Climate change compromise

Professor Robert Lee | 12 years ago

Now that Obama has shepherded through the Healthcare Reform Bill, what prospects are there for legislative action on climate change in the USA? It had been hoped that the Obama administration would act quickly to introduce legislation to oversee greenhouse gas emissions’ reductions. This optimism seemed in order as the House of Representatives passed a Climate Bill last year. Problems remain in the Senate, however, where John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham are now working on a version of the Bill that can have prospects of success. Compromise appears likely and it has been suggested that this may be hardly less contentious than the Healthcare reform.

Among the measures suggested in a draft, there are certainly some controversial provisions. These include opening up oil and gas drilling offshore of coastal states by rebating back revenues to those states. Quite why provisions on offshore oil production find their way into a Climate Bill may puzzle many environmentalists. There is a big push towards carbon capture and storage but a major initiative is assistance to retrofit capture technologies, which are not hugely efficient. Loan guarantees will help fund new nuclear power initiatives. Similar financial incentives will be available to change fuels sources in car and truck fleets.

There are also questions about the precise role of the U S EPA. The Bill casts doubt on whether the EPA would regulate the rapid growth in fracking. This refers to hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to allow companies to remove natural gas from shale formations and sandstone. Joe Lieberman has said that in order to win over republicans the Bill may need to include language that the environmental NGOs fear will reduce the capacity of the EPA to use the Clean Air Act to control greenhouse gas emissions.  In the New York Times one NGO is reported as saying:
‘EPA is unlikely to have clear sailing to set global warming pollution standards under the Clean Air Act. Big Oil’s congressional allies will do everything they can to block EPA.’

Another obvious area of contest will be any targets written into any Bill. There are both short and long-term limits on greenhouse gases but NGOs say that these are nowhere near the reductions demanded by the science. The immediate target is to take greenhouse gases to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

However, notwithstanding these shortfalls the Climate Bill is likely to split environmental groups down the middle between pragmatists willing to settle for any advancement and idealists who believe that there is no room for anything other than decisive action. In part of this debate is carried on in the shadow of elections later this year when it is widely assumed that the Republican Party will gain seats in the Senate, making progress critical.

The big question, however, is whether, after waiting so long for legislative change, environmental NGOs would really withdraw support for a Climate Bill whatever compromises Kerry, Lieberman and Graham are forced to make.

About the author

Professor Robert Lee

ERIC Director and Head of Birmingham Law School, Professor Robert Lee was co-director of the publicly funded Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society at Cardiff University (BRASS). He is an expert on regulation, including environmental regulation and regulation of biotechnology and biomedicine. He previously worked for two top 10 UK law firms, and remains a professional-development consultant to one of the largest law firms in Europe, working on pan-European delivery of legal services.