Sunday’s New York Times op-ed by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) begins:

CONVENTIONAL wisdom suggests that the prospect of Congress passing a comprehensive climate change bill soon is rapidly approaching zero. … However, we refuse to accept the argument that the United States cannot lead the world in addressing global climate change. We are also convinced that we have found both a framework for climate legislation to pass Congress and the blueprint for a clean-energy future that will revitalize our economy, protect current jobs and create new ones, safeguard our national security and reduce pollution.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this joint declaration. It ensures that the Senate bill will be bipartisan. It demonstrates that there is a pathway to 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. And it establishes comprehensive energy and climate legislation as the next item on the Senate agenda after health care reform, meaning there is a very real shot at Senate passage prior to Copenhagen.

Kerry and Graham make a powerful pair, particularly when it comes to the national security case for action:

Both of us served in the military. We know that sending nearly $800 million a day to sometimes-hostile oil-producing countries threatens our security. In the same way, many scientists warn that failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will lead to global instability and poverty that could put our nation at risk.

The op-ed does goes beyond a call to action and lays out key elements of the package deal they envision, many of which are already contained in the legislation Kerry introduced with Senator Boxer at the end of September. Kerry and Graham call for:

  • Aggressive reductions in emissions
  • Nuclear power as a core component of electricity generation
  • Financial incentives for carbon capture and sequestration
  • Additional domestic oil and gas production
  • Ensuring that U.S. companies are not put at a competitive disadvantage
  • Establishing a floor and a ceiling for the cost of emission allowances

Elements of this package make me uncomfortable, and the details will certainly matter, but most of this makes sense and there is no time left for wishful thinking about a perfect bill that will never come. Let’s consider each element in turn, but keep in mind that it’s the overall package that matters:

Aggressive reduction in emissions: The 2020 target in Kerry-Boxer (20 percent below 2005 levels) is hardly aggressive considering that emissions in 2009 will be about 9 percent below 2005 levels according to the latest Department of Energy short term forecast. But the 2030 target is more serious and the 2050 target — 80 percent below 1990 levels — is as aggressive as any adopted by a major country to date, and consistent (barely) with what the science demands.

Nuclear power: It’s a fact that nuclear power currently generates about 20 percent of our electricity, although claims that a large expansion of nuclear power is the only way to meet our emission reduction goals are simply not supported by analysis. R&D on solutions to the nuclear waste problem makes sense, but it’s hard to see how nuclear plant permitting could be any more “streamlined” in a way that “maintains vigorous safeguards.” The reality is that limiting global warming pollution will make nuclear power more competitive against fossil fuels. If after more than 50 years of lavish government support that is still not enough to get private investors to build nuclear power plants, perhaps its time to actually let the market work.

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS): Half of our electricity is currently generated by coal-fired power plants. CCS will not make coal “clean,” but support for commercializing CCS technology is politically essential and has policy merit. Both the House bill and the Kerry-Boxer bill include generous provisions. Even if all the coal plants in the United States shut down tomorrow (which is not going to happen) what about the hundreds of plants built in China and India over the last few years? In addition, carbon dioxide captured from power plants and industrial facilities can increase domestic oil production without drilling in new areas, as discussed next.

Oil and gas production: Although Kerry and Graham are talking about seeking a compromise on additional oil and gas exploration, by far the biggest opportunity is to get more oil out of fields that have already been explored and developed. Carbon dioxide enhanced oil recover (CO2-EOR) could produce over 50 billion barrels of additional oil from existing fields, cutting our oil imports in half. This resource dwarfs the amount of oil likely to be found in disputed frontier areas, both on and offshore.

Competitiveness: Kerry and Graham call for considering border taxes on goods imported from countries that do not adopt environmental standards. Outsourcing jobs and pollution is in no ones interest. Authority to establish border taxes on emissions-intensive goods makes sense (and would be consistent with WTO rules) if other countries have a reasonable opportunity to adopt appropriate standards and any border taxes are set in a non-discriminatory way. The provision in the House-passed bill is a good place to start.

Allowance price floor and ceiling: Cost management is essential for any legislation that has a chance of being enacted, and establishing an effective allowance price floor and ceiling can be part of a comprehensive cost containment system. The Kerry-Boxer bill has an improved “green collar” mechanism to prevent excessive carbon price volatility while maintaining the environmental integrity of the emissions cap over time.

Legislating is often compared to sausage making. It has also been described as the art of the possible. Kerry and Graham just made enacting comprehensive energy and climate protection legislation far more possible. Not all the details will be pretty, but if we can avoid mixing in any poison pills we have an opportunity to enact legislation that will produce more jobs, less pollution, and greater security. We can’t afford to fail.