BILLINGS – Energy companies and other business interests have launched a nationwide campaign to undermine climate change legislation pending in Congress, saying it could cost millions of jobs, drive gasoline prices sharply higher and suck thousands of dollars from household incomes.
The effort comes as the Senate prepares to take up in coming months a bill that would cut greenhouse emissions by up to 65 percent by 2050. The bill would create a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions, forcing companies to pay to pollute.
On a 17-state tour that began this week with stops in North Dakota and Montana, industry-funded economists said the legislation threatens to sacrifice three to four million jobs over the next two decades, as higher energy prices dampen industrial production.
Higher gas and electricity prices also would take a bite out of workers’ paychecks, to the tune of up to $6,700 a year by 2030, said Margo Thorning, chief economist with the American Council for Capital Formation, whose supporters include ExxonMobil.
“The link between economic growth and energy can’t be broken,” Thorning said. “There will be cutbacks in production, losses in productivity.”
Supporters of greenhouse gas restrictions rejected Thorning’s claims as biased and exaggerated. The burning of fossil fuels is considered the top human-caused contributor to climate change.
An adviser to Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer — a Democrat who has prodded for federal action on the issue — called Thorning’s economic projections “nonsense” after she spoke Wednesday in Billings.
“They’ve been denying climate change is happening for so long, and now they’re trying anything they can to scare people,” said Eric Stern, senior counselor to Schweitzer. “This is a petroleum industry front group that is literally like a cigarette company promoting a study that says smoking is good for you.”
Thorning’s appearance was sponsored in part by the electric utility PPL Montana and MDU Resources, a North Dakota-based oil and gas company. She said Montana alone faces a 140 percent rise in gasoline prices, the loss of 15,000 jobs that might otherwise be created and income losses of up to $5,321 per household under the Congressional bill.
But Stern and other critics said the business community had failed to account for an emerging boom in “green” energy, driven by investments in wind power and advanced coal plants that produce fewer greenhouse gases.
They also said projections for a long-term drop in the gross domestic product should be cast against an economy that the federal government expects to almost double by 2030. Thorning projected the GDP drop would range from less than 1 percent to almost 3 percent.
“This is a fairly small number — in the context of a much larger economy down the road — that we can handle,” said Tom Power, economics professor emeritus at the University of Montana.
The climate bill pending before Congress is sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and John Warner, R-VA. It is the only major climate legislation so far to be approved at the committee level, passing out of the Environment and Public Works committee on Dec. 5 on a vote of 11-8.
Lieberman spokesman Scott Overland said the bill is scheduled for debate before the full senate in June.
An Environmental Protection Agency analysis issued March 14 said the bill’s cost to the nation’s economy over the next two decades could be as low as $238 billion — less than half the $631 billion figure forecast by industry.
In a statement, Warner said the EPA had shown a healthy economy and climate change action were not exclusive of one another. “You can control greenhouse gas emissions in a manner that leaves the economy whole and is not burdensome on consumers,” he said.
William Kovacs, vice president with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, another sponsor of the campaign against the Warner-Lieberman bill, said the goal of that effort was not to block emissions reductions. Rather, he said, the business community wants reductions through innovations, such as low-pollution power plant technologies. He said government should provide tax breaks or other incentives to encourage such advances.
“We have decided that politically, to be players, we’re going to have to look at carbon dioxide reductions and do it the best way we can,” he said. “Our goal is to reduce carbon and still have energy.”
Upcoming stops scheduled for the industry’s “Climate Change Dialogue” tour include locations in Alaska, Ohio, New Hampshire and Tennessee.
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