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Environmental Groups See Divide over Landmark Climate, Energy Bill Weakened by Industry Lobbying

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After months of debate and millions of dollars in lobbying, a House panel has approved a climate and energy bill to reduce greenhouse gases. While several environmental groups have welcomed the bill, others remain critical of its concessions to the coal, nuclear, gas and oil lobbies, the scaling back of the greenhouse gas reduction target, and the giving away of the majority of pollution credits for free, instead of auctioning them. We host a discussion with Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen and Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: After months of debate and millions of dollars spent in lobbying, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a climate and energy bill to reduce greenhouse gases Thursday evening by a 33-25 vote that was split largely along party lines.

Many commentators, including Al Gore, describe the American Climate and Energy Security Act as the most ambitious and important climate legislation to have come this far in Congress. The bill would cut greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050.

The passage of the Waxman-Markey bill in the House committee follows on the heels of President Obama’s proposal to impose tough new emission standards on all cars and light trucks starting in 2012.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For the first time in history, we have set in motion a national policy aimed at both increasing gas mileage and decreasing greenhouse gas pollution for all new trucks and cars sold in the United States of America.

    And the fact is, everyone wins. Consumers pay less for fuel, which means less money going overseas and more money to save or spend here at home. The economy, as a whole, runs more efficiently by using less oil and producing less pollution. And companies like those here today have new incentives to create the technologies and the jobs that will provide smarter ways to power our vehicles.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama welcomed the progress on the climate change bill Thursday night and said in a written statement, quote, “We are now one step closer to delivering on the promise of a new clean energy economy.”

Well, the bill still needs to go through at least six other House Committees before coming up for a vote on the House Floor and then faces additional hurdles in the Senate.

AMY GOODMAN: While several environmental groups have welcomed the passage of the bill through the committee, others remain critical of the bill’s concessions to the coal, nuclear, gas and oil lobbies; the scaling back of the greenhouse gas reduction target from 20 to 17 percent; and the giving away of the majority of pollution credits for free, instead of auctioning them. As many as eighty-two trade groups and companies lobbied on climate change this year, including Boeing, Shell, Chevron and the US Chamber of Commerce.

Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the co-chair of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, assured Republicans on Wednesday that the Waxman-Markey bill will continue supporting the coal and nuclear industries and not just focus on renewable energy.

    REP. EDWARD MARKEY: The truth is, this entire bill is a clean energy bill. We have in huge subsidies for clean coal — huge — much more than we have in for renewables. We already have all of these nuclear programs, as well. No one is saying that any of these technologies are going to be excluded.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re joined right now by two guests in Washington, DC, for a discussion about the climate change bill.

Tyson Slocum is director of the energy program for Public Citizen, a group that’s called the bill a, quote, “huge disappointment” and “boon to energy industries.”

And Dan Lashof is director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate Center, that’s welcomed the bill as a, quote, “historic step to unleash clean energy and rein in global warming pollution.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Dan Lashof, let’s start with you. Why do you think this bill is so good?

DAN LASHOF: Well, I think this is really a historic breakthrough, because the passage of this clean energy and climate protection bill yesterday in the Energy and Commerce Committee clears a pathway to get a bill on the President’s desk this year that will, for the first time, establish comprehensive national limits on the pollution that causes global warming. And that will mobilize investments in clean energy, in energy efficiency, that will put Americans back to work right away and will, over the longer term, steadily reduce the pollution that causes global warming and put the US back in the leadership position that it needs to be in in order to solve this problem.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen, you’ve said that what started out as a fairly good bill has gotten worse and worse. Why?

TYSON SLOCUM: Well, I mean, part of the problem was there were a significant amount of meetings that occurred behind closed doors in between the time that Chairman Waxman and Markey released their draft bill in March of this year and then they released a significant revision just last week. And in those closed-door meetings, they met with representatives of the oil and coal industries, and significant numbers of concessions were made.

Look, Public Citizen supports strong, effective climate legislation, and the fact is, is that this bill does not do that. We can talk about the aspirations of hoping to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions, but when you look at what this bill will do, it will not result in significant reductions.

It creates a legal right to pollute for industries and gives away credits for free to allow companies to meet those targets without having to pay for them. And that is simply not going to spur the kind of investments we need. President Obama had it right when he announced in his budget in February that if you wanted to pollute, you would have to pay for the right to pollute. And by holding an auction, the government would raise hundreds of billions of dollars that could be reinvested back to the American people to offset the impacts of higher energy prices that a cap-and-trade program would bring and to spur billions of dollars in needed investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

This bill also creates a new carbon tax that will be administered by coal utilities, collected from households and businesses alike, and that money is going to be invested only in technologies that benefit the coal industry, not into technologies that would benefit working families, like allowing families to weatherize their homes or install solar panels.

We think that while the stated goals and intentions of the bills are admirable, the fact is, is that way too many concessions were made. This bill is making the same mistakes that the Europeans made when they embarked on addressing climate change. In Europe, they gave away the allowances for free. It completely undermined the ability of Europe and other countries that signed to Kyoto to meet their pollution targets. And the fact that —-

DAN LASHOF: I just think that’s wrong.

TYSON SLOCUM: No. Absolutely. I mean, the facts state for themselves. The countries -— most of the countries that signed onto Kyoto did not actually reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The main countries that did are all in the Eastern Bloc, where they had reduced emissions because they have dysfunctional economies. You look at a country like Canada that has a very similar carbon intensity situation as the United States, their emissions have increased more than 100 percent over their targets, even though that they signed on to reduce their emissions by, I believe, eight percent.

DAN LASHOF: I think Tyson is —-

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Lashof, your response?

DAN LASHOF: Yeah, well, I think Tyson is missing the point. Right now, polluters can put as much carbon dioxide as they want in the atmosphere at absolutely no cost, with no legal limits on it. This bill would fundamentally change that and would drive down the pollution that causes global warming.

I think that Tyson would agree that Henry Waxman is the most effective environmental champion in the United States Congress. And this is, in my view, without a doubt, the very best bill that is possible to get out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. And so, I think the question that we have to ask is, do we move forward with this legislation, which I will agree is not perfect? And we’ll be working to improve it as it goes along, but I think it’s an excellent start. And the choice is to have no comprehensive federal legislation.

I want to also address this question of, are we making the same mistakes that Europe did? No. Waxman and Markey learned the lesson of the windfall profits, that Europe did make some serious mistakes when they set up their emission limits and emission trading program, because they gave the allowances to unregulated electricity generators. This bill does not do that. It gives allowances to regulated electricity and natural gas retailers with the express requirement that the value of those emission permits must be used to benefit their customers.

TYSON SLOCUM: Actually, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. At least five percent of the allowances actually are allocated to unregulated power generators, unregulated coal generators. And even though the rest are going to regulated utilities, it is not automatically returned to consumers. Instead, it sets up a legal fight in all fifty state utility commissions.

And let me tell you, I work with a lot of anti-poverty groups at the state level. They do not have the resources to adequately intercede in those jurisdictions. The utilities are very powerful. This program does not guarantee that that money is automatically going to flow back to the most vulnerable populations in America.

And the fact is, when you’re giving away 85 percent of the allowances that give a polluting entity the right to pollute, you are undermining the ability and you are undermining the concept of forcing them to make adjustments. This Congress -—

DAN LASHOF: No, that’s just not true.

TYSON SLOCUM: It is absolutely true.

DAN LASHOF: No, it’s absolutely false, because the way this bill reduces pollution is it establishes a limited number of emission allowances. And so, no matter how you give them away — and we can argue all day about whether they’ve done it the perfect way. I don’t think they got it perfect; I think they got it the best they possibly could and get a bill out of committee. But no matter how you give them out, there’s still a limited number. That’s what drives down pollution, and that’s the fundamental purpose of this bill.

The bill also —-

TYSON SLOCUM: But the fact is, is that -—

DAN LASHOF: Let me just finish.


DAN LASHOF: The bill also expressly says that the allowances received by the electricity and natural gas retailers must be used for the benefit of their customers. And that will be under both the jurisdiction of state commissions, as you say, which, of course, don’t do a perfect job, but I think, by and large, do a decent job, and — but also will have oversight by EPA and the FERC. But remember —-

TYSON SLOCUM: Customers -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: If I could interrupt for one second, for both of you —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask both of you about the extraordinary surge of lobbying that has occurred around this issue. All the top ten lobbying organizations in Washington are involved. Boeing, for instance, hired Charlie Black, the former chief aide to Republican presidential candidate John McCain, as well as Linda Daschle, the wife of former Democratic Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Are you concerned that even what you have now, because it still has to go through all of these various committees and then go through the House and then through the Senate, that this enormous lobbying effort is going to severely distort what exists right now?

TYSON SLOCUM: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I mean, Public Citizen does not accept contributions from corporations -—

AMY GOODMAN: Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen.

TYSON SLOCUM: — because we understand that the financial influence on corporations on our political system and on interest groups creates serious problems. And the fact is, is that Chairman Waxman and Markey started off with a very, very good bill, and then they did a significant number of revisions outside of the public’s view, but the oil and coal industries had a big influence during that backdoor process, and the revised bill was significantly weakened. They reduced the mandates for renewable energy production. They reduced the targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions and put in a slew of benefits.

And I do have to respectfully disagree with my colleague from NRDC. The fact is, is that you can —- there’s a billion pollution permits that companies and polluters can have access to that give them offsets for any sort of emissions reductions that occur overseas. So, for example, if I’m a refinery in Los Angeles or Louisiana, I can obtain permits for a rainforest protection halfway across the globe that will allow me to continue polluting in my local neighborhood in the United States. It undermines the ability of the United States to take aggressive action to specifically reduce industrial pollution. We need to have strong, enforceable targets.

And the fact is, is that this bill punts all of those tough decisions to a future Congress, because by giving away 85 percent of the pollution credits for free to big corporations, this Congress is saying, “We are going to have a future Congress and future political leaders make those tough decisions,” and it assumes that in twenty years, when these free credits expire, that the industry is simply going to roll over and say, “Now we’re going to pay for all of our credits.”

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Lashof of NRDC?

DAN LASHOF: Yeah, well, first of all, let me go back to the question. Are we worried about lobbying weakening the bill further? Yes. NRDC doesn’t take any corporate money either. And we’ll be working to prevent that and to strengthen this bill every chance we get.

I think that it’s important to recognize that, at least in the House of Representatives, I believe this bill has passed its toughest hurdle, which is the Energy and Commerce Committee. That’s a very difficult committee, and Waxman and Markey should be commended for steering this bill through that committee. They did have to make some concessions to get it done, but, in my view, they retained the fundamental integrity of the bill by limiting the total amount of pollution.

And it declines every year. So, it starts with a cap that is roughly at current levels in 2012. It reduces it 17 percent by 2020. We would have liked to see that be 20 percent, as well. But then it continues down to over an 80 percent reduction by 2050. And the bill does lock in a phase-out of the free distribution of allowances and transitions to an auction. So I -—

AMY GOODMAN: Dan and Tyson, we just have a minute to go. I just want to ask two quick last questions to each of you, and that is the issue of nuclear and coal. Looking at, major environmental groups are accepting substantial concessions, including promotion of nuclear power, in exchange for climate legislation. And looking at the Charleston Gazette, a climate change bill working its way through Congress is packed with amendments aimed at giving the coal industry a chance to survive. Dan Lashof, then Tyson Slocum.

DAN LASHOF: Well, the bill does include some incentives to capture carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants. We think that’s important both to build support for the bill and to establish a technology that can be used not only here in the United States —-

AMY GOODMAN: And nuclear?

DAN LASHOF: —- but in China, that has lots of coal-fired power plants that will need to be controlled.

There was a provision added that has “nuclear” in the title, but we don’t believe that it fundamentally increases the subsidies to nuclear power, which we agree are to rich already.

AMY GOODMAN: Tyson Slocum, your final response on that, of Public Citizen?

TYSON SLOCUM: Yeah, I mean, climate change is a transformative event that requires transformative policies. And the fact is that this legislation doesn’t even come close to making those kinds of transformations in our energy sector. It still relies on giant power stations, whether they be coal, whether they be nuclear. Those are failed energy strategies of the past. The bill doesn’t do enough to encourage distributed generation, rooftop solar, consumer-owned power sources. We need to decentralize the grid, not encourage giant boondoggles like expensive nuclear and coal plants. We need to completely rethink the energy infrastructure, and this bill doesn’t think outside the box.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen; Dan Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Center. This is Democracy Now! We’ll continue to cover this debate. When we come back, Tom Goldtooth, leading indigenous environmentalist. Stay with us.

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