Global Warming Gains Higher Profile in Senate

Share via
Times Staff Writer

For the first time since President Bush rejected the international Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gases, momentum is building in the Senate to begin addressing global warming.

However, skirmishes over competing proposals and continuing opposition from the House of Representatives and the Bush administration may prevent any plan from passing Congress this year.

The fate of the burgeoning effort to tackle global warming appears to hinge on whether Republican Sen. Pete V. Domenici decides to cosponsor a relatively modest cap on greenhouse gas emissions proposed by his fellow New Mexican, Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman.


A joint statement by science academies from 11 nations, including the U.S., this month helped convince Domenici that there was now a consensus among scientists that human releases of heat-trapping gases threaten to increase temperatures and alter climate patterns, aides said.

Still, Domenici, the GOP point man on the Senate’s version of the sweeping energy bill now under consideration in Congress, is concerned that adding global warming limits to the legislation as an amendment may sink the bill. He is also concerned that it would alienate fellow Republicans, including the president, who are opposed to mandatory caps on greenhouse gases.

On Friday, Vice President Dick Cheney met with Domenici to share the White House’s concerns, said Alex Flint, Domenici’s top energy staffer, who emphasized that Domenici was still considering how to proceed.

“Sen. Domenici is now convinced that climate change is occurring and that we need to do something about it,” Flint told reporters Friday.

“He is concerned, however, about creating a fissure in the Republican caucus and [with] the Bush administration,” Flint said.

If Domenici champions the legislation, supporters contend enough Republicans would follow suit to secure at least 50 votes in the Senate. If he does not, the Senate may still have sufficient votes to pass it. But it may lack sufficient backing to survive House-Senate negotiations over the final version of the energy bill.


House Republicans have declared opposition to any mandatory reductions in greenhouse gases, as has the White House, which argues that such limits would drive up energy prices and cost thousands of Americans their jobs.

“Energy intensive industries are going to move to other countries, and Americans are going to lose their jobs” if strict limits on greenhouse gases are enacted in the U.S., said Jim Connaughton, the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “But these industries are going to keep operating, and their greenhouse gases are going to continue to go into the atmosphere.”

Pressure to develop a stronger national response to global warming is mounting in Washington as more business leaders support reducing greenhouse gases, scientists affirm the link between human activities and warming temperatures, and most of the developed world begins cutting emissions under the Kyoto pact.

But none of the three alternatives emerging as possible amendments to the Senate version of the energy bill has the full support of Republicans, Democrats, business groups or environmentalists.

All proposals are less stringent than the Kyoto pact, which would have required the U.S. to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gases to about 7% below 1990 levels by 2012.

The Bingaman amendment, which is attracting the most interest, would slow the accumulation of greenhouse gases but would not begin to reduce them until 2020 at the earliest.


A federal study showed that the proposal, based on the recommendations of a panel of business leaders, academics and environmentalists called the National Commission on Energy Policy, would not damage the American economy.

But it is being criticized by the administration as a carbon tax in disguise, because it contains a “safety valve” that would eventually allow emitters to buy their way out of the requirements for $7 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions. And some Democrats dismiss it as too weak.

“There is a consensus in the scientific community that we need to be doing something on global warming,” Bingaman said. “There is a consensus among the public. Sooner or later, the politicians are going to have to react.”

Another alternative is a revised version of the bipartisan global warming legislation by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) that garnered 43 votes last year. It would establish a tighter cap than Bingaman’s proposal, aiming to reduce greenhouse gases to 2000 levels by 2010. But it is still about half as strict as the Kyoto requirement.

It is losing support among environmentalists and some former backers, including California Sen. Barbara Boxer, because it now contains potential subsidies for nuclear power.

Despite the defections, McCain and Lieberman indicated last week that they were not willing to budge on its language and would rather lose on principle than further weaken a proposal they feel had been watered down. They criticized Bingaman’s proposal as inadequate and said they could not support it.


“You have to have an immediate effort to reduce greenhouse gases,” McCain said.

“Anything else is a fig leaf and a joke.”

A third potential amendment by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) has emerged as the favored choice of some oil companies and other industries likely to be hit by regulations. But it is being criticized as an ambiguous set of taxpayer-funded subsidies to develop clean energy sources that doesn’t require mandatory greenhouse gas reductions.

“The Senate debate is probably symbolic, but it will be looked upon by some states so it is not without impact,” said Steve Miller, president of Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, a lobbying coalition funded by industries in coal-producing states that supported Hagel’s amendment.

“The real debate in the Senate is between those who want to force technology by making it mandatory before it is ready and those who want to provide incentives to develop the technology.”

Despite the splintering of support, some lawmakers said the emergence of several Senate proposals showed movement on the issue, even if the plans fell short of the large-scale changes that climate scientists said were needed to avoid disaster.

“To me it’s a sign of great progress,” Lieberman said of the multiple amendments.

“Now everybody’s admitting there is a problem, but they are offering nonsolutions to it.”