Congressional Democrats are weighing strategies for curbing greenhouse gases, following President Barack Obama’s inaugural pledge to redouble efforts on climate change during his second term.
While White House spokesman Jay Carney declined on Tuesday to detail the president’s climate plans, his Democratic allies are readying bills big and small for helping him achieve his goals.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., signaled that her early focus will be on reducing carbon emissions by improving the energy efficiency of commercial and residential structures. "Buildings account for 11 percent of the carbon in the air," she said Tuesday.
Boxer is planning legislation that would require the General Services Administration — which she referred to as the nation’s "biggest landlord" — to conduct energy audits of its properties to identify ways to improve efficiency. The measure would additionally require the GSA to calculate the cost savings of such projects.
Additionally, Boxer is planning legislation that would create a program to help local communities fund efficiency improvements in buildings, in part by using private sector dollars. She wrote to the Economic Development Administration this week for input on how to develop such a program, which she said could be modeled on a Transportation Department program for financing surface transportation projects known as the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, or TIFIA.
"I’ve asked them to come up with a TIFIA-like program for energy efficiency," she said, adding that the emphasis on public and private sector funding may hold appeal for GOP lawmakers.
The focus on buildings reflects the acknowledgement that broader climate legislation to restrict emissions — including cap-and-trade schemes and carbon taxes — are still considered too politically toxic to enact.
But Boxer noted that more than 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are covered under the Clean Air Act.
"All the laws are in place, so if EPA decides to really exercise their authority under the Clean Air Act and they do it in a way that’s consistent with the law, we’ll make tremendous progress," she said. "And that’s why I’m focusing in on the building side, because that’s something I can do legislatively."
Nonetheless, Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., said Tuesday that he is readying "extraordinarily comprehensive" climate legislation he intends to introduce next month, which would include a price on carbon, "massive investments in sustainable energy," and reduction targets.
"If we do not get our act together — and in fact if this planet heats up by 8 degrees by the end of the century, which is what scientists are telling us — the impact is going to be incredibly devastating, and I think more and more Americans understand it," Sanders told reporters.
But James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Senate’s leading skeptic of global warming and formerly the ranking Republican on Boxer’s panel, said proponents of aggressive climate action still lack the votes to move broader bills through the Senate.
"Legislation is not going to pass," he told reporters Tuesday.
Citing the devastation wrought last fall by Hurricane Sandy, California Democrat Henry A. Waxman, ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called on his Republican colleagues to acknowledge the "large and growing threat" from global warming.
"I know that this is a difficult issue for your side, but it is one we cannot ignore," Waxman said during the committee’s organizational meeting on Tuesday. "I hope we will be able to have a constructive dialogue this Congress about the preeminent energy challenge of our era."
Waxman was co-author of a sweeping climate bill that passed the House in 2009 but never advanced in the Senate. After the legislative efforts in the 111th Congress faltered, the Obama administration shifted strategies and began employing its regulatory power under the Clean Air Act to stem emissions.
The EPA has already moved to reduce emissions from vehicles and new power plants, and is widely expected to also unveil limits on greenhouse gases from existing coal-fired plants in the coming months. The president signaled in his inaugural address that his administration will press ahead with the regulatory efforts.
"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," Obama said. "Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms."
That almost certainly will spark a new round of legislative pushback from congressional Republicans, not to mention Democrats from coal-friendly regions.
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., sidestepped questions Tuesday about Waxman’s plea for a dialogue on climate change, saying only that the panel’s agenda will soon be released by subcommittee chairmen.
Upton did say that the panel would proceed with legislation to force approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline "in the next couple months."
The project will be an early test for Obama’s commitment to act on climate change. Environmentalists are pressing for rejection of the project, arguing that it will lead to a dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmentalists also hope that the recent flurry of extreme weather will help put climate change back on the congressional agenda.
New House Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who has questioned the role of humans in the warming climate, is planning a hearing in the coming weeks that will examine the state of the environment — including the science of warming.
"I believe climate change is due to a combination of factors, including natural cycles, sun spots, and human activity," he said in a statement earlier this month. "But scientists still don’t know for certain how much each of these factors contributes to the overall climate change that the Earth is experiencing. It is the role of the Science Committee to create a forum for discussion so Congress and the American people can hear from experts and draw reasoned conclusions. During this process, we should focus on the facts rather than on a partisan agenda."
Waxman said he has noticed a greater willingness by Republicans to discuss climate change since Hurricane Sandy.
"I’ve seen a lot more people talking about it publicly, but I’m waiting to see if that’s going affect them legislatively," he said last week. "It’s too early to tell."
Lauren Gardner contributed to this report.