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Compromise Measure Aims to Limit Global Warming

By John M. Broder (The New York Times) - July 11, 2007

Influential senators from both parties, backed by unions and some large electrical utilities, will unveil a new global warming proposal on Wednesday that could form the basis of a climate change compromise that has so far eluded Congress.

The complex measure, sponsored by Senators Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, and Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, would put in place a firm limit on emissions of heat-trapping gases that most scientists say are causing the warming of the planet. Like other so-called cap-and-trade schemes, it would allow companies to buy and sell the right to emit carbon dioxide, which is seen as the chief culprit in global warming.

But to secure labor and corporate support, the measure also places a limit on the price industry would have to pay for such permits. And to win the endorsement of Alaska’s two Republican senators, the bill contains billions of dollars in new money to help their state cope with the effects of climate change on roads, bridges and coastal areas.

The Bingaman-Specter bill faces opposition from some environmental groups who say it does not go far enough. The White House, which so far has opposed any mandatory system of caps on carbon emissions, is also expected to resist the measure.

A half-dozen other climate change measures are now pending before Congress, many of which include more ambitious targets for reducing gas emissions. But supporters of the new proposal say it offers many new ideas endorsed by important players in the debate and presents the best chance of getting some form of carbon-control regime in place by the end of next year. It was written in conjunction with the National Commission on Energy Policy, a privately financed group formed in 2002 to try to find a bipartisan solution to climate change.

“The goal was to put forward a proposal that takes into account the current science and encourages the technology that will be needed to address this problem,” Mr. Bingaman said in an interview. “We also think this proposal can get broad enough bipartisan support that we can actually enact it in this Congress.”

The bill won the endorsement of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the United Auto Workers, the United Mine Workers and several other unions, who have all been reluctant to support any far-reaching climate change legislation because of fear that it would drive up the price of energy and force manufacturers to move operations outside the United States. Union officials said they were satisfied that the Bingaman-Specter plan would make costs bearable for carbon emitters and penalize foreign countries that did not take adequate measures to control carbon emissions.

“We’ve never even stood up and said yes to one of these things,” said Bob Baugh, coordinator of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s energy task force. “This one we have. We think it’s an important step forward.” Utility executives who will participate in the unveiling of the plan on Wednesday called it a workable alternative to more draconian measures now before Congress.

James Rogers, chief executive of Duke Energy, one of the nation’s largest electric utilities, said the bill, while not perfect, offered a bridge to a low-carbon future without dealing a crushing blow to the American economy in the short term.

Mr. Rogers said his company, which provides electricity to four million customers in the Carolinas and the Ohio Valley chiefly by burning coal, would benefit by having a predictable price for the right to emit carbon dioxide. Other plans before Congress impose far steeper compliance costs, he said.

The Bingaman-Specter proposal, dubbed the “Low Carbon Economy Act,” would set a target emissions cap for 2020 at 2006 levels and for 2030 at 1990 levels. Other bills set more stringent targets, but none so far have won majority support.

The new proposal would grant permits to all emitting industries, including oil refineries, natural gas processing plants, manufacturing facilities and coal-burning power plants. Cars, trucks and airplanes are not covered, but owners would face significantly higher fuel prices passed on by oil and gas companies.

Additional emissions permits could be bought at $12 per metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions in the first year, rising by 5 percent above the rate of inflation each year after that. The money from the permits would be widely spread to finance research into clean energy, mitigate the effects of global warming, compensate farmers for higher fuel costs and help low-income families pay their heating and gasoline bills. Under the bill, the United States would market green technology to China, India, Brazil and other developing nations whose economies are growing to help them bring their carbon emissions under control. But it would also impose tariff-like fees on imports of carbon-intensive products like steel and automobiles from those countries if the president deemed their cleanup efforts inadequate.

Environmentalists gave the bill a mixed reaction. Dan Becker, global warming director at the Sierra Club, said it was worse than nothing.

“It’s too weak,” Mr. Becker said. He added, “It would be better to wait until more members of Congress understand that the heat is on them to act, and that may have to wait until the next Congress and the next president.”

But David Doniger, climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the new bill was evidence that Congress had gotten the message on global warming. Mr. Doniger said that it probably would not pass this year or next, but that the starting point for legislation was moving steadily in the direction of more assertive regulation of heat-trapping gases.

“The bills you can’t pass this year are a lot better than the bills you couldn’t pass a year ago,” Mr. Doniger said.