After long wait, US Senate takes up climate

WASHINGTON (AFP) – After a nearly year-long delay, the US Senate takes up legislation Wednesday on the first-ever nationwide system to battle climate change. But the political battle may only be beginning.

Casting a shadow over the bill is a major oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, which has hardened environmentalists' resolve against offshore drilling -- expected to be a sweetener to woo conservative and industry support.

A rescuer monitors seabirds for any sign of oil related injures, as cleanup operations continue for the BP Deepwater Horizon platform disaster, at Long Beach in Biloxi. AFP photo

Senator John Kerry, a close ally of President Barack Obama, and Senator Joe Lieberman will unveil legislation to force cuts in carbon emissions scientists say are putting the Earth at risk through rising temperatures.

The House of Representatives passed its own bill in June last year that would cut US carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels -- a landmark step in the only major developed economy to shun the Kyoto Protocol.

But the Senate has not followed suit, ignoring international pressure to act before December's climate summit in Copenhagen whose outcome disappointed many.

Kerry, the Democratic Party's unsuccessful 2004 presidential candidate, has worked with industry and Republicans to craft a compromise that both fights climate change and reduces US dependence on foreign energy sources.

But Senator Lindsey Graham, the main Republican involved, backed out last month, delaying the bill's release. It was a bitter blow to Kerry, who had pointed to Graham in his stump speeches to show the breadth of support for the effort.

Speaking to an environmental conference earlier this month, Kerry hit back at "conventional wisdom" that Congress would not take up climate change before November mid-term elections, in which many Democrats are seen as vulnerable.

"I believe this is the year -- perhaps our last, best chance -- to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation," he said.

"The right bill can create good jobs, strengthen our national security and give us cleaner air -- all while finally tackling the great challenge of global climate change."

He said the bill would make emitters pay and impose no taxes on consumers. But he has hinted it would not include so-called "cap-and-trade" measures under which companies would have restrictions on emissions but could trade credits, giving them an economic incentive to go green.

Cap-and-trade has been the basis of the House bill and Europe's more ambitious efforts to cut carbon.

Some of Kerry's allies say he has watered down the bill too much, particularly with provisions for offshore drilling. Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent and staunch environmentalist, voiced "deep disappointment" with the legislation's direction even before the oil leak.

Sources close to the legislative process said the Kerry-Lieberman bill would still provide for offshore drilling but has included changes to ensure better environmental protection.

The Pew Environmental Group on Tuesday appealed for a halt to new offshore drilling until "robust safety and environmental standards" are established, saying the Gulf of Mexico leak showed "significant lapses" in US policy.

A Rasmussen Reports survey last week showed that two-thirds of US voters worried the oil leak would cause environmental problems, although a weakening majority still supports offshore drilling.

"Right now, offshore drilling is probably going to cost them more votes on the left than it would win them on the right," said Ben Lieberman, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

"And with even Graham not wanting to be part of this, how easy is it going to be to get other Republicans to jump on board?"

Graham said he would not help unveil the legislation due to concerns that the Senate's Democratic leadership was muddling priorities by also moving ahead on reforming the immigration system.

Graham says he still supports the clean energy push but doubts the Senate now has the votes to approve the bill.

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