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Comment: US climate bill faces tough road ahead

01 October 2009

Evan Juska, Senior Policy Manager for The Climate Group North America, comments on the release on the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act

The climate debate in the US Senate officially started today, with the release of a new climate and energy bill co-sponsored by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The bill, modeled closely after the Waxman-Markey bill that passed in the US House of Representatives in June, is intended to be the starting point for a laborious Senate debate, and will need to overcome significant obstacles before it has a chance to pass.

The most significant change in the new bill is an increase in the short-term emission reductions target from 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 to 20% below 2005 levels by 2020.

In light of US Special Envoy Todd Stern's recent comments that the US would not commit to targets more stringent than those laid out in Congress, the new Senate target creates the possibility of a stronger US commitment at Copenhagen. However, it has already met with concern from key US Senators, like Kent Conrad (D-ND) who called the target "problematic."

Many other controversial issues, like emission allowance allocation and carbon tariffs, were left largely unaddressed in the bill. Details on these and other key provisions are expected to emerge over the next couple of months, as the bill's sponsors begin to negotiate with undecided Senators in an attempt to gain their support.

Proponents of the bill estimate that about 45 of the 60 votes needed to pass the bill are secured. The additional 15 votes will need to come from a pool of only about 20 potential supporters - meaning that every vote is going to count.

The scarcity of potential votes in the Senate means that the concerns of each individual Senator will have significant influence, elevating a new group of issues, most of which played a marginal role in the House, to the forefront of the Senate debate, including nuclear power, natural gas and a potential price cap on allowances (safety valve).

The success or failure of these negotiations will determine the likelihood of the bill passing before Copenhagen. And while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) remains optimistic about a floor vote before Copenhagen, he recently acknowledged that the Senate may not pass the bill this year, as previously hoped, due to delays in the healthcare reform debate. A more likely scenario is that the climate bill will progress through key Senate Committees this Fall, providing the Administration with a strong position from which to negotiate an 'outline agreement' that serves as a marker for further progress next year.

It seems that President Obama was correct in that, "As we head towards Copenhagen, there should be no illusions that the hardest part of our journey is in front of us."

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