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The rush by various legislators over the past week to introduce climate change bills sends a clear message to utilities, industry, environmental organizations and the public that Congress is serious about making climate change a top priority. But there's a big difference between introducing a bill and enacting legislation, particularly on an issue as complex as climate change and where Congress has done relatively little advance homework, either in terms of oversight hearings, briefings, or meaningful debate to better understand the legislative and regulatory options or the potential ramifications of its actions.

Consider the fact that the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 took 13 years to enact, and involved hundreds, if not thousands, of hearings, thousands of meetings, and many, many hours of debate in the relevant Committees and on the floors of the House and Senate. Congress has done virtually nothing in comparison on the issue of climate change legislation.

That's not to say that Congress will not move forward, ultimately, with climate change legislation. However, when it does, and I believe that it will, in all likelihood, it won't look much like the bills that have been introduced so far. Those bills are placeholders. They flag the issue as a top priority for the 110th Congress and, equally importantly, help ensure that their sponsors get a seat at the table when the real legislation gets worked out. The bills sponsors, all sophisticated lawmakers, know that.

The bills that have been introduced over the past week will start to frame the debate, and to that extent, they are significant. They tee up some of the critical issues that Congress will need to resolve in a final climate change legislative package – e.g., the scope of regulation, in other words which industries should be covered; the time frame for reductions; and the role of market-based approaches (cap and trade program). But as the more thoughtful legislators peel back the layers on this issue, and many of the bills sponsors will fall into that category, they will undoubtedly have to think through and resolve numerous other issues:

  • Should emission reductions be measured as an absolute amount or as an amount in relation to GDP?

  • How should allowances be allocated under a cap and trade system?

  • What kind of credit will be given for emissions reductions voluntarily achieved prior to enactment of legislation?

  • How will offsets and credits be determined?

  • What role will carbon sequestration play in a cap and trade system and how will the legislation ensure the permanence of sequestration credits?

  • How will the legislation prevent leakage – the exportation of the business, and their associated emissions, to developing countries where their emissions would go unregulated?

  • What role will nuclear energy play, as well as other renewable and emerging fuels?

  • Will the legislation include incentives to promote the development of innovative technologies?

  • Will the legislation include tax provisions, such as a carbon tax?

  • How will the legislation ensure that it does not undermine either our economy or our energy security?

These are just some of the many questions that Congress will be facing over the coming months as it begins to grapple with the issue of climate change.

The proposed climate change bills will start that process.

Key points:

The bills that have been introduced to date are significant not because they will be enacted, but because they will spark a serious debate about the many complex practical and policy issues associated with implementing a framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The bills underscore that the debate is no longer about the science of climate change. It's about the measures that are appropriate and practical -- measures that that will protect our vibrant economy and our energy security and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The United States is, and will continue to be, a leader in achieving real reductions in greenhouse gases. Our existing regulatory programs, such as CAFE standards and the renewable fuels standard, as well as voluntary initiatives, like Climate Leaders, are successfully and significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and at a rate faster than many countries that have endorsed the Kyoto Protocol. That success is something to build upon.

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