WASHINGTON — Congress will return Monday ready to engage in a historic debate on whether the country should shift to cleaner and more efficient use of energy and reduce the heat-trapping gases building up in the atmosphere.
Before leaving for Memorial Day, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a bill that would set the country's first mandatory limits on greenhouse gases, promote renewable energy and increase the efficiency of buildings, appliances and vehicles.
The bill now will be considered by other committees and should reach the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote this summer.
This month is expected to feature lawmakers publicly airing concerns about costs and the impact on agriculture and heavy industry. Environmentalists will try to strengthen the bill, arguing that its efficiency measures and other provisions will hold down costs.
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As it now stands, the measure would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2020, and continues to an 83 percent cut by 2050 by setting a declining limit, or cap, on the amount of emissions companies can produce.
Companies covered by the bill must hold permits, known as allowances, for each ton of emissions, and they can trade these allowances as needed.
More than 80 percent of the allowances would be given to utilities and businesses in the early years after the program starts in 2012, while the rest will be auctioned.
Many of the free allowances are designed to pass savings on to consumers, partly by spreading some of them to regulated local distribution companies, whose mandate is to keep costs down. Others are intended to help businesses adjust to higher energy costs or make up for competitive disadvantages.
Douglas Elmendorf, director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, said it's hard to estimate the economic impact of climate change. The analysis is "still in its infancy," he said.
But, he added, "I think the consensus view is that climate change will have some costs for U.S. economic activity."
Scientists say the 500 billion tons of carbon — and growing — that humans have added to the atmosphere in the industrial era is putting Earth on a course to being warmer soon than it's been in millions of years.
International negotiators meet in December in Copenhagen to try to get the cooperation that would be necessary for global emissions reductions.
Dangerous climate shifts will be hard to avoid, Gavin Schmidt of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and David Archer of the geophysical sciences department of the University of Chicago wrote in a recent issue of Nature magazine.
Reductions that start soon could avert severe climate changes. Otherwise, expensive measures to pull the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, out of the atmosphere, could be needed, the scientists wrote, adding, "It will probably be cheaper in the long run to avoid making the mess in the first place."
Waxman said his committee's clean energy bill would not only cut global warming pollution but also break American dependence on foreign oil and make the U.S. a leader in clean energy technology.
Republicans argue it will cost too much. They use a figure of $3,100 a year per family that they took from a 2007 academic study, even though the author of the study said publicly weeks ago that they misinterpreted the data, and even though the figure was based on the value of allowances going back to the federal government, rather than being mostly distributed to ratepayers.
"The Democrats' cap and trade energy plan — which should be called 'cap and tax' — is a reckless proposal that will do more harm than good," said Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss.
The National Republican Congressional Committee is pushing hard. In recent weeks it sent news releases to media in the congressional districts of 12 committee Democrats.
"There is mounting evidence that under the Democrats' National Energy Tax plan utility rates will skyrocket and American families and businesses will suffer as a result," it said.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said his party will frame the debate as one that "offers people a choice: Do we look to the past and do nothing, or choose a clean energy future?"
"The reality is that we can make much deeper reductions at net savings to consumers," said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group.
While congressional Republicans are generally opposed to cap and trade, some Democrats also say they're not assured their states won't be clobbered.
"Ohio is suffering grievously during the recession, and we don't need another blow in the form of cap and trade," said Steve Fought, press secretary to Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio. Kaptur and others, though, realize that the bill is moving forward, and "we need to find things to make it palatable"_ they just aren't sure yet how.
Some rural lawmakers also have serious concerns that Democrats must address before the bill can proceed. Among their worries are that new low-carbon fuel standards could hurt corn ethanol producers.
"I've gotten comments from agricultural interests who are very upset that their concerns are not being addressed," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif.
The bill still needs to be considered by as many as eight more House committees before it gets to a vote by the full House this summer. If it passes, it would head to the Senate, where it faces more efforts to shape it and an uncertain outcome.
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