U.S. Democrats Split in Senate Vote on Agency’s Carbon Rules

A refinery in Torrance, California
A refinery in Torrance, California. Under cap-and-trade, the government issues a declining number of carbon dioxide allowances that power plants, factories and oil refineries buy and sell. Photographer: Jamie Rector/Bloomberg News

Senate Republicans failed to block the Obama administration from using existing law to regulate greenhouse gases, although they won enough votes to damage Democratic hopes of passing a bigger pollution-reduction plan this year.

Six Senate Democrats joined Republicans yesterday in challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s planned regulations for carbon dioxide and other gases linked to climate-change. The motion to disapprove the EPA’s carbon regulations from Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, was defeated 47-53 in a procedural vote.

The EPA’s carbon rules are President Barack Obama’s backup plan for limiting greenhouse gases if his preferred approach, cap-and-trade legislation that charges polluters a price for the carbon dioxide they released into the atmosphere, doesn’t pass Congress this year.

“We need to pass a cap-and-trade bill,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said after the vote on Murkowski’s measure. “I think it can certainly get passed next year; it can’t this year.”

Under cap-and-trade, the government issues a declining number of carbon dioxide allowances that power plants, factories and oil refineries buy and sell. Cap-and-trade legislation that narrowly passed the House last year stalled in the Senate.

Senators John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, released a revamped cap-and-trade bill last month and are lobbying with Obama’s help to get the new carbon-pricing proposal included in energy legislation that may get a vote as early as July.

‘Much Different’

Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Democrats’ chief vote-counter, said after yesterday’s vote “the Senate is likely to consider legislation much different than the House” cap-and-trade bill. The bill to be considered next month will “deal with energy and clean-energy jobs,” Durbin said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters he’ll wait for a meeting with Democrats next week before deciding what should be in next month’s energy legislation, although it won’t be branded as “cap-and-trade.”

“We don’t use the word cap-and-trade; that’s something that’s been deleted from my dictionary,” Reid said. “Carbon pricing is something we’re talking about.”

Reid said this week he is weighing whether to add the carbon caps in Kerry and Lieberman’s legislation to a bill approved by the Senate energy committee last year that ramps up electricity generation from renewable sources such as wind farms and sets new energy-efficiency standards.

Six Democrats

It usually takes 60 out of 100 votes to pass major legislation through the Senate. Democrats hold 59 seats in the chamber, meaning the support of at least one Republican is needed for most bills to pass. Yesterday all 41 Republicans voted against the EPA’s proposed carbon regulations.

The six Democrats to join them were Evan Bayh of Indiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.

They joined Republicans in arguing that the EPA regulations, which would take effect next year, are impractical and damaging to the economy. The regulations are a “back-door national energy tax” that would deal “a devastating blow to an economy that’s already in rough shape,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said.

‘A Big Gift’

The majority of Democrats who opposed the Republican-led motion said it ignored climate-change science and would shield energy firms, especially oil companies, from environmental controls. Blocking the rules would be “a great big gift to Big Oil,” Reid said.

The EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases under existing law stems from a 2007 Supreme Court decision on the scope of the Clean Air Act.

The agency plans to limit carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks through higher fuel-economy standards. New and modified power plants, factories and other industrial polluters would be required to use the “best available” technology to minimize pollution under the EPA’s rules.

Rockefeller, who voted with the Republicans yesterday, has introduced a bill to block the EPA from exercising its authority over greenhouse gas emissions from industrial sources such as power plants for two years. Lawmakers need the extra time to work out the best way to deal with climate-change because most “have no idea” how a cap-and-trade program works, he said.

Lieberman said he and Kerry will continue to push for the revamped cap-and-trade bill to be included in Reid’s planned energy legislation so it can become law this year. The defeat of the Murkowski resolution should “increase momentum to develop comprehensive energy and climate legislation this year,” he said.

Support Seen From 61

Eileen Claussen, president of the Arlington, Virginia-based Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said there is still hope of getting climate-change legislation passed this year.

During the debate, eight senators who voted to strip EPA of its authority over greenhouse gases said they supported the idea of cutting back the pollution that scientists have linked to climate change, Claussen said. That means 61 senators, including five Republicans, showed support for cutting carbon pollution “through their votes or statements,” she said.

Obama said in a statement that yesterday’s vote “is yet another reminder of the urgent need to pass legislation that would help America transition to a 21st century clean energy economy.”

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