Waxman-Markey Bill: Despite compromises, a "major step in the right direction"

22 May 2009

"The bill's passage in the face of significant opposition represents a major milestone for US climate policy," writes The Climate Group's Evan Juska.

A US climate bill came one step closer to becoming law on Thursday, as it passed through the House Energy and Commerce Committee by a vote of 33-25. This is the first step in a process that still includes a vote in the entire House of Representatives and a similar procedure in the Senate. However, this first step was one of the most difficult, and the bill's passage in the face of significant opposition represents a major milestone for US climate policy.

To secure the amount of votes needed to pass the bill through the Committee, the bill's authors, Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey (D-MA) had to make significant compromises. Among the main changes to the original bill are decreases in the US interim emission reduction target, from 20% below 2005 levels by 2020 to 17% below 2005 levels, as well as a reduction in the US Renewable Electricity Standard (RES), from 25% by 2025 to 15% by 2020 (with another 5% coming from energy efficiency improvements).

These changes have led some environmental groups to withdraw their support from the bill, arguing that it is no longer stringent enough to achieve the emission reductions scientists say are needed to avoid "dangerous interference" with the climate system. In addition, international observers note that the new interim target, equal to about a 3% reduction from 1990 levels, is a far cry from the EU target of a 30% reduction from 1990 levels, and could lead to difficulty in international negotiations.

However, the bill's passage, during a time when the future of US climate policy is anything but certain, is a significant achievement, and should not be taken for granted.

Climate policy in the US still faces serious challenges. While Republicans are now in near unanimous opposition to any climate bill, an even bigger challenge is posed by moderate Democrats, mostly from the Midwest and the South, who have serious concerns about the impact a cap on emissions will have on their states' already struggling economies.

This opposition was evident throughout the recent Committee debate, when, at times, it seemed as if a compromise was out of reach, and that the entire climate issue could be postponed until after the US dealt first with reforming its healthcare system. Further opposition heightened only a couple of days ago when the Chair of the House Agriculture Committee, Congressman Collin Peterson (D-MN), announced that if Chairman Markey did not hand the bill over to the Agriculture Committee for significant changes to the bill's agricultural provisions, he would lose every Democratic vote on the Agriculture Committee when the bill went to the House floor.

In light of these political realities, the compromise bill that was passed Thursday was a major step in the right direction for both US and international climate policy. Due to the size and geographic diversity of the Energy and Commerce Committee, the bill's passage demonstrates its ability to appeal to multiple constituencies, indicating that it has a good chance to pass through the entire House. And if that were to happen this year, as planned, the Obama Administration would have a domestically valid basis from which to negotiate international reduction targets in Copenhagen this December - something the Clinton Administration lacked in Kyoto.

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