Senator Bids to Ease Tensions Over Competing Climate Bills

By:  Darren Samuelsohn
Source: The New York Times

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tried to defuse simmering tensions today over competing climate change bills that threaten to upend the global warming debate before it can even reach the floor.

In an interview, Graham said he welcomes legislation from Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) that takes an alternative approach for setting up a pricing system on industrial releases of greenhouse gases. Cantwell and Collins yesterday criticized Graham and Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) for taking some of their ideas and also for spending months in closed-door talks on the issue but not yet producing any official legislative text.

"This is the way to do it," Graham said. "And what will happen is, hopefully, we'll get the best of their ideas and the best of other people's ideas to basically come up with a new way forward. I don't see them as the enemy. I see them as two senators trying to do the same thing I'm doing: price carbon in a consumer-, business-friendly way."

Cantwell and Collins introduced their bill, known as the "CLEAR Act", last December. It would forgo the widespread trading of carbon allowances and instead require energy producers to bid in monthly auctions for carbon shares. It also would direct 75 percent of the resulting auction revenue as a refund to help compensate the public for increased energy costs, with the remaining 25 percent going toward clean energy research and development.

A primary driver on their legislation was to avoid creating a multitrillion-dollar trading platform susceptible to market manipulation and price volatility -- something they fear will cause a public backlash under the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman proposal.

"I think the public is tired of 2,000-page plus bills and wants a bill that is more straightforward in its approach," Collins said yesterday during a Capitol Hill event hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Cantwell and Collins have been holding their own private meetings in recent weeks with swing-vote senators, including Sens. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). But they have yet to net any new co-sponsors.

Meeting with oil companies

Kerry, Graham and Lieberman are aiming to release their draft legislation next month after lawmakers return from their spring break, with a floor debate still the goal for May or June. The trio met this morning for more than an hour with representatives from ConocoPhillips, BP America and Shell Oil Co., the latest in a series of closed-door talks on key features of their proposal.

"Our new friends," Lieberman said during one of several short breaks the senators took as they went to the floor for a series of votes on the health care reconciliation bill.

Graham declined to go into detail on the structure of his bill's regulations for transportation emissions, except to acknowledge the oil companies are helping come up with a "linked fee" plan that keeps them separate from electric utilities and other industrial sectors.

"We want our oil and gas industries to flourish," Graham said. "We want to be able to price carbon in a way that moves us away from foreign oil and fossil fuels in general. But in the process create jobs, not destroys our refiners. Our goal is to do it in a business-friendly way from their sector, from their point of view. "

Kerry, Graham and Lieberman have two other key meetings with industry groups scheduled for today. One involves the U.S. Chamber of Commerce-led Alliance for Energy and Economic Growth (AEEG), which includes more than a dozen major trade associations, as well as a session with members of the Edison Electric Institute, the trade group for investor-owned electric utilities.

The senators also were meeting at press time with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a key player on cost containment and offshore drilling provisions.

Taking ideas from Cantwell-Collins

Many other specifics of the trio's proposal remain under wraps, though Graham said today the group plans to follow the same philosophical approach as Cantwell-Collins when it comes to distributing auction revenue back to consumers.

"We're using a definite refund approach," Graham said. "To some sectors, it's very similar to what they're doing. They have a refund of 75 percent. Ours is going to be around 60, somewhere in that neighborhood. There's some commonality. We just believe that some of the things we do for transition costs to industries that affect it are going to get more support. It's a hybrid approach between what they've tried to do."

The trio also plans to take ideas on carbon market regulation crafted by Cantwell and Collins.

Collins yesterday said she did not like the idea of seeing her proposals co-opted into the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman proposal. "I think the bill we came up with is the right approach," Collins said. "Rather than seeing parts of our bill cannibalized and put into another bill, I think they should take a look at coming onto our legislation."

Cantwell and Collins also questioned the seemingly slow pace behind the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman effort that has yet to lead to any bill text. But Graham shrugged off the criticism.

"I've been in a bunch of these deals," he said. "Everyone wants to rush. The best thing you can do is get people on board. But the day you do come out, that visual image of who's surrounding you says more than the substance of the bill."