Boosted by President Obama’s inaugural address commitment to mitigate climate change, congressional Democrats have initiated several more climate measures. A legislative packet that seeks to mitigate climate change by enacting a carbon "fee" of $20 per ton of emitted carbon or methane equivalent was introduced last week by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). In the House, as several Democratic amendments for climate change hearings were voted down, more than 40 lawmakers urged President Obama to create a panel that would help communities deal with climate change events.

A $20 per Ton Carbon Fee

The Climate Protection Act and the Sustainable Energy Act introduced last week by Sens. Sanders and Boxer seeks to achieve a goal of reducing long-term greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80% or more by 2050 by enacting a $20 tax per ton of carbon content on fuels that emit carbon dioxide or methane (specifically coal, petroleum and natural gas) that would rise at 5.6% a year over a 10-year period.

The fee would apply to 2,869 of the "largest fossil fuel polluters," covering about 85% of GHG emissions, according to the Congressional Research Service. But in a departure from previous measures, including the most recent 2010 cap-and-trade legislation and state greenhouse gas control measures, "this bill would not levy a fee on downstream energy producers such as manufacturers and coal-fired power plants," said lawyers from Sidley Austin LLP. "It calculates the fee based on the carbon content of the fuel (or the carbon equivalent methane content of the fuel) and imposes the fee on the fuel producer or importer."

The senators said that the fee alone could raise $1.2 trillion in revenue over 10 years and reduce GHGs about 20% from 2005 levels by 2025. The remaining emission reductions would come from ongoing efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency and a number of states.

The legislation and the companion bill would also end fossil fuel subsidies and extend key renewable energy tax incentive programs. And, recognizing that the carbon price would increase production of natural gas, the legislation ends the "so-called Halliburton exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act" for fracking, and applies provisions from the FRAC Act, calling for disclosure of chemicals used in the fracking process.

A portion of the revenues accrued from the fees would be used to invest in energy efficiency and sustainable energy technologies—including $1 billion a year for worker training. The bill also calls for the establishment of a Clean Energy Rebate Program, which would use three-fifths of the carbon fee revenue to provide a monthly rebate to every legal U.S. resident. The rebate program would work off the model developed by Alaska’s oil dividend. "This is the most progressive way to ensure that if fossil fuel companies jack-up prices, consumers and families can offset cost increases on fuel and electricity," a fact sheet on the legislation produced by Sen. Sanders’ office said.

The measure is expected to prompt Senate hearings, but "there is little expectation that it will have genuine legislative traction," the law firm said.

House Democrats Push for Climate Hearings

The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Feb. 6 voted down two climate change–related amendments put forth by Democrats to the committee’s two-year oversight plan, which otherwise pledges hearings and rigorous oversight of administration efforts to regulate GHGs. One amendment from Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) would have required the panel to hold hearings on the role of climate change in weather events as well as its impacts on power generation. The other, from Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) sought hearings for climate impacts on coastal areas. On Feb. 12, two other amendments were voted down. One, from ranking member Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), would have required hearings on recent reports that the worst climate change impacts can only be avoided with near-tem action. Another from Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) called for hearings to include witnesses from the National Academies to examine evidence that the Earthʼs climate is changing, that the changes are caused by human activities, and that rising temperatures pose significant risk to public health and the environment.

House Democrats in a letter on Tuesday, meanwhile, urged President Obama to appoint a bipartisan blue ribbon panel to develop a comprehensive plan within six months to help local communities prepare for anticipated impacts of an increase in climate-related extreme weather events.

"The panel’s membership should include people who led recovery efforts from recent weather tragedies, including governors, mayors, first responders, and business and civic leaders. After an opportunity for public comment, the blue ribbon panel should forward its recommendations to you and Congress for action," the letter said. "Assessing current efforts and developing comprehensive strategies will provide an important guide for these actions, which will save lives as well as reduce the tens billions of dollars spent on disaster relief and recovery."

Fiscal exposure resulting from climate change even made the High Risk List released on Feb. 14 by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO). The GAO recognized—for the first time—that climate change creates significant financial risks for the federal government, which owns extensive infrastructure. "The federal government is not well positioned to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change, and needs a government wide strategic approach with strong leadership to manage related risks," the GAO said in the report to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Sources: POWERnews, Sen. Sanders, Rep. Waxman, GAO

—Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine)

This story was originally published on Feb. 14