In D.C., Flathead Residents Press Senators on Climate Change Bill

By Beacon Staff

A group of Flathead residents were in Washington D.C. last week to press members of Montana’s federal delegation to take action on legislation to stem global-warming.

“We wanted to deliver our sense of urgency for this type of legislation,” Diane Yarus, co-owner of Airworks Heating and Air Conditioning in Kalispell, said. “We need to make it a priority.”

Members of the group, Montana Business Leaders for Clean Energy, met with Democratic Sen. Max Baucus and the staff of Jon Tester barely a week after the draft of a major bill aimed at reducing carbon emissions was released in the Senate. The trip was funded by a national organization, Clean Energy Works, which supports climate change legislation.

Eric Grimsrud, a retired atmospheric scientist who taught at MSU-Bozeman for 29 years, described the meetings as a chance to, “just encourage our legislators to keep the ball moving on climate change legislation.”

“This is one that can no longer afford delay,” he added. “It’s analogous to having a meteor flying at the earth.”

Yet the operational pace of the United States Senate is typically anything but urgent. And in an election year following the passage of a controversial health care overhaul and new regulations on banks, the issue of immigration demanding attention and the confirmation hearings of a Supreme Court nominee imminent, it’s unclear whether senators are eager to take up a complicated bill with vast implications for the energy, industrial and agricultural sectors of the economy. Nor does a persistently unstable economy help its prospects.

But Yarus believes the ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico from an exploded oil rig could compel lawmakers, and the American public, to reevaluate the consequences of current energy policy, and boost legislation that seeks to promote cleaner forms of energy production.

“As that oil hits the shore, I think we’re going to wake up to it,” Yarus said. “It will have a strong impact.”

She also believes a climate change bill has the potential to create thousands of jobs in Montana once emerging industries in alternative energy have clear price signals on what carbon emissions will cost.

Grimsrud acknowledged the opposition, coming mainly from Republicans, to any bill that seeks to assign a price to carbon emissions and lower greenhouse gas output as “formidable.” He said Baucus and Tester’s staff encouraged the group to “keep the pressure on,” but there is little to be done until the bill is fleshed out.

“It seems like the political forces are so strong,” Grimsrud said. “It outweighs the physical reality.”

The latest bill, titled the, “American Power Act,” is co-sponsored by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was originally among the bill’s sponsors, but withdrew, saying immigration reform was beginning to take priority for political reasons.

The Kerry-Lieberman bill differs from the climate change legislation that passed the House nearly a year ago in that it is not strictly a “cap-and-trade” bill. It sets up a carbon market, but would use revenues generated from the market to pay down the federal deficit and provide rebates to energy consumers to offset increases in their power bills.

The Kerry-Lieberman legislation also provides incentives to develop nuclear power, improve the efficiency of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, invest in so-called “clean coal” technology, and expand offshore oil-drilling while allowing states to opt out of such drilling along its shore if it chooses.

The bill aims to reduce carbon emissions 17 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

Reception to the legislation in Montana, thus far, has been mixed. Applied Materials, the technology manufacturing company that recently acquired Kalispell-based Semitool and invested $250 million in the world’s largest nongovernmental solar energy research facility in China, applauded the Kerry-Lieberman bill.

“Today’s effort, when added to other legislative action, brings this country closer to regaining our position as a leader in the global clean energy technology industry,” Gary Fazzino, Applied’s vice president of government affairs wrote on the company’s site. “This industry will create millions of jobs and billions of dollars of economic development in the coming decades and could be a major driver of our economic future.”

Others were less enthusiastic. Gary Wiens, assistant general manager of the Montana Electric Cooperatives’ Association (MECA), said his organization hasn’t yet taken a position on the bill, but at this point it needs, “significant improvement.”

“In areas where we’ve got consumers on fossil fuel generation they are going to see probably some significant rate increases if there isn’t better protection in the bill,” Wiens said. “If they’re willing to start negotiating with us on the bill, perhaps we can reach an agreement on it.”

MECA is currently working to stop a push by the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases through the Clean Air Act. And though it may be skeptical of current climate legislation, Wiens acknowledged a preference for Congress to handle greenhouse gas regulation over the EPA or the courts.

“We really believe that Congress needs to do something to take care of that problem,” Wiens said. “We are not opposed to the regulation of carbon emissions but we do oppose using the Clean Air Act to do that.”

“It can be done; they can achieve greenhouse gas reductions meaningfully without having to hurt the consumer,” he added.

Nor does the Montana Environmental Information Center see the Kerry-Lieberman bill as the best climate change legislation in Congress at present.

“We definitely agree with the goals in the bill, which is to reduce carbon emissions,” Kyla Wiens, who tracks federal climate bills for MEIC, said. “Beyond that, we don’t like the way that it’s structured.”

The MEIC has long favored a “cap-and-dividend” approach, where a price is set on carbon emissions and all proceeds go back to the public. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has introduced such a bill and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has signed on as a co-sponsor. At 40 pages, Kyla Wiens (Gary Wiens’ daughter) said the Cantwell-Collins bill is simpler, already has bipartisan support and lacks the many concessions to industry inserted into the bill that passed the House and the Kerry-Lieberman bill, which are thousands of pages long.

“You’ve got to have the public buy-in if you want to pass a climate bill,” Kyla Wiens said. “We would like to see a bill that’s promoted outside the Beltway, beyond large companies and CEOs and big environmental groups.”

Despite differences, the MEIC still supports Congress taking up some form of clean energy legislation as soon as possible, she added, though any immediate action is unlikely until at least June, following an evaluation of the Kerry-Lieberman bill by the EPA.

As for whether senators have the stomach to take up such a bill this summer, supporters like Yarus remain hopeful, and know any climate change legislation won’t clear Congress without a fight.

“There’s still hope for it going through this year but it’s going to take more participation as a nation and we need to set this as a priority,” Yarus said. “A good healthy debate will make this legislation better and stronger so we welcome that as well.”

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