Coal Country Dems Dig In Against Climate Bill

| Mon Nov. 16, 2009 1:04 PM EST

More bad news for the climate bill? Fourteen Senate Democrats wrote to party leaders last week objecting to the legislation circulating in the Senate—and the letter's signatories included some lawmakers generally assumed to be reliable "yes" votes for the bill.

The letter, sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, bill co-authors John Kerry and Barbara Boxer, and Finance Chair Max Baucus was signed by senators from 14 Midwestern, coal-dependent states—including Minnesota's Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, who are usually counted among Democrats supportive of climate legislation. The other signatories were Tom Harkin of Iowa, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall of Colorado, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Russell Feingold and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Roland Burris of Illinois, and Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

In particular, the senators oppose the way that carbon credits are allocated in the House and the proposed Senate bill, arguing that it unfairly harms states who rely on coal for their energy needs. Their concern is that the House bill and the Senate bill that advanced last week would make higher-emitting utilities—those that burn coal—pay more under cap and trade. Under the House and Senate proposals, the formula by which local electricity distributors recieve free credits is based 50 percent on their total energy sales and 50 percent on their total emissions. The coal state senators want the allocations to be based 100 percent on emissions—meaning that utilities that emit more would get more free credits.

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Of course, this would work against the entire logic of the proposed scheme, which is to offer utilities financial incentives to switch to lower-carbon fuel sources. And the existing bills already contain a number of measures to help out coal-burning utilities, such as free allocations for deploying carbon-capture-and-storage technology. Plus, as Nat Keohane, an economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, points out, the bills also contain "other tools" to compensate consumers whose energy costs will rise when their local utilities start paying for their emissions. These tools include a rebate for low-income consumers and, later in the program, a dividend program that would provide rebates to all energy consumers.

Right now, the climate bill needs all the votes it can get from Democrats. So enviros worry that concessions to this bloc could ultimately result in a deal in which coal plants suffer no real penalties for the carbon they pump into the atmopshere. "Dirty coal polluters know their days are numbered and are lobbying for the largest piece of the pie they can get," said Jason Kowalski, policy coordinator at 1Sky. "It goes against the spirit of this legislation to reward the polluters that caused this problem in the first place."

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