Where is the US on climate legislation?

President Barack Obama delivers remarks during a morning plenary session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference at the Bella Center in Copenhagen, Denmark, December 18, 2009.
Climate politics is difficult in the US. There is currently a stalemate in Congress, and little prospect of moving forward. Under the Copenhagen Accord, the US has put forward a commitment…
In the range of 17%, in conformity with anticipated U.S. energy and climate legislation...The pathway set forth in pending legislation would entail a 30% reduction in 2025 and a 42% reduction in 2030, in line with the goal to reduce emissions 83% by 2050. [US submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 28 January 2010]
There is currently no Federal legislation to support any such commitment.

In the US all climate change action at this stage is State-based, mainly through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a grouping of 10 States involved in emissions trading, and California's Assembly Bill 32 (AB32). AB32 was passed in 2006 legislating a 25 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020. However, under Proposition 23 of AB32, the bill can be ‘undone’. Proposition 23 is likely to be put in action if Republican candidate Meg Whitman (ex-CEO of eBay) is elected in California in the upcoming elections. This will be symbolic for the US, because California currently leads the country on climate policies. There is also a collaboration between the US and Canada via the Western Climate Initiative, which attempts to reduce emissions on a regional level. It is unclear how any of these local emissions control policies will interact with any possible federal scheme.

There exists one federally based emissions control scheme already in operation, this is the Acid Rain Program, but it is not specifically aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. To date, all attempts to establish new climate policies on a federal level and pass enabling legislation has been met with resistance from some Congress members. In the current 111th Congress of the US, a number of climate bills have been suggested. Notable recent ones have been the Waxman-Markey (H.R. 2454) bill, the Kerry-Boxer (S. 1733), recently the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman (or KGL) bill and the Cantwell-Collins (S. 2877) bill.

  • The Waxman-Markey H.R. 2454: American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 was passed in the House on 26 June 2009 but has not been voted on in the Senate. It outlines an emissions trading scheme (ETS) calling for a 17 per cent reduction on 2005 greenhouse gas levels by 2020. The 2009 Waxman-Markey Bill was ambitious when it was first released, but by the time it was watered down sufficiently to secure enough votes to pass the House of Representative, it was a very different bill. It gave away 85 per cent of allowances free in the early years. It relied heavily on internationally purchased offsets . It had weak initial targets and construction of new coal power plants was still allowed until 2020 (with an agreement that carbon capture and storage would be retrofitted once commercially available). Ultimately, the bill passed with only 219 votes versus 212 and never made it to the Senate.
  • The Kerry-Boxer S. 1733: Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (APA) was introduced in September 2009, and referred to Committee in November 2009. It is an ETS and largely similar to the Waxman-Markey bill, but it targets a 20 per cent reduction on 2005 greenhouse gas levels by 2020, and 83 per cent by 2050. The bill has been abandoned as its main sponsor Sen. John Kerry is working on a new proposal.
  • The KGL bill is as yet not finalised. It is to be a compromise on the Kerry-Boxer bill which is currently lacking support from the Senate. The bill’s sponsors have been, until recently, interacting with stakeholders in shaping the text for this energy and climate bill. Apparently, the bill will be sent to the Congressional Budget Office and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who will gauge the economic impact of the legislation. Although not much information on the framework proposed in the KGL bill is available, there are rumours that it involves an ETS with a similar cap to the Waxman-Markey bill and a carbon tax on fuels. It seems that co-sponsor Lindsay Graham may have pulled his support for the bill, making its passage unlikely.
  • The Cantwell-Collins S. 2877: Carbon Limits and Energy for America's Renewal (CLEAR) Act was introduced in to the Senate on 11 December 2009 and referred to committee. Unlike the other bills, the CLEAR Act is not an ETS. It sets a cap at 20 per cent of 2005 emissions levels by 2020 but it does not allow trading of the permits. Instead it allocates most of the revenue raised straight to US consumers to offset energy price hikes and then some to clean energy research, low income households and energy efficiency projects.
A report from the World Resources Institute, ‘Emissions reductions under pollution reduction proposals in the 111th congress’ provides the graph below which looks at the comparative effectiveness of the various bills.

Net Estimates of Emissions Reductions Under Pollution Reduction Proposals in the 111th U.S. Congress, 2005-2050
In the background to the legislative debates in Congress, the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has in place a series of initiatives to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but these are generally incentives, not requirements, and are voluntary. Some examples are:
  • The Clean Energy-Environment State Partnership Program, which encourages states to develop and implement cost-effective clean energy and environmental strategies.
  • The CHP Partnership promoting the use of Combined Heat and Power.
  • ENERGY STAR which is a voluntary labelling program to promote energy-efficient products.
  • Climate Leaders, where the EPA works with companies to develop climate change strategies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The Green Power Partnership through which the EPA supports organisations that are buying or planning to buy green power.
One form of strict regulation is provided through the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards managed by the EPA and Department of Transportation. The CAFE standards are currently being reviewed and strengthened.

Also, in light of slow progress on any new carbon-restricting legislation, in November 2009, the US EPA held hearings on the proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions for industrial facilities emitting more than 25,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases annually (this covers 70 per cent of emissions from stationary sources in the US). Under the EPA’s proposal, these facilities would be required to use best-practices and technologies. Following the EPA’s proposal announcement, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski has built a campaign attempting to stop any such EPA regulation of greenhouse gases. This has been followed by concern by some Democratic Senators over the timing of the proposed regulation and its coverage. The proposal has subsequently been somewhat diluted (for example it now only covers new facilities built after 2011 and is only supposed to come into play in that year). Nonetheless, a bill was introduced on 4 March, sponsored by Democratic Senator John Rockefeller entitled: S. 3072: Stationary Source Regulations Delay Act - A bill to suspend, during the 2-year period beginning on the date of enactment of this Act, any Environmental Protection Agency action under the Clean Air Act with respect to carbon dioxide or methane pursuant to certain proceedings, other than with respect to motor vehicle emissions, and for other purposes. The bill has been referred to Committee and remains there. The main difficulty in implementing this emissions control method is that it requires action on a plant by plant basis, an expensive exercise for a resource-limited agency such as the EPA.
(Image sourced from http://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/photogallery/a-breakthrough-copenhagen/)


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