Climate Skirmishes Stalk Environmental Spending Bill

Supporters of President Barack Obama's approach to limiting greenhouse gas emissions scored two wins this week in the Senate, one in open field battle and the other in more clandestine fashion. Both came as part of the debate on the interior-environment spending bill for next fiscal year.

Democratic leaders blocked efforts to restrict the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate carbon dioxide and to consider the impact of biofuels on deforestation abroad. 

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R–AK) had proposed an amendment that would have denied the EPA funds to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as pollution. The Obama Administration would prefer that greenhouse gas controls were in place as a result of a new law along the lines of the Waxman-Markey bill, passed in the spring by the House of Representatives. But while Congress debates the merits of climate legislation, EPA is using its authority under the Clean Air Act to move towards regulations of greenhouse gases from industrial sources and vehicles. Most activists would prefer the new law as well, but they see the EPA progress as important leverage on the Senate.

Using a series of moves on the Senate floor, Democrats prevented her amendment from getting a vote.

The other climate contretemps embedded in the days-long fight over the interior bill involved biofuels. At issue was whether or not EPA should take into account the international market effects of U.S. biofuels when calculating their greenhouse gas emissions. EPA is currently sifting through thousands of public comments on its proposal to do so. (The comment period closes today.)

Franz Matzner of the Natural Resources Defense Council says the regulations are important because growing biofuels in the United States can lead to deforestation in other countries, a fact that EPA should take into account. "There is a concern about barreling ahead with biofuels without the right science in place, the right policies in place," he said.

Senator Tom Harkin (D–IA) drafted an amendment that would have blocked EPA from spending any money to pass such a rule. But senators Tom Carper (D-DE) and Jeff Bingaman (D–NM) introduced a so-called secondary amendment that would have defeated the Harkin move. They drew support from a coalition of environment and climate groups, motorboat manufacturers, the Tortilla Institute, and even the Humane Society. "It was a strong, unusual bedfellow issue," Matzner says.

Senator Harkin then withdrew his amendment without it going to the floor for a vote.