A small crop of new climate bills is sprouting up in Congress, and none too soon.

Grow, little seedling, grow.

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Earlier this month, a number of influential energy execs called on Congress to regulate industrial greenhouse-gas emissions. And earlier this week, the EPA quietly released dismal new figures showing that U.S. emissions are steadily rising.

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The new bills are intended to tackle these challenges, but will they go as far as environmentalists — or even business bigwigs — think they should?

Leading the pack of new proposals is the Strong Economy and Climate Protection Act sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), which she is expected to introduce soon after Congress returns from spring recess next week. A longtime ally of the green community, Feinstein has repeatedly voted for strong mandatory carbon caps. That’s why some enviros are disappointed to see her pushing a proposal that is cautiously middle-of-the-road — indeed, that may take the climate debate as many steps backward as forward.

Her bill would establish a mandatory cap-and-trade system — much like that called for by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) in their Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act — which would allow industry to buy and sell the right to pollute in the form of carbon credits. But while the McCain-Lieberman bill, for which Feinstein has voted in the past, would require carbon dioxide emissions to be cut to 2000 levels by 2010, Feinstein’s would extend the timeframe by a decade, calling for emissions to be 7.25 percent lower than today’s levels by 2020.

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Still, that’s a more ambitious target than the one in Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s (D-N.M.) climate bill, introduced last June, which proposes to merely slow and then halt the growth of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020, without actually reducing them. Bingaman’s bill has become the center of the climate-policy debate and is being revised with Energy Committee Chair Pete Domenici (R-N.M.); if anything, a new version is expected to relax this goal even further.

David Doniger, policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate Center, applauds Feinstein for introducing a so-called “declining cap” that shrinks over time, requiring reductions of half a percent per year for five years, and then 1 percent per year thereafter. “This is a very important new idea,” says Doniger. “If the annual decline in the cap were extended indefinitely past 2020, then at some point it would do more than McCain-Lieberman.”

Other enviros, though, stress that Feinstein’s target, as currently articulated in the draft proposal, doesn’t adequately address the urgency of the climate crisis (never mind Bingaman’s). “The science overwhelmingly shows that we have to reduce emissions by at least half by mid-century to avoid catastrophic consequences,” says John Stanton, vice president of National Environmental Trust. “This isn’t gonna get us even close, or started on the right foot.”

Doniger is more optimistic that Feinstein’s strategy could yield meaningful reductions, but he does raise concerns. A key one is that the bill would allow industrial polluters to meet emissions goals by buying unlimited carbon-offset credits from the agriculture and forestry sectors, whose flora-rich lands act as sinks for carbon dioxide. The apparent aim is to attract political support for the bill from farm-state senators such as Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

While McCain and Lieberman would allow companies to meet just 15 percent of their emission-reduction goals by buying carbon credits, Feinstein would let them meet 100 percent with credits, meaning companies could achieve standards without reducing their direct emissions at all. And they wouldn’t have to buy those credits from other industrial facilities that have cut their emissions more than required because there would be an unlimited supply of carbon credits available from farmers and foresters who take steps such as protecting forest and wildlife habitat from development, using tilling methods that release less carbon from the soil, planting trees on low-value rangelands, and growing crops like corn and switchgrass that can be made into ethanol.

Some wildlife advocates are delighted by this approach, reasoning that protected forestland means protected creatures. Says Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, “We applaud Sen. Feinstein and are pleased to see a provision to protect wildlife” in her bill.

Doniger acknowledges that forest preservation and conservation tillage are good outcomes, but worries that using carbon credits to promote these activities would come at the expense of crucial investments in clean technology. “Many of these methods would be parlayed into incredibly low-cost offsets, as low as $1 to $2 [per ton of carbon dioxide] — far cheaper than the carbon credits that could be purchased from utilities in the market-based trading program,” he says. This would drive down the cost of all carbon credits — lower even than the $7-per-ton price limit proposed in the Bingaman bill, which is itself more than five times lower than the current price on the European carbon-trading market, about $36.

Doniger also points out that many of the activities that would qualify for farm offsets — such as planting corn and using better tilling methods — are being undertaken by farmers anyway. “It would simply be a waste of dollars to invest in farming practices that are already under way,” he says — dollars that could otherwise be invested in next-generation technologies that would lay the foundations for a new energy system.

In the Mix

Other climate bills expected to be unveiled or resurface in the coming months are a mixed bag, say enviros.

McCain and Lieberman have indicated that they plan to seek a vote on their climate legislation this spring or summer, but they are not expected to remove the hefty subsidies for the nuclear-power industry present in the last version of the bill.

On the House side, Reps. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.) and John Olver (D-Mass.) have a bill on the table similar to McCain-Lieberman, only without the nuclear component. This is the legislation getting the highest praise from enviros.

Less popular is Rep. Tom Udall’s (D-N.M.) Keep America Competitive Global Warming Policy Act, introduced on March 29. Not only would it cap prices for greenhouse-gas credits at about $7 per ton, it fails to actually set an emissions cap, instead giving the U.S. EPA three years after the date of enactment to set one. “That’s called a punt,” says Stanton. “This bill has no details in it. There’s no reason to take it seriously.”

Stanton says he’s disappointed to see green allies offering red meat to skeptical lawmakers, whether it’s in the form of ag incentives or nuke incentives or ambiguous caps. “There’s a race to the bottom going on,” he says. “Because of the ‘just say no’ attitude in Congress, you have lawmakers trying to get to ‘yes’ by negotiating compromises so great they no longer offer meaningful climate solutions.”

Counters Doniger, “Some of the people who used to say ‘no’ are now saying ‘maybe,’ and that’s a very good thing. Sure, some people have been trying to find the support for legislation by making it weaker. But there are also efforts under way to make it smarter, so that it solves the global-warming problem but in a way that provides stability and incentives for business.”

Feinstein spokesperson Scott Gerber defends Feinstein’s effort to do just that. “Right now in the Senate, it’s very difficult to move any kind of climate initiative forward,” he says. “The bottom line for the senator is that she wants some kind of action to be taken, and she believes it’s possible to find a middle ground that a critical mass can agree on.”

Still, many activists think now is the time to put forward aggressive proposals, not to offer further concessions. Within the last year, public opinion has shifted markedly in favor of action to stave off climate change. Americans are reacting to a steady barrage of new scientific evidence, to an increasing number of media outlets that are finally reporting global warming as fact instead of disputed theory, and to climate and weather changes people can see with their own eyes, from devastating hurricanes to melting glaciers to out-of-whack seasons.

“Why, at a time when there has never been more public support for ambitious climate-policy initiative, would climate-policy advocates lower the bar for acceptable solutions?” asks Stanton. “It’s too early in the game for that. They need to stand their ground.”

Sierra Club policy analyst Brendan Bell agrees. “Even if climate advocates defy the odds and manage to break through the congressional impasse, it’s all but inevitable that Bush is going to veto whatever they manage to push through,” he says. If that’s the case, why not push the debate in a greener direction and try to build support for the kind of legislation that could actually make a difference?

Doniger is more optimistic about prospects for consequential global-warming legislation, arguing that the climate in Washington is changing as fast as that of the atmosphere: “You can’t underestimate the growing support from industry leaders for meaningful climate policy. We’ve even got Murkowski talking about how bad global warming is for her state,” he says, referring to Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

As for the possibility of President Bush coming on board, Doniger adds, “Never say never.”