The proposal, introduced last month by Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman and Virginia Republican John Warner, would set up a complex emissions trading system, an approach similar to one already in use by the European Union.The subcommittee voted 4-3 to send the measure to the full Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Lieberman, chair of the subcommittee, called the legislation 'a very substantial response to a very serious problem' and called on lawmakers to heed the warnings of climate scientists.
'With the scientific evidence mounting that we are fast approaching a dangerous tipping point beyond which climate change will accelerate rapidly, we really need to urgently move the bill forward,' Lieberman told colleagues.
But Senator Bernie Sanders, expressing concerns shared by many environmental groups, said the bill does not go far enough.
'The issue is - are we solving the problem,' asked Sanders, a Vermont Independent who voted against the measure. 'It is a step forward but in the view of the scientific community it simply does not go far enough.'
Sanders said scientific evidence indicates that global emission reductions on the order of 80 percent by mid-century are needed to curb the threat of severe climate change.
'What we are dealing with here is science and the future of the planet,' said Sanders. 'That is the reality. If you go to the people who have studied this issue the most, what they tell us is this planet faces dire consequences if we do not act boldly.'
Lieberman said he was sympathetic to Sanders’ desire to raise the 2050 emission target, but warned that tightening the bill could be its demise.
'We think it would break the coalition that has come together on the bill,' Lieberman said.
The fragility of that coalition was on display in the subcommittee hearing, previewing the difficulty Lieberman and Warner face getting it through the full committee, let alone gathering the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate.
In addition to disputes over the appropriate emission targets, battles loom over how permits would be allocated, how the hundreds of billions of dollars generated by auction permits would be spent, and what measures would be taken to protect the U.S. economy.
The current bill would create caps on emissions from about 75 percent of the U.S. economy, including the electric power, transportation and manufacturing industries.
Companies within these sectors would be granted permits to emit greenhouse gases and be allowed to buy and sell the allowances in order to ensure the overall reduction targets are achieved.
The plan aims to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 19 percent by 2020, with the eventual goal of reducing emissions about 63 percent from 2005 levels by 2050.
Sanders was joined in opposition by Republicans John Barrasso of Wyoming and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, both of whom voiced concerns about the economic impacts of mandatory greenhouse gas controls.
Senators Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, and Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, joined Lieberman and Warner in approving the bill.
Lieberman and Warner, who did not attend the hearing due to complications from his recent heart surgery, made several key revisions to the bill to boost support for the measure.
Lautenberg cited several changes in announcing his support, including a provision that allows states to set higher emission reduction targets and another that limits greenhouse gas emissions from the natural gas sector.
Lautenberg observed, 'It is still early in what will be an arduous, but critical legislative process' and said he would continue to push for stricter limits.
'The longer-term reduction levels are still critical, and this bill does not go as far as most scientists have called for,' Lautenberg said.
Baucus' objections were assuaged by additional support for farmers as well as by assurances that the plan does not block a profitable future for his state’s coal industry. The bill calls for shifting more than $300 billion in permit auction revenues to the coal industry for the development of carbon capture and sequestration technologies.
The five-term Montana senator is seen as a key supporter, given his past opposition to mandatory greenhouse gas controls. His comments reflected a growing sense among many lawmakers that strong action is needed.
'All of us have a basic duty to leave this world to our children in better shape than we found it,' Baucus said. 'Addressing global warming is a moral imperative.'
Sanders failed with several amendments, including an effort to shift nearly a third of auction revenues to renewable energy development, and voiced frustration with the reluctance of his colleagues to share his heightened concern about climate change.
'I appeal to my colleagues that this is not normal pork barrel politics,' Sanders said. 'This is, in fact, the future of the planet and if we don't get our act right the results could be cataclysmic for our kids and our grandchildren.'
The 18-member full Environment and Public Works Committee will begin its consideration of the bill next week. Committee Chair Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, has endorsed the measure, but has also called for more aggressive action to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Boxer did not set a firm date for a vote on the measure but said she’d like to see the bill pass her committee before next month’s United Nations climate negotiations in Bali, Indonesia. There negotiations are expected to begin on a successor agreement to the present greenhouse gas limitation framework, the Kyoto Protocol.
That schedule irks global warming skeptic Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and ranking member of the committee.
'This does not seem like a good faith attempt to conduct a thorough and collaborative process which is substantive,' Inhofe said at Thursday’s hearing. 'It seems like a staged process to create a sideshow at Bali at how far we've come in the U.S. Senate.'
The Senate has, in fact, come a long way from its unanimous 1997 approval of a resolution stating that the United States should not be a signatory to any agreement, including the Kyoto Protocol, that would mandate new commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for industrialized countries, unless the agreement also requires new commitments for developing countries within the same compliance period.
The negotiations in Bali will address the same issue - what commitments industrialized and developing countries are willing to make to cut their emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases generated by the burning of coal, oil and gas.