Kate Mackenzie Will there be a climate bill left?

It’s hard not to be pessimistic about the likelihood of the US Congress committing to a cap on carbon emissions, and consequently pricing carbon. The win by Republican Scott Brown in the late Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat has raised a great deal of speculation and no doubt made many representatives up for re-election this year more nervous about supporting either cap and trade or a carbon tax.

The weird thing is, most Americans believe climate change is real, and that something should be done about it. For more striking evidence of that, look at this presentation by (unlikely as it sounds) conservative pollster Frank Luntz for the Environmental Defense Fund (H/T TNR). Actual sceptics only make up 18 per cent; believers in anthropogenic global warming are 52 per cent. Support for cap and trade is not too shabby either, at 49 per cent.

Luntz’ presentation stresses that energy security and jobs should be the selling points for climate change legislation – whereas phrases like ‘carbon neutral’ are anathema to many voters. It seems like some pro-environment legislators might be taking this a little too far, however. One of the big themes from lawmakers in recent days has been the idea of government support for green jobs and renewable energy projects, without putting a price on carbon. We’ve written before why this doesn’t make sense, economically or in terms of effectiveness. And it is pretty much impossible  to target specific CO2 emissions reductions without any means for capping carbon.

But the idea of climate measures that don’t include cap and trade or carbon taxes appears to be gaining momentum – as is talk of taking even the green jobs and renewable measures out of the climate bill, and putting them into a new economic stimulus bill.

From Bloomberg:

“A large cap-and-trade bill isn’t going to go ahead at this time,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, told reporters in Washington yesterday.

Putting energy provisions into a bill to stimulate job creation instead “makes sense” because that’s the Senate’s next priority after health-care legislation, Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, said before Brown’s win.

“Everybody who’s got a job-creation idea is going to try to get on this train,” Brown said in a Jan. 15 interview, referring to a new jobs bill. “Anything that we’re thinking of doing in any energy related area that can produce jobs short-term, mid-term, long-term will be considered in this.”

There are yet more signs of targeted, rather than broad, environmental legislation in the form of T. Boone Pickens, talking up a bill to support natural gas-powered vehicles.

Meanwhile Steven Chu appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee yesterday to explain what was needed to push private investment into new energy technologies. Committee chairman Jeff Bingaman called the hearing, according to Argus, because it is “troubling that current legislative proposals before Congress to address climate change give relatively low emphasis to providing funding for the needed science and technology”. Bingaman has a pro-environmental record and has historically supported cap-and-trade; he is not up for re-election this year and has held a New Mexico senate seat since 1982.

Chu of course said a price on carbon was the most important way to get companies actually spending on energy development, as they need that certainty  to make medium and long-term investments. But is Congress willing to listen?

Also this week, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski confirmed she will indeed propose limits to the EPA’s powers to regulate CO2 emissions, and three Democratic senators have agreed to co-sponsor the bill.

And all this is happening as the deadline (albeit a soft deadline) for countries to make their emissions commitments under the Copenhagen Accord draws near.

Related links:

US cap-and-trade bill looks even further away (FT Energy Source, 20/01/10)
Carbon emissions reductions without cap and trade (FT Energy Source, 14/01/10)