Climate politics: Looking for Compromise

The U.S. Senate finished 2009 with a triumphant vote on health care legislation. The lengthy and hard fought negotiations needed to secure the 60 votes necessary for passage of the health care bill delayed Senate action on climate change. As senators now turn to this similarly contentious issue, they again face the difficult task of drafting a bill that garners 60 votes.

Senate climate change action is set against results of the Copenhagen climate change summit last December, mostly consisting of feuding and brinksmanship among the delegates and resulting in an accord far short of the envisaged global treaty.

But The Economist, a London-based newspaper long supportive of climate change action, opined in its Dec. 30, 2009, issue that the Copenhagen summit achieved two important advances:

  • First, developing countries agreed to the accord, signaling willingness to cut emissions and accept an international framework of monitoring. What that ultimately means is uncertain, but it is a step toward bridging a deep disagreement between developed and developing countries.
  • Second, the summit demonstrated that the complexity of climate change may require a series of narrowly focused solutions rather than one global solution. The world has tried – and failed – at Kyoto and Copenhagen to develop such a grand strategy. Accepting this fact “could mark a new pluralism in climate politics, allowing coalitions of the willing to form for specific purposes – such as slowing deforestation, or stemming emissions from shipping.”

Both of these issues are important to senators. But the second one – favoring narrower responses, rather than broad ones – offers a clue to a path forward in the Senate.


The House passed its climate change bill – The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (see August 2009 EXPLORER,) which included:

  • A federal renewable energy standard of 15 percent by 2025.
  • Boosts to energy efficiency requirements.
  • A federal cap and trade system to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Programs to deal with the effects (mostly financial) of transitioning to a clean energy economy.

The Senate climate change bill was introduced by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in late September 2009. Titled The Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act, the legislation includes two principal parts:

  • Initiatives for pollution reduction, transition and adaptation to climate change. These measures include efficiency standards, new R&D and technology programs, and job creation programs.
  • A federal cap and trade system to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Politics is at the core of the Senate debate on climate change, with a federal cap-and-trade system the biggest obstacle.

There are six Senate committees with jurisdiction for this legislation. Boxer, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, passed the bill through her committee. Republican committee members boycotted the legislative review and vote.

Kerry, as principal bill author and chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, wanted swift movement on the bill. But he quickly recognized he did not have the support of 60 senators and reached out to Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) to forge a new framework for climate legislation.

This framework was sent to President Obama in early December, ahead of the Copenhagen summit, and includes a 17 percent emission reduction target by 2020. It ties emissions cuts to expanded oil and natural gas on the nation’s federal lands and outer continental shelf, expansion of nuclear power, continued use of coal and other provisions. The authors indicate that this framework is a “work in progress,” but foreshadows the concessions needed to secure 60 votes.

But as The Hill reported in November, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chair of the Finance Committee, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chair of the Commerce Committee, represent states with significant coal interests and are less eager for rapid action. Rockefeller was quoted saying, “Most of the country doesn’t know what cap-and-trade is. They have no idea. I would say half the Senate have no idea what cap-and-trade is and could not explain it.”

He doesn’t want to see the Senate act until July.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), chair of the Agriculture Committee, faces a tough re-election campaign and indicated she wants the Senate to focus on jobs and the economy.

Finally, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is a supporter of cap-and-trade and introduced such legislation in the 110th Congress. But in this Congress he has shepherded a bipartisan energy bill through his committee, The American Clean Energy and Leadership Act of 2009.

This bill is more narrowly focused on energy. It emphasizes clean energy technology development, a renewable electricity standard, efficiency, energy work force development consumer protections, and smarter planning. It does not include a cap-and-trade system, and Bingaman has resisted the idea of adding such a provision to this bill because of the political problems it invites.


It is too early to tell what final Senate legislation will look like, but the health care debate offers two lessons: Do not underestimate the ability of Senate Democrats to craft a bill that secures 60 votes, and do not be surprised if that final bill looks very different from what was originally proposed.

Mustering the votes for a cap-and-trade system is possible but difficult. A more focused approach – such as Bingaman’s, perhaps augmented with select provisions from the Kerry-Boxer bill – offers the surest path to 60.

The political calculus for Democrats in Congress and the White House will be whether to hold out for what they desire, or take what they can get.

As Election Day approaches, when politicians are held to account by the people they represent, the words of legendary House Speaker Joe Cannon will surely be ringing in their ears:

“Nearly all legislation is the result of compromise.”

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Washington Watch - David Curtiss

David Curtiss served as the Director of AAPG’s Geoscience and Energy Office in Washington, D.C. from 2008-11.

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Washington Watch - Creties Jenkins

Creties Jenkins is a past president of the EMD.

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Washington Watch - Dan Smith

Dan Smith is chair of the Governance Board.

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Washington Watch - Peter MacKenzie

 Peter MacKenzie is vice chair of the Governance Board. 

Policy Watch is a monthly column of the EXPLORER written by the director of AAPG's  Geoscience and Energy Office in Washington, D.C. *The first article appeared in February 2006 under the name "Washington Watch" and the column name was changed to "Policy Watch" in January 2013 to broaden the subject matter to a more global view.

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Curtiss Named to DPA Panel in New Orleans

Geo-DC Director David Curtiss will be among the panelists speaking at the Division of Professional Affairs luncheon in New Orleans during the AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition.

Curtiss, reporter for the Explorer’s Washington Watch column, will be joined by five others in a discussion of topics ranging from DPA bylaws to position papers to tax issues to the role that DPA plays in the current energy arena.

The luncheon will be held Tuesday, April 13, in the La Nouvelle Orleans Ballroom at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

Joining Curtiss on the panel will be:

  • John Dolson, director of DSP Geosciences and Associates, Coconut Grove, Fla., and a former vice president of AAPG.
  • Lynn N. Hughes, a federal judge in Houston and AAPG’s current Distinguished Lecturer on Ethics.
  • Peter R. Rose, senior associate with Rose and Associates in Austin, Texas, and a former president of AAPG.
  • M. Ray Thomasson, founder and owner of Thomasson Partner Associates, Denver, and a former president of AAPG.
  • Scott Tinker, director of the Bureau of Economic Geology and the state geologist of Texas, Austin, and the immediate past president of AAPG.