- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - As Congress begins to debate climate change in earnest, the science is taking a back seat to economics: How much will it cost to slow the earth’s warming because of man-made pollution _ and what’s the cost of doing nothing?

A key House committee begins four days of hearings on climate legislation Tuesday, but the challenge of getting bipartisan support immediately became apparent.

Even before the hearings, Republican members of the Energy and Commerce Committee argued that the panel’s Democratic leaders are moving too quickly to try to push the legislation through.

They said the draft bill, which calls for broad limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, was not ready for serious discussion because it doesn’t say how emission permits would be distributed.

President Barack Obama wants all of the permits auctioned off with billions of dollars in auction proceeds to be redistributed in order to blunt the expected rise in the costs of electricity and other energy sources as fossil-fuel generated energy becomes more expensive.

But Republicans are opposed to the Democrats’ cap-and-trade approach in general and a number of Democrats from coal-producing and industrial states argue if emissions are to be limited, the pollution allowances should be provided free to energy-intensive industries, easing the cost.

“The manner in which you will address this issue is the cornerstone of the legislation,” the 23 GOP committee members wrote in a letter to Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif. “Without it, the bill is simply not finished and not ripe to be marked up or accurately discussed in the context of hearings.”

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the panel’s energy subcommittee, who along with Waxman crafted the draft legislation, has acknowledged that the permit distribution issue is a key area of disagreement, but said he is confident it can be worked out as the bill moves through committee.

The draft bill calls for a reduction of greenhouse gases by 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent by mid-century.

It also calls for a series of measures aimed at reducing the use of fossil energy such as requiring utilities to produce a quarter of their electricity from renewable sources, and calling for tougher standards to promote conservation.

The provisions are hoped by Democrats to blunt the GOP attacks that are primarily aimed at emphasizing the economic impact of controlling for the first time carbon dioxide releases, especially electricity costs from power plants.

The four days of hearings during which the committee is to hear from about 60 witnesses _ environmentalists, business groups and academics all hoping to shape the final legislation _ is expected to focus largely on economic costs.

In the current tough economic times, Republican critics of the bill believe the cost issue will resonate with the public and, in turn, with lawmakers.

“It would raise taxes on every American who drives a car, flips a light switch or buys a product manufactured in the United States,” House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio declared when the Democrat’s draft bill was unveiled last month.

Since then he has claimed every household would see their electricity bills increase on average by more than $3,000 under the cap-and-trade provision, citing a study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Boehner’s claim was quickly refuted by one of the MIT study’s authors, who said the GOP leader had misstated the findings and exaggerated that costs which the study estimated was closer to $340 per household. Nevertheless, Boehner and other Republicans repeatedly have called the bill an unjustified energy tax.

But environmentalists have argued _ as has the Obama administration _ that the costs of dealing with climate change can be dramatically reduced by adopting programs that will spur the development of energy efficiency and wider use of non-fossil energy such as wind, solar and biofuels.

On Tuesday, the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental advocacy group, said its analysis _ using Energy Department computer models _ show that while energy prices would increase, much of that increase could be offset by energy savings.

By 2030, the average U.S. household can save $900 a month in electricity, heating and transportation costs even as greenhouse gases are reduced by 56 percent, the UCS analysis claimed.

“Combining a carbon cap with strong efficiency, renewable electricity and transportation standards can deliver (climate-related) emission cuts and save Americans a substantial amount of money,” UCS president Kevin Knobloch argued.

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On the Net:

House Energy and Commerce Committee: https://energycommerce.house.gov/

(This version CORRECTS that bill will slow global warming, not reverse it.)

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