Clean Jobs Bill Aims to Reinvent Policy

By Irish Times, Irish Times - October 1, 2009

TWO US senators yesterday presented draft legislation whose fate will have far-reaching consequences for the Obama administration, the environmental conference in Copenhagen in December and the future of the planet.

“The Clean Jobs and American Power Act is aimed at no less than the reinvention of the way America produces and uses energy,” Senator John Kerry, who co-authored the Bill with Senator Barbara Boxer, wrote in the online newspaper Politico .

The US must kick its “addiction to oil” and invest in coal, nuclear, solar and wind energy, Mr Kerry said.

Mr Kerry and Ms Boxer presented the 800-page text on the east lawn of the Capitol building, in the presence of representatives from environmental groups. It calls for a 20 per cent reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2020, 3 per cent higher than the Waxman-Markey Bill, which the House passed by a narrow margin last June. (Waxman-Markey also started at 20 per cent, but that was whittled down in negotiations.) House and Senate Bills both aim to reduce emissions by 83 per cent by 2050.

President Barack Obama congratulated the Democratic senators on what he called “comprehensive energy reform”. He said the Bill put America “one step closer to . . . control of our energy future and making America more energy independent”. Mr Obama said his administration is “deeply committed to passing a Bill that creates new American jobs and the clean energy incentives that foster innovation”.

Speaking at climate talks in Bangkok, Rolf Skar of Greenpeace US said the Senate Bill “falls far short of the minimum emissions reductions scientists say are necessary” and urged Mr Obama to “reject fossil fuel industry attempts to define the strength of the international climate agreement in Copenhagen”.

Mr Obama has been criticised for allowing climate change to take a back seat to healthcare reforms. “In a rational world, the looming climate disaster would be our dominant political and policy concern,” Nobel Prize laureate Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times this week. Mr Krugman cited melting Arctic Sea ice, carbon dioxide released by thawing tundra and predictions of permanent Dust Bowl-type conditions in the southwest United States as proof of urgency.

Despite the cheerful atmosphere at yesterday’s launch, the process already bears disturbing similarities to healthcare legislation that has fanned partisan tensions. Like healthcare, support for the climate change Act divides mainly along party lines, with “blue dog” or moderate Democrats siding with Republicans.

As with healthcare, powerful business interests are using multi-million-dollar campaign contributions to dissuade congressmen from passing climate change legislation. The climate Bill is vehemently opposed by the US Chamber of Commerce and the petroleum refining industry.

And like healthcare, the thorniest questions have been postponed until later. The Boxer-Kerry Bill presented yesterday does not attempt to define the allocation of permits or licences to pollute among power plants, manufacturers and the petrochemical industry.

Ms Boxer said she wants to begin hearings on the Bill in her Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on October 20th. Before it reaches the Senate floor for debate and a vote, the text must also clear the finance and agriculture committees.

The US struggle over climate change is being watched closely by the European Commission delegation. Europe holds the high moral ground on climate change, having had an emissions trading system in place since 2005. If the US Congress passes a law, the “cap and trade” system, whereby an ever diminishing number of permits to pollute can be traded or sold between companies, will not enter into force until 2011.

The EU has already committed to cutting emissions by 20 per cent by 2020. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wants developed countries to cut emissions by 25 to 40 per cent, and the EU has promised to raise its goal to 30 per cent if agreement is reached in Copenhagen.

If the Senate does not make significant progress on the climate change Bill before Copenhagen, the conference will be severely handicapped, warned Malachy Hargadon, the EU Commission’s environment counsellor in Washington. “A debate and vote on the floor of the Senate would allow American negotiators to go to Copenhagen and indicate what America can do,” he said.

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times

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