biggest energy problems,” said John Rowe, chairman of nuclear power company Exelon Corp. and co-chairman of a bipartisan federal commission.
CURBING CARBON DIOXIDE
The Senate also will consider a new head of the Environmental Protection Agency to replace Mike Leavitt, who has been nominated to become secretary of health and human services.
Critics contend that EPA wasted opportunities during President Bush’s first four years by weakening water and air protections and developing inadequate mercury standards.
“Given the administration’s track record on the environment, we have little hope that President Bush’s next EPA administrator will be allowed to do a better job of cutting pollution and keeping families safe,” said Ed Hopkins, director of the Sierra Club’s environmental quality program.
One of the most spirited legislative disputes deals with the climate generally and carbon di- oxide specifically.
People exhale carbon dioxide. Plants feed on it. But coal-fired plants produce enough to worry folks that the heat-trapping gas will alter the climate, change the landscape and kill off animals.
Six energy industry associations – the Edison Electric Institute, the American Public Power Association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the Electric Power Supply Association, the Large Public Power Council and the Tennessee Valley Authority – recently signed an agreement with the U.S. Energy Department to curb carbon dioxide emissions by 2012.
Bush has refused to regulate carbon dioxide because it could hurt economic development. The voluntary agreement seeks to reduce the “intensity” of emissions by calling for carbon dioxide emissions to grow less than the economy generally.
The “intensity” of emissions should either drop 18 percent in the next decade or 3 percent to 5 percent less than the current level, according to the pact.
BUSH URGED TO JOIN TALKS
But critics contend the reduction in emissions shouldn’t be linked to the economy. Energy and Commerce Committee member Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, joined 24 other House members in a letter urging Bush to participate in the United Nations talks on climate change, which ended Friday in Argentina.
“As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, our principled leadership is essential to addressing this problem,” the letter said.
A couple of recent reports added fuel to the fire.
This year was the fourth hottest on record since 1861, a U.N. weather agency reported Wednesday. Temperatures rose an average of 1 degree over the past century, with the rate of change roughly three times greater since 1976.
The National Commission on Energy Policy issued a report after two years of study recommending a variety of changes. One would begin reducing the “intensity” of greenhouse gas emissions in 2010. Another recommendation calls for reforming fuel standards for vehicles, with a vague goal of boosting mileage and cutting trips to the gas pump.
“The near-term key to reducing oil price shocks is curbing U.S. demand and increasing world supply,” said William Reilly, a former EPA administrator and commission co-chairman. “We have to do both.”
UNCERTAIN CHANCES FOR CHANGE
But consumer groups argued that the report advocates weaker standards for carbon dioxide than those proposed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. While the report said tighter vehicle fuel standards are feasible, it set no targets or time frames to meet tougher standards.
“Taken as a whole, the report increases the country’s dependence on fossil fuel and nuclear power, while falling well short of solving the environmental, consumer and economic problems presented by our current energy system,” said Navin Nayak, environmental advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Consumer advocates complained that 10 of the 16 commissioners had direct financial ties to energy corporations. These commissioners included Rowe, the nuclear power company chairman; Archie Dunham, chairman of ConocoPhillips, which spent $5.7 million lobbying on energy policy in 2001; and Linda Gillespie Stuntz, a lobbyist for the energy industry.
The disputes leave prospects for legislation uncertain.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said the report should serve as a major spark for energy legislation in January. Coming from a coal-producing state, he acknow- ledged coal is a major factor in pollution. But he argued that Americans must also address climate change and recognize that depending on foreign oil threa- tens national security.
“We cannot afford to see the energy debate as a debate between Northeast states versus Midwest states or renewable fuels versus fossil fuels,” said Byrd. “Those types of divisions only lead to further stalemate. We need to build on national consensus and fuel diversity.”