How the Senate Could Pass a Climate Bill This Year

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>On Thursday, while the Senate was voting against Lisa Murkowski's resolution to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases -- a vote that would not have made much of a difference anyway -- Harry Reid was having a conversation with committee chairs that will likely have a significant impact on our energy future. The majority leader met with key Senate leaders in order to craft a strategy for advancing a climate bill this summer. As Eric Pooley writes, Obama has avoided jumping into the murky waters of climate legislation until now, when the Gulf oil spill all but requires it. But what kind of bill has a shot at passing a polarized Senate in a number of weeks?

Reid currently has four options to choose from. The most aggressive -- though it pales in comparison to the version the House passed last summer -- is John Kerry and Joe Lieberman's bill, which Lindsey Graham so dramatically pulled out of in April. This proposal includes a cap-and-trade plan for utilities and a slew of perks for oil, gas, and nuclear energy companies. Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins have also proposed a carbon cap, though revenue from their emissions allowances would be distributed to individuals rather than traded amongst companies.

In the "energy-only" camp -- i.e., not cap-and-trade -- are bills proposed by Jeff Bingaman and, most recently, Dick Lugar. Lugar's plan is the least disruptive (and also, with no cap to ensure its mere 9 percent proposed reduction in emissions, the least aggressive) and received a major boost earlier this week when Graham, in the latest of his confusing thrusts and parries on climate, announced his backing. Climate Progress has compiled a highlights reel of Graham's prior denouncements of "half-assed" climate strategies that shy away from a carbon cap, and Kate Sheppard has pointed out his unnerving veer onto climate denialist turf. But hypocrisy aside, Graham's backing gives Lugar's bill real weight. If the duo can attract some of the plentiful coal-state Democrats who have shown interest in Bingaman's bill, they could have a contender.

Rather than picking one of the four proposals, however, Reid and the White House have voiced a desire to build a "buffet" bill, selecting elements of each. Rahm Emanuel told the New York Times on Tuesday that "there's enough in each [proposal]" for "a serious and comprehensive energy bill. And you can do it this year."

Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, agrees that a "buffet, smorgasbord, what you will" approach is the only way to pass a climate bill this year. "While I of course would prefer that we have something comprehensive," Claussen says, "I think it is most important that we get started this year."

If she were picking from the buffet herself, Claussen would choose Kerry-Lieberman's emissions reduction targets and a version of their carbon pricing scheme that was gradual enough in implementation and narrow enough in scope to attract the necessary votes. She would include Cantwell-Collins' carbon trading controls, Bingaman's renewable energy standard, and Lugar's phase-out of coal-burning plants.

The most controversial element of such a bill promises to be the carbon cap, but Claussen thinks that a constricted version is a viable option. "The challenge on the carbon cap is what is capped," she says. "From the effectiveness and efficiency point of view, the more that's covered, the better. But from the practical point of view, aiming for 60 votes, you may have to limit that."

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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