Obama climate change bill defies Republicans to pass key committee
Bill weakened on its way to full House of Representatives, but still regarded as tough on fossil fuel emissions New laws to impose the first limits on US greenhouse gas emissions took a significant step forwards late on Thursday, clearing a key House of Representatives committee in the face of strong Republican opposition.
The Energy and Commerce Committee approved the sweeping climate change bill 33-25 after repeatedly turning back Republican attempts to kill or weaken the measures during four days of debate.
After the vote on the legislation, President Barack Obama said: "We are now one step closer to delivering on the promise of a new clean energy economy that will make America less dependent on foreign oil, crack down on polluters, and create millions of new jobs all across America."
Henry Waxman, the panel's Democratic chairman, said the bill represents "decisive and historic action".
The panel's action boosts the likelihood that President Barack Obama will succeed in his wish that the US can attend crucial international climate talks in Copenhagen in December, having taken concrete action at home to fight global warming. Such action is widely seen as an essential act of good faith to drawing China, India and other developing nations into a global deal to succeed the Kyoto protocol. The bill will now be considered by the full house, with the Senate yet to take up the issue.
The same criticism was made by Republicans over the new bill. They argued that the pollution cuts would lead to soaring energy prices and threaten economic growth by imposing new costs on energy intensive industries already facing economic hardships.
"We don't want to put the economy in jeopardy," said Joe Barton, the committee's ranking Republican. He offered an alternative that would have scrapped the cap on greenhouse gases and pollution trading scheme, provide more incentives for nuclear energy and bolstered research into capturing carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants. It was defeated 35-19.
While the bill was weakened by the committee, environmentalists were broadly supportive, arguing that the altered bill was the toughest that was politically possible.
The huge increase in lobbying against the climate bill was revealed this month by the Guardian, showing how green campaigners were being heavily outspent by fossil fuel companies. The role of 12 swing Democrats from coal and industrial states on the committee was crucial, and in the end, decisive. The house bill requires factories, refineries and power plants to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and six other greenhouse gases by roughly 80 percent by mid-century. The cap-and-trade scheme means that those that fail to cuts emissions will be compelled to buy the spare carbon permits of those that do.
To ease the economic impact, the bill calls for giving away 35 percent of the pollution permits to electric utilities, that otherwise would be likely to pass the additional costs onto consumers. The government also would sell 15 percent of the allowances and use the money to provide direct relief to consumers. "It is very clear that ratepayers are going to be protected," Waxman insisted.
To get the support of the swing Democrats, Waxman agreed to give away significant free emissions allowances to industries in their states, including the electric utilities, steel manufacturers, automakers and refineries. Waxman also scaled back the required greenhouse gas reductions between now and 2020 from 20 percent to 17 percent. And he eased the requirement for utilities to use renewable energy such as wind and solar for electricity production.
Republicans won new breaks for the ethanol industry, by including in the bill government-backed loans to help finance the building of pipelines that carry the biofuel.
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