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Climate Control
Wrestling over greenhouse-gas policy.

For Washington, the last half of 2009 was all health care, all the time. Sure, there was that brief interlude when President Obama flew to Copenhagen to hash out a tentative global accord on greenhouse gases, but climate change was largely a second-tier issue for much of the year. The House-approved bill to curb greenhouse-gas emissions is still wallowing in the Senate, where “tripartisan” talks between John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman have yielded an outline for a final compromise (a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide plus offshore drilling plus support for nuclear power) but no actual bill.

And if 2009 was a minor letdown for enviros, it’s not clear 2010 will be much better. Jeff Bingaman, Senate energy committee chairman, recently caused a stir when he told reporters, “I don’t know that we have the votes for any cap-and-trade proposal that I have yet seen in the Senate.” With the economy still wobbly, many senators are nervous about tackling a fractious issue like global warming before midterm elections. That doesn’t mean a climate bill is dead this year—its supporters still expect a vote this spring—but the uncertainty is causing some to wonder if there’s a Plan B.

There are a few backup options, though none is ideal. The first is the EPA, which, thanks to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. There are thorny questions about how these rules would work in practice and whether they would get bogged down in legal challenges. But the EPA can start cracking down on coal plants and other sources if Congress doesn’t pass a bill. There’s just one catch: Thirty-six Republican senators—led by Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and joined by three moderate Democrats: Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana—are trying to strip the agency of its authority, which means green groups can’t be so preoccupied with passing a climate bill that they forget to protect the Clean Air Act. “This is actually the most important weapon we have for combating global warming,” says former Audubon president John Flicker, “and we need to defend that.”

Meanwhile, the states could become a crucial battleground. Currently, 24 have policies mandating the use of renewable energy, and interstate cap-and-trade programs like the Western Climate Initiative are slowly ramping up. What’s more, a few, Vermont for one, are tinkering with feed-in tariffs, a policy that offers favorable rates to solar, wind, and biomass producers and tends to supercharge clean-energy production, as Germany and Denmark have found (see “Clean Break,” March-April 2009). “Many states are holding off on doing more because they’re waiting to see what Congress will do,” says Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. “If the door closes on legislation, you’ll see them reinvesting in these efforts.” But even state efforts are at risk. In California, for instance, a proposed ballot initiative, if successful, would effectively postpone the main provisions of the state’s landmark global-warming law, AB32.

In the end, neither regional actions nor the EPA is a perfect substitute for a comprehensive climate bill from Congress. Localities, after all, can do only so much—it’s too easy for industries to dodge piecemeal regulations by moving across state borders. And EPA rules issued by the executive branch would last only as long as there was a climate-friendly president in the White House. But if the Senate keeps dithering and can’t pass anything, those may be the only options left.

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