Dems flex muscles, vow climate action

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at the Washington auto show: Pelosi may be trying to bypass Dingell, long a friend of the auto industry, to push for legislation on global warming.

Photo credit: SCOTT J. FERRELL/NEWSCOM
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WASHINGTON -- Democrats who took control of Congress in the November election promised they would make global warming a top priority.

And they're starting to deliver.

A number of bills have been introduced, and hearings have begun. Most notably, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has created a special committee to look at the issue.

Some interest groups view Pelosi's move as an attempt to undercut Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a longtime friend of the auto industry.

Dingell, a lawmaker since 1955, had said he will hold hearings on climate change but is wary of harming the auto industry and its workers. Now his role is less clear.

Backlash?

But offending Dingell and newly installed chairmen of other committees with jurisdiction over climate change - lawmakers who have been waiting years to head panels - could backfire and wind up delaying action.

Indeed, some Republicans have chortled privately that the unfolding turf war ensures nothing of significance will be enacted, warned Frank O'Donnell, president of the environmental group Clean Air Watch.

Still, Pelosi's special committee elevates climate change to a top-tier issue, he said.

Major bills introduced so far, with varying degrees of vigor, would seek to slow and ultimately decrease U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases.

Some aim first at major stationary sources of greenhouse gases, such as utility plants. But any comprehensive law is likely to include a provision for cars and trucks, even if it is nothing more than providing for tougher fuel economy standards.

A comprehensive review of the economy is necessary to make dealing with climate change cost-effective, said Jeff Sterba, CEO of PNM Resources, a utility holding company.

Sterba is one of several corporate CEOs who have formed an unusual coalition with environmental groups called the U.S. Climate Action Partnership. On Jan. 22, the coalition called on Congress and the White House to enact mandatory controls on greenhouse gases.

The conventional thinking has been that the next two years will be spent laying groundwork for a federal law limiting greenhouse-gas emissions after the next presidential election. But Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and part of the new coalition, said the ideal timetable is "as soon as possible."

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D. Calif., the new chairwoman of that chamber's Environment and Public Works Committee, said after the Nov. 7 election that she wanted a nationwide, California-style cap on greenhouse gases.

In December she said such a measure may not be possible. But she does plan extensive hearings to establish the need for national limits.

Eyes on Bingaman

A more likely source of bipartisan legislation is the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. Bingaman is known for his thoughtful, bipartisan approach to complex issues.

The Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over fuel economy, is chaired by low-key Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. Inouye is not expected to be aggressive on the issue. But the ranking Republican, Ted Stevens of Alaska, unexpectedly has proposed that car fuel economy standards be raised by 50 percent in a decade.

The California cap, enacted in September, contains a provision requiring new emission limits on cars and trucks if the state's existing landmark vehicle regulations are struck down.

The rules, adopted in 2004, require a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from cars and trucks by 2016.

Automakers, car dealers and some allies are challenging the rules in federal court, calling them an illegal attempt by a state to regulate fuel economy, which they say only the federal government can do.

You may e-mail Harry Stoffer at hstoffer@crain.com

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