After the Election: Prospects for Climate Legislation

By JIM DIPESO, REP’s policy director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Jim delivered this speech at the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, on November 16, 2006.


Hello, I’m Jim DiPeso, policy director of Republicans for Environmental Protection. We’re a non-profit organization trying to restore the Republican Party’s conservation tradition.

I would like to report a scientific breakthrough. Abrupt climate change is real. A non-linear phase transition took place in Washington DC last Tuesday. The town was flooded by a blue wave and Capitol Hill’s atmosphere was altered by an anthropogenic forcing mechanism known as elections.

The title of my talk is After the Election: Prospects for Climate Legislation. Those prospects have changed significantly.

Starting next year, when the 110th Congress convenes, there will be hearings.

There will be negotiations.

And there may be legislation — possibly in 2007, but more likely in 2008. If there is a climate bill, it’s likely to be somewhat cautious in scope, with modest carbon caps and a price limit on tradable carbon emissions allowances. It will, of necessity, have bipartisan support .

Climate politics has many sharp edges, some partisan, but others that are regional. Pulling together a bill will be like conducting a chemistry experiment, where you have to add just the right ingredients in just the right quantities in just the right sequence — or the whole thing explodes.

The fact that climate politics are not purely partisan is a good thing. There is no reason why the issue should be approached on a partisan basis anyway. Some of the strongest congressional leaders on this issue — Senators John McCain and Olympia Snowe, and Congressman Wayne Gilchrest — are Republicans.

There are aspects of climate policy that ought to appeal to Republicans — greater security through diversifying our energy choices, new economic opportunities through new energy technologies. There is talk around DC that President Bush is planning a big biofuels initiative as a way to regain political momentum.

From a practical sense, Republican support for a climate bill will be critical. It takes 60 votes to get anything through the Senate. A climate bill won’t pass without the support of key Senate Republicans such as McCain, Snowe, and Richard Lugar, the outgoing chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

It remains to be seen whether any legislation can win President Bush’s approval during his final two years in office. The prospects are not promising, but he may have reasons to consider signing a bill that have more to do with political science than atmospheric science.

This much is certain, however. The United States is slowly getting into the climate game. And not a moment too soon.

That’s the executive summary of where we may be headed. Let me give you some background to help you understand how we got to where we are today and what may lie ahead.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that the worlds of science and politics have little in common. Science tries to explain phenomena through careful study based on evidence and logical reasoning.

Politics also can unfold through careful study, evidence, and logical reasoning — but not often and not predictably. Politicians traffic in intangibles — values, hopes, and fears.

A politician called to principled public service must work in a somewhat chaotic environment where competing interests demand attention and satisfaction, where short-term agendas can trump the long-term common good, where getting through the next election can overwhelm good public policy.

Promises, threats, and venal temptations pull a politician every which way.

Climate change amplifies those pressures — to the max. Greenhouse gas emissions, for the most part, are tied to the ways that we produce and use energy. Our national economy was built and operates on a foundation of abundant hydrocarbon energy.
Delivering that abundant hydrocarbon energy is a multi-trillion dollar investment in wells, pipelines, tankers, refineries, factories, coal mines, power plants.

Many of the leaders in industries that own those investments and other industries that depend on the energy they produce will resist any proposal, any argument — no matter how well grounded in science — that our current energy economy must change.

That resistance can get ugly. It can take the form of threats to politicians that support for a new energy economy will cost them campaign dollars, votes, and their political careers. It also, as we have seen, can involve often crude attempts to impeach the credibility of scientists.

You have only to follow the stories of Jim Hansen and the censors and of Michael Mann and the hockey stick to get a sense of what can happen in the political arena when very large economic interests feel threatened.

Large energy producing and energy consuming industries have important friends in Washington, DC, on both sides of the aisle.

Resistance to climate legislation has a bipartisan flavor because climate politics, as I mentioned, has regional as well as partisan fault lines.

Let’s put names and faces to those who have been resisting national limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

It starts at the top — with the president and vice president of the United States. Both have oil industry backgrounds. They started their climb up the political ladder in Texas and Wyoming — two states with economies tied to oil, gas and coal.

Bush is not one to change his mind on things very readily. But he does have a pragmatic streak, and with a Democratic Congress in his face for the next two years, he may give his pragmatic side more room to roam.

There is talk of Bush reverting to his approach when he was governor of Texas, when Democrats ran the Legislature.

Let’s turn to Congress. It’s important to understand how Congress operates. The day to day business in Congress is directed by the majority party leaders and carried out in committees.

Committees are fiefdoms that handle legislation germane to the issues under each committee’s jurisdiction. The people who control those committees are determined by majority party leaders in each house of Congress. If you want to get something done in Congress, committee chairmen are critical gatekeepers.

Let’s get acquainted with a few of the outgoing committee chairmen who have kept the gate closed to meaningful climate legislation.

First, the House. The House is a top-down organization. It is very hierarchical. The Speaker and the majority leader determine priorities — the floor schedule, and what bills will come up for a vote on the floor. They influence the “rule,” the terms for the floor debate, such as the number and type of amendments that may be considered.

The rank-and-file congressmen are under enormous pressure to vote the way their party leaders want them to vote. If they don’t, they can be punished — by losing choice committee assignments, or worse, having federal dollars steered outside their districts.

Ask Congressman Reichert to tell you the story about him, Congressman Don Young and a Coast Guard ship. Young is the Alaskan who is the outgoing chairman of the Transportation Committee. Young threatened to move a Coast Guard ship from Seattle to Anchorage, all because Reichert wouldn’t vote Young’s way on opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee: This is considered to be the most powerful committee in the House. It has wide jurisdiction over legislation affecting the energy industries.

The outgoing chairman is an affable Dallas Republican named Joe Barton. Barton is a real close friend of oil, gas, and coal. He was the lead author of the Energy Policy Act of 2006, which subsidizes new fossil fuel development.

Barton is not a good friend of climate scientists. Last year, he opened a fishing expedition demanding that Michael Mann and colleagues involved in the hockey stick research produce box loads of information on their research projects.

This boorish stunt drew a stern rebuke from Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, a fellow Republican chairing the House Science Committee, who, unfortunately, is retiring at the end of this year.

The House Resources Committee: It has jurisdiction over public lands and marine waters. The outgoing chairman is Richard Pombo, a rancher and real estate mogul from California’s San Joaquin Valley. Pombo has been pushing for more oil and gas production just about everywhere — in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, offshore, and in the Intermountain West.

But he won’t be doing that anymore. He was defeated for re-election last week.

Now, the Senate. The Senate is not as hierarchical as the House. It’s more clubby, and operates under unanimous consent rules that temper partisanship to a degree.

Individual senators have more leeway to act independently than their House brethren. Still, the majority leader is very powerful, since he determines the Senate’s schedule and sets priorities for which bills will come to the floor for a vote.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee: The outgoing chairman is Pete Domenici of New Mexico. Domenici used to pooh-pooh climate change, but has come around. He co-sponsored a successful “sense of the Senate” resolution last year supporting a market-based climate policy that includes emissions caps.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee: The outgoing chairman is James Inhofe of Oklahoma. He argues that climate change is a gigantic hoax. Things are going to be a tad different around this committee come January.

Let’s see how different things will be. Let’s take a look at what political types like to call the “lay of the land” — the political context in which climate legislation will be considered.

First, our energy economy is under great stress. Climate change is the elephant in the living room. But there are other exotic fauna in the parlor also. We’re consuming far more oil than oil companies are discovering. If global oil production hasn’t already peaked, it likely will in the not-too-distant future.

Oil producers are stretched to meet rising oil demand. The market for oil is global, so anything that happens anywhere in the world affects fuel prices. And prices lately have become twitchy, a sign of a stressed market.

And to top it off, most of the world’s remaining oil is beneath the most difficult environments in the world — both politically, as in the Middle East, and geologically, as in deepwater or Arctic environments. As the CEO of Chevron said last year, the oil industry is seeing the convergence of geological difficulty with geopolitical instability.

Or, as Senator Lugar, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a speech this year:

“An energy policy that relies on a finite resource concentrated in a few countries is doomed to failure.”

To a degree, the story is similar for natural gas, which has been touted as the bridge fuel to a new energy economy. Demand is rising, old gas fields are dwindling, imports are likely to increase, and the world’s largest reserves are in “friendly, stable” countries — Iran and Russia.

So, even if climate change were not happening, energy would still be a pressing national issue. There are good reasons for Congress and the administration to focus on it.

A key question is what direction they will take — towards more efficiency and cleaner, more diverse energy choices, or towards Hydrocarbons: The Sequel — producing more fuel, heat, and electricity from coal and from the carbon-intense dregs of the hydrocarbon world — heavy oil, shale, and tar sands.

Oil and gas interests are not of one mind on climate issues. For example, ExxonMobil is the world’s largest publicly traded oil company. Exxon has publicly questioned the scientific consensus on global warming. Exxon has funded think tank ideologues who have sown public doubt and confusion about the real state of climate science.

The company is convinced that hydrocarbons will dominate our energy economy far into the future. Not much help there.
But other companies know that our oil-centered economy is under stress. BP and Shell have acknowledged that anthropogenic climate change is real. BP makes the somewhat pretentious claim that “BP” now means “Beyond Petroleum.” BP is still an oil company, but to their credit, the company is thinking ahead about diversifying and so is Shell.

Chevron is running a high-profile ad campaign that says the era of easy oil is over .

Still, the oil and gas industry favors more domestic drilling, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, off the coasts, and in the Intermountain West. In the next few weeks, Congress may approve a bill to expand oil and gas leasing in a deepwater tract in the Gulf of Mexico.

Coal will be another key player. Coal, the most carbon-rich of the fossil fuels, is gearing up for a revival. Demand for power is rising worldwide. Hundreds of coal plants are on the drawing boards in the U.S., China and India. Unlike nuclear, there are no capital cost issues. Unlike oil and gas, there are no geological difficulties or geopolitical instabilities.

Big Coal, however, sees climate change as the fly in coal’s ointment. Coal is a stodgy, risk-averse industry. Coal sees global warming as “game over” for the black rock. And Big Coal has friends in Congress from both parties.

But coal is not monolithic either. Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer says coal still has a future in a carbon-constrained world. One-third of U.S. coal reserves are in his state.

Schweitzer wants to put all that coal to work making fuel and energy, but with technology that separates the carbon and sequesters it underground. He says it’s doable and maybe he’s right. We don’t know yet, but that could argue for increased R&D for carbon sequestration.

Duke Energy is one of the nation’s largest utilities. Duke burns a lot of coal. Duke’s chairman, Paul Anderson, also is on record in favor of a carbon tax. Why? He’s convinced that anthropogenic climate change is real. He sees that state governments are worried, that they’re tired of waiting for the feds, and are acting.

The most spectacular recent example is California, which has adopted the most sweeping climate policy in the country. California is pioneering the economy-wide approach most likely to be adopted at the federal level — a cap-and-trade system that sets emissions limits and allows clever companies to profit by reducing their emissions below limits and selling surplus carbon emissions allowances.

More than that, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed legislation that essentially bars new imports of coal-fired electricity into California, unless power plants have a carbon emissions footprint equal to or better than the most efficient gas-fired power plant. That’s a pretty high hurdle for coal plants to climb.

Business executives don’t like patchwork regulation. They don’t want 50 Arnold Schwarzeneggers adopting 50 different climate policies. Duke Energy and other CEOs prefer a national solution, one that spreads the costs of carbon reduction equitably and rewards businesses that find innovative ways of shrinking their carbon footprints.

There are many other interests that will have something to say about climate legislation.

Automakers, for one. Environmentalists want to tighten automotive fuel economy standards. The very idea causes heart palpitations in Detroit.

But maybe, just maybe, Detroit may be willing to deal. Higher fuel economy standards, with flexibility provisions built in, in exchange for federal help with what are delicately known as “legacy costs” — the automakers’ huge pension and health care liabilities.

And a little help with the capital costs of tooling up to produce more hybrid cars wouldn’t hurt either.

Farmers are another interested party. Farmers like biofuels and, ipso facto, so do the Midwestern lawmakers of either party who represent them. The farm lobby wouldn’t mind raising the required ethanol content in gasoline.

And how about more research support for cellulosic ethanol? President Bush is talking up switchgrass, a weedy looking ragamuffin of a plant that could be one ticket to freedom from the OPEC cartel.

Companies that stand to make money selling clean energy technologies will be another player. The renewable energy industries would like to see a national portfolio standard, similar to the Initiative 937 that we passed here in Washington last week. They’ll also be interested in extending the tax credit for renewable energy producers.

Of all the environmental technology companies, General Electric is the biggest of the bunch. The manufacturing giant has staked its future on a corporate initiative called “Ecomagination.” GE is convinced that low- and zero-emissions technology is a sound strategy to make a lot of money.

The company has a whole catalog of environmental wares for sale, including wind turbines, fuel-efficient locomotives, coal gasification technology, super-efficient gas turbines, even solar photovoltaics. A cap on greenhouse gas emissions would expand the market for such merchandise. GE wants Congress to act, sooner rather than later.

So, those are some of the big power players on the climate policy stage. Now, let’s meet some of the stage managers, the key players in the upcoming 110th Congress.

Let’s start with Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. He will be in the minority. He won’t be chairing any committees. But he’s still in a class by himself and will still wield influence. He is the front-runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.

His story as a survivor of the Vietnam POW camps, his reputation as a plain-speaking maverick, and his willingness to work across the aisle on high-profile issues have earned him great appeal to millions of citizens far beyond the state he represents.

McCain gets it on climate change. In the last five years, he has held real hearings with real scientists. He and Joe Lieberman are the sponsors of the Climate Stewardship Act, which would set up a cap-and-trade system for major industrial sectors. It’s been voted on in the Senate twice and lost twice, but look for McCain to continue championing this bill.

Equally as important, he has educated his colleagues. Last year, he took a group of senators to Alaska, to show them first hand the impacts of climate change in the Arctic.

One of the senators on the Alaska trip, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, went to Alaska a climate skeptic. He came back a changed man. He said you can’t go up there and see what I saw and still deny that something is happening. Graham is now co-sponsoring a bill to cap carbon emissions from power plants.

Now, on to the key committee chairmen and women in the 110th Congress. First, the Senate, where the ground has been shifting for the past couple of years, towards a greater awareness of the need to act. In 2005, the Senate passed a “sense of the Senate” resolution supporting greenhouse gas emissions caps. The resolution doesn’t commit the Senate to doing anything, but it was a promising indicator of changing attitudes.

This year, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, under the leadership of Richard Lugar, passed a bipartisan resolution by voice vote calling on the United States to re-enter international climate negotiations.

Barbara Boxer of California will be taking the reins of the Environment and Public Works Committee from James Inhofe — which is sort of like waking up one day to find out that Steve Jobs has just taken over Microsoft. There will be no more talk from the committee chair about global warming being a hoax.

Boxer has made it clear that climate legislation will be a high priority in committee. She is a co-sponsor of the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act, which would reduce emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. She has talked about using California’s new law as the basis for a federal law. And she will hold hearings right out of the gate in January.

But Boxer is not working in a vacuum. She will have to work with more moderate Democrats. She will have to work with the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which will be headed by Jeff Bingaman, a moderate New Mexico Democrat. Bingaman likes the cautious legislative approach recommended in 2004 by the National Commission on Energy Policy. This is a cap-and-trade plan with a $7-per-ton ceiling on the price of carbon.

Bingaman wants to forge a bipartisan consensus in the committee before proceeding to legislation.

One of the new Democrat senators, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, is not sure yet whether to support carbon caps. Ohio is a big coal state, with a lot of heavy manufacturing that runs on coal-fired electricity. He has to be cautious.

Now, on to the House, which has been a wall of denial on climate policy. The McCain-Lieberman bill came to a Senate floor vote twice. There was no chance of the House version of the bill even getting a hearing in the past few years.

Taking over for Pombo on the House Resources Committee will be West Virginia’s Nick Rahall. Rahall gets high marks from environmental organizations for his positions on the environment, but note where is from — West Virginia, which means Rahall must be sensitive to coal interests. Like Governor Schweitzer in Montana, he favors using coal to produce liquid fuels.

The Energy and Commerce Committee will be headed by John Dingell of Michigan, who was first elected to the House in 1955. In January, he will begin his 27th term and is looking forward to his committee chairmanship with relish.

Dingell’s emphasis will be on hearings and oversight. The last time he chaired this committee, back in the early 1980s, he was famous for sending sharply worded “Dingell-grams” to federal agencies demanding answers to pointed questions about their activities.

EPA officials can look forward to a lot of Dingell-grams and frequent appearances in front of his committee for uncomfortable questions about a host of issues, including EPA’s regulatory activities on power plants, including mercury and fine particulate pollution.

Dingell is likely to hold hearings about global warming, but has not tipped his hand on any specific policy approaches that he might favor. One thing to know about Dingell — nothing will get past him that would give heartburn to the auto industry. Remember, he’s from Michigan.

Any legislation that would boost motor vehicle fuel economy standards would face rough sledding in front of Dingell’s committee.
But his hearings will set the table for possible legislation. Since the House has been a bastion of inactivity and denial, members will want to pull the latest information together before trying to craft legislation.

Another venue where there will be climate change hearings will be the Government Reform Committee, to be chaired by California’s Henry Waxman.

Waxman is a co-sponsor of the Safe Climate Act, the House companion to the Boxer bill that would cut emissions to 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050.

One of the issues that Waxman is likely to probe in hearings is suppression and distortion of government science reports on climate change. It should be an interesting show.

The key points to remember is neither the House nor the Senate will try to rush through a climate bill right out of the gate. The politics of climate and energy are complex, regardless of who is in charge.

The effort to put a bill together would be an exercise in threading a needle through many eyes — the various energy industries, farmers, manufacturers, environmental groups.

It will cost money, for R&D, for tax incentives, and for perhaps other ways to get past political barriers, such as retraining money for coal miners or helping Detroit with its legacy costs.

Robert Byrd, who is about to turn 89 years old and who has just won another six-year Senate term, will be chairing the Appropriations Committee. Byrd is from West Virginia and you can bet that he’ll make sure that any climate bill includes a generous dollop of money to help coal make the technological transition to gasification and sequestration.

Money is the duct tape of politics — it’s often the method of choice for getting interest groups to support — or at least, not oppose — complex legislation.

There will be a number of bills in play. One bookend of the debate is likely to be the 80 percent reduction proposed by Boxer and Waxman.

Numerous proposals crowd the center. The McCain-Lieberman bill would lower emissions to 2000 levels by 2010. California Senator Dianne Feinstein has proposed a 7.25 percent reduction from the 2010 level by 2020. At the other bookend, Inhofe and the “hell-no” crowd could play the role of spoiler.

You may see “rifle shot” legislation as warm-up acts — long-term extension of the renewable energy production tax credit, for example, or stronger energy efficiency standards for appliances.

Nancy Pelosi will be in charge of a diverse caucus. The Democrats’ takeover of the House was made possible partly by the victories of conservative Democrats from rural districts or from districts where autos and coal are major industries. Not every Democrat is a San Francisco Democrat.

The Senate also is diverse. The Democrats have only a one-vote majority. Boxer and Bingaman have different ideas on climate policy. And nothing can get through the Senate unless there are 60 votes that can shut down a filibuster. Senator Bingaman himself told The New York Times this week that Republican support will be essential to getting bills passed.

And then, there is the guy in the White House. President Bush has given no indication that his views on climate policy have changed. Officially, the party line is that technology research and voluntary approaches are still the way to go. The Democrats, even with the aid of like-minded Republicans, wouldn’t have the votes to override a veto.

This could be Bush’s Nixon-going-to-China moment. Who better to announce a dramatic shift in our energy economy than a former Texas oilman?

But, never say never. Bush may have a political interest in signing a modest climate bill, for reasons having more to do with political science than atmospheric science. By doing so, he could swipe an issue from Democrats as the 2008 campaign heats up, and give a boost to the Republican nominee, whether it’s McCain or someone else.

Even if Bush does not avail himself of that political opportunity, however, America’s climate debate is changing for the better.
The climate skeptics, think-tank ideologues and the politicians who quote them are starting to look silly and obtuse. We’re likely to see more serious discussion of science and policy on Capitol Hill over the next two years.

Last week was a huge “I told you so” moment for those independent-minded Republicans, like Olympia Snowe, who cannot afford to have party leaders continue poisoning the political well with a noxious combination of radical ideology, special interest pandering, and shrill medievalism about science.

It’s time for a return to true conservatism, including a conservation ethic that imparts a moral obligation to take good care of the world on behalf of future generations.

Pollster John Zogby says that half of Americans who voted last week cited global warming as one determining factor in their decisions on whom to vote for. Global warming may have eroded support for Republicans among religious voters. Zogby says this is a sleeper issue that politicians ignore at their peril.

And energy is more than an environmental concern. Security hawks are making common cause with the enviros to cut U.S. dependence on oil, which could dovetail nicely with climate policy.

Influential business leaders are telling the politicians to accept the inevitable, cap carbon emissions, and give them regulatory certainty. Other business leaders are clamoring for a policy that will expand the market for cleaner energy technologies. That’s the kind of political pressure that will be hard to ignore.

No one should expect the federal government to change course overnight. But the momentum towards enacting a sensible national climate policy is definitely picking up speed. It’s up to us, scientists and lay people, to keep the pressure on. Thank you.