11 june 2013


Senate Democrat sees new life in warming issue, calls deniers 'insane'

Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter, Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The issue of climate change is making a comeback in Washington, D.C., fueled by public opinion and pending U.S. EPA regulations, a leading Senate environmentalist said today.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) kicked off a daylong Capitol Hill meeting on climate change and the environment by saying that things were "really starting to foment" on the issue, despite continued push-back from his Republican colleagues.

"I think things are starting to move," he told a meeting room full of Rhode Island stakeholders.

Whitehouse predicted that after the Senate acts on the nomination of Gina McCarthy to be EPA administrator -- whether it approves her or not -- EPA will finalize a proposal to curb greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants. Next on the docket will be a rule for today's power plant fleet.

Administration actions might help break the deadlock in Congress, he said.

"If the president does get serious about carbon, frankly that changes the equation dramatically," Whitehouse said. "And I think opens up a very significant pathway to a carbon pollution fee."

If industry is faced with "very, very significant carbon regulations" it might ask its friends in Congress to cushion the blow by enacting policy that will create a revenue stream -- perhaps through a market mechanism -- "that they could get a piece of to mitigate their costs."

A handful of conservatives off Capitol Hill have floated the idea of a tax on carbon, but those economists and former lawmakers have generally made it clear that any revenue raised by the tax must be offset by tax cuts elsewhere. Few proposals for carbon programs have suggested rebating fees to the regulated sectors themselves.

Meanwhile, most Republicans on Capitol Hill continue to say that the science of man-made climate change is not yet settled, and therefore the issue doesn't require a policy response.

But Whitehouse said that belief was no longer justifiable.

"Frankly, to be a carbon denier at this point in the development of the facts is to be one short step away from insane," he said. "You just can't logically support that point of view."

Whitehouse said the political tide appeared to be turning against members who dismiss climate concerns. Polls show that more Americans believe in climate change and support action on it. And he pointed to billionaire investor Tom Steyer's involvement in the Massachusetts Democratic primary, which helped shift the race toward climate advocate Rep. Ed Markey and away from Rep. Stephen Lynch, who had voted in support of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Whitehouse spearheaded the meeting that will bring a string of environmental luminaries to the Capitol Visitor Center today, including new Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Obama climate adviser Heather Zichal and former Vice President Al Gore.

Whitehouse was followed this morning by Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who had fairly pointed words for President Obama. The president, she said, is now in the same place President Kennedy stood 50 years ago today, when he gave a historic speech on the moral obligation to address race discrimination. Today's moral obligation is to address climate change, she said.

"While Congress remains stalled, the president has the authority to make a major dent in America's carbon emissions," Beinecke said. She noted that Obama had made the issue a centerpiece in both his inaugural address and State of the Union address earlier this year.

"Now, six months into his second term, it's time to put those words into action," she said.

It is up to advocates like those who filled the room -- who were mostly low-carbon energy entrepreneurs, environmentalists and regulators -- to give Obama cover to move forward aggressively on regulations, Beinecke said, and to insist that he do so.

Beinecke spoke as NRDC launches an ad campaign today starring Robert Redford aimed at holding Obama's feet to the fire on the new power plants rule for carbon dioxide.

In it, Redford, who is a trustee for NRDC, notes that the president has pledged action on climate change. "I just hope the president has the courage of his convictions," he says, urging supporters to move forward on the rules.

Beinecke said the power plant rule would be the first opportunity Obama has to show he is serious on climate change. The second, which will come in the fall, will be a decision not to allow the Keystone XL pipeline to go forward, she said.

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