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Bills on Climate Move to Spotlight in New Congress

David Scull for The New York Times

Senators Thomas R. Carper of Delaware and Dianne Feinstein of California, both Democrats, offered bills to add regulations for utilities. Their proposals would include caps on emissions of carbon dioxide.

Published: January 18, 2007

Correction Appended

WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 — The climate here has definitely changed.

Legislation to control global warming that once had a passionate but quixotic ring to it is now serious business. Congressional Democrats are increasingly determined to wrest control of the issue from the White House and impose the mandatory controls on carbon dioxide emissions that most smokestack industries have long opposed.

Four major Democratic bills have been announced, with more expected. One of these measures, or a blend of them, stands an excellent chance of passage in this Congress or the next, industry and environmental lobbyists said in interviews.

Many events have combined to create the new direction — forsythia blooming in lawmakers’ gardens in January, polar bears lacking the ice they need to hunt and Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” along with pragmatic executives seeking an idea of future costs and, especially, the arrival of a Democratic-controlled Congress. There was evidence of the changed mood all over Washington this week.

On Wednesday, leading scientists and evangelical pastors jointly declared their intention to fight the causes of climate change and the public confusion on the subject. Cheryl Johns, a professor at the Church of God Theological Seminary, called that problem “nature deficit disorder.”

Another news conference on Wednesday featured executives of the heavily regulated electric utility industry embracing Senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, both Democrats. The senators were offering separate bills to add regulations, including a cap on carbon dioxide emissions.

One sign of the Democrats’ determination to move on climate bills occurred when a Democratic Congressional aide confirmed that Speaker Nancy Pelosi wanted to create a special committee on climate, apparently an end run around Representative John D. Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Mr. Dingell, through an aide, Jodi Seth, said Wednesday that such committees were “as relevant and useful as feathers on a fish.”

Mr. Dingell’s firm support of the automobile industry, a leading source of carbon dioxide emissions, and his earlier lack of enthusiasm for climate measures have made him suspect among advocates of strong climate laws.

To add excitement, the man of the moment, Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, lent his name to the best-known brand in climate-change legislation, a measure by Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut.

That means that two of the three sponsors, Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain, are leading presidential contenders in 2008.

Neither party is united around any one position. And for all the flurry of news conferences and proffered solutions, the big unanswered question was what will President Bush do?

A tantalizing hint came from James L. Connaughton, chairman of the president’s Council on Environmental Quality, in an interview on Tuesday.

“There are a number of pathways for getting to a shared goal, and we should explore all of them,” Mr. Connaughton said.

He added, “Part of that, by the way, is learning about some of the flaws in the design of the economywide cap-and-trade approach, which, if corrected, might make it a workable tool.”

That suggests that some version of an emissions cap may eventually win White House support. Persistent rumors that the president might support an emissions cap, circulating in Washington and Europe, were rejected Tuesday by his press secretary, Tony Snow.

But White House aides have hinted for months that Mr. Bush was planning a dramatic announcement on the subject in his annual address. Last year, the president said, “America is addicted to oil,” and stimulated a debate over dependence on foreign oil that has overlapped with environmental groups’ calls for cleaner-burning domestic fuels.

The mechanism that Mr. Snow ruled out is the basis for most of the Democratic measures, capping carbon dioxide emissions and then giving or selling to companies allowances, effectively permits to create a certain level of emissions.

Cleaner factories or utilities could then sell the allowances and gain a new revenue source. Factories with higher than allowable emissions would have to buy the permits they need.

Such a market, already in effect in Europe, in theory would set a price for a ton of carbon dioxide emissions, and the market would stimulate innovation in technologies that would reduce emissions or produce goods or power without the same high emissions common today.

Diplomats and environmental groups speculated in Washington this week that the Bush administration would look at other mandatory actions, perhaps not an emissions cap but rather expanding the decision to increase marginally fuel-economy standards for light trucks.

Felicity Barringer reported from Washington and Andrew C. Revkin from Portland, Ore. Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting from Washington.

Correction: January 23, 2007

Because of an editing error, an article on Thursday about efforts in Congress to pass legislation to curb carbon dioxide emissions misstated a comparison of the two measures. A bill introduced by Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, which would tighten controls gradually and include subsidies for nuclear power, is more draconian, not less, than a proposal by Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico. Mr. Bingaman’s bill would put a less stringent cap on emissions and includes a clause that would free industry from the requirements under certain circumstances.


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