A major climate-change measure goes before the Senate this week for the first time since Democrats declared it a priority after taking control of Congress, but the long-awaited debate is ranging beyond the effects of global warming.
It also is focusing on Washington’s most primal issue, money.
The bill would impose new pollution regulations on industries while significantly expanding another business, carbon “offsetting.” Billions of dollars would potentially be available for farmers who offered polluters a way to make amends for excess emissions -- a provision that could attract crucial support from farm-state lawmakers.
“I definitely think this debate will be primarily about economics, because there are very few voices left who want to argue about whether or not global warming is really a problem,” said Dan Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council climate center, a bill supporter.
Given the financial stakes, agricultural interests from Georgia pecan growers to Montana wheat growers are among those weighing in as lobbyists fortify their positions.
“The global warming fight is not only a battle over big pollution -- it’s a battle over big bucks,” said Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch.
The shift in the focus of the debate reflects two changes: The sense of urgency about climate change has grown, and businesses are more open to federal rules in order to avert future uncertainties.
A longshot, but odds rise
The bill, sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.), seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 66% below 2005 levels by midcentury. Companies that cut gases even more than that could sell pollution rights to those having difficulty meeting caps.
Although the odds of passing such legislation climbed when Democrats won control of Congress in 2006, President Bush opposes mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The Senate measure is considered a longshot for passage this year.
Bill supporters say that even if they can’t reach the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster, amassing majority support would provide momentum for next year. (In 2003, 43 senators voted in favor of an emissions cap, not enough for passage.)
All three major presidential candidates -- Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois -- support mandatory reductions, and the bill is expected to form the framework for action when a new administration takes over.
Backers and opponents have been turning up the heat.
If the U.S. imposes emissions caps when big polluters like China and India have not, critics contend, the American economy will be devastated, with more jobs heading overseas and energy prices rising further, especially in states that rely on coal power.
Lashof and other supporters counter that there is also “the cost of failing to address global warming.”
Senate Environmental Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who will lead the fight for the bill, sought Saturday to rally public support.
“There are some in the Senate who insist that global warming is nothing more than science fiction,” she said in the Democrats’ radio address. “These are the same kind of voices who said that the world was flat, cigarettes were safe, cars didn’t need air bags -- long after the rest of us knew the truth.”
Cultivating farmers’ help
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said sponsors were trying to “buy -- excuse me, win -- the support of groups all across this country.”
“We should win support based on it being good policy,” he said. “Instead, the authors of this bill have tried to win support by spreading money around.”
For example: The auto industry would receive aid so it could build cleaner-burning engines, the coal industry to develop emissions-reducing technology.
For farmers, the bill offers a new opportunity to make money. After taking steps to keep carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere -- practicing no-till farming, for example, or planting trees on crop land -- they could sell so-called carbon offsets to polluters.
Sponsors hope those provisions will attract farm-state votes, much as an ethanol mandate generated pivotal Corn Belt support for 2005 energy legislation.
“We see the enthusiastic support of the ag community as being a critical element in piecing together the 60 votes we need,” said energy lobbyist Eric Washburn, a former Senate aide.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said offsets were one reason he was now supporting the legislation, which would give Montana farmers “a chance to be part of the climate-change solution.” He previously opposed emissions caps.
Businesses can already buy carbon offsets, but Washburn said mandatory reductions would “immensely” expand the number of industries involved.
In a sign of farmers’ interest in offsets, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) himself registered as an offset provider on the Chicago Climate Exchange after planting more trees on his own farm.
Farm groups are concerned that bill revisions will limit offset opportunities, and are working on proposed changes.
But environmental groups are concerned about overemphasizing offsets.
Erich Pica, domestic policy director for Friends of the Earth, said offsets give companies a “cheap out” for polluting.
Lashof agreed: “Unlimited use of offsets would delay investments that are needed to clean up the primary sources of global warming pollution.”
And Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, said, “We must be sure that companies that buy offsets to avoid their own emissions reductions are not paying for something that would have happened anyway.”
Boxer, meanwhile, has been working to find ways to round up votes.
Among her ideas: billions of dollars for tax relief to help consumers with any increase in energy bills resulting from the regulations.
“That is what I knew I had to do to build support for the bill,” she said in an interview.
“Now, we may not be there yet. But this is a landmark piece of legislation, and we need to take it as far as we can.”