US Senate intensifies climate bill efforts

Reuters | By Richard Cowan

A powerful U.S. senator on Tuesday called for tough trade protections that may complicate global climate change talks, while U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon traveled to Washington to push for progress on a deal.

The U.S. Senate is writing legislation to reduce domestic emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases associated with global warming, but there is stiff opposition from Republicans and moderate Democrats who fret about its economic impact.

The battle comes as the United States and other nations prepare for a Dec. 7-18 summit in Copenhagen to sketch out next steps on fighting global warming and the devastation many scientists predict it will bring.

Senator Max Baucus, an influential moderate Democrat, told a trade group on Tuesday that any U.S. climate bill would have to include strong “border measures” to protect American manufacturers from unfair foreign competition. [ID:nN10310396]

“We can not allow our manufacturing industries to fade as a result of trade with countries that refuse to negotiate global solutions to global concerns,” said Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which is writing portions of the climate legislation.

Ban was to meet with a number of U.S. senators as well as aides to President Barack Obama, who backs climate change legislation. A spokesman for Baucus said the Montana senator was not scheduled to meet Ban.

“He (Ban) will discuss how governments around the world are approaching the climate negotiations and what these governments expect in terms of the role of the United States,” Janos Pasztor, Ban’s climate adviser, said late on Monday.

Debate Over Jobs

U.S. moves to protect energy-intensive industries, such as steel, glass and cement makers, have angered trading partners, such as China, with many observers arguing any such provisions would violate international trade rules.

“It may not be what they (China) want to hear, but it isn’t anything that don’t already know,” said Dave Hamilton, a global warming expert at the Sierra Club environmental group, of Baucus’ new warnings.

Baucus said a border measure would be consistent with Washington’s international trade obligations. Such language is seen as key to gaining the votes of moderate senators from industrial states.

A climate change bill already has passed the House of Representatives, where Obama’s Democrats have a large majority. Although Democrats also control the Senate, they do not appear united on the issue of climate change.

Republican victories this month in gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, two key states, also have made moderate Democrats in Washington more wary about climate change legislation ahead of next year’s congressional elections.

In an interview with Reuters on Monday, Obama acknowledged the Senate would not pass such a bill in time for the Copenhagen summit. So far, the United States is the only developed country refusing to put on the table a goal for carbon emission reductions. [ID:nN09280184]

Nevertheless, Obama held out hope for a “meaningful agreement” in Copenhagen and said he hoped to make progress with China during his first trip to Beijing this month.

Hamilton said senators were “moving as fast as they can” to put together the outlines of a bill that could pass the Senate “because they want to show momentum” going into the summit.

Baucus’ Finance Committee held a hearing on Tuesday focusing on the job creation that could flow from moving the United States away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner alternative energies, such as solar, wind and nuclear power.

Noting the disagreements over such forecasts, Baucus said, “It seems that the debate over jobs and the environment has been around about as long as we have had either jobs or an environment.”

Van Ton-Quinlivan, a director of jobs development at Pacific Gas and Electric Co., a major California-based utility, said designing and creating a U.S. low-carbon energy system could require as many as 150,000 workers by the 2020s.

About 60,000 people will be needed to operate and maintain things like wind and solar farms by 2030, she said.

Margo Thorning, chief economist at the American Council on Capital Formation, said job losses under the House of Representatives’ climate change bill may total 80,000 in 2020 and between nearly 1.8 million to more than 2.4 million in 2030.

Senator John Kerry, the Democrat who is working with Republicans and fence-sitting members of his own party on a compromise climate bill, shot back at Thorning: “Your studies aren’t credible. You don’t take into account the cost of inaction.”