Kerry-Boxer Climate Bill Still Stinks Despite Cologne

It’s been called the “high water” mark by some environmentalists and, sarcastically, a “flood water” bill by others. So which is it? Yes, the bill released by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Senator John Kerry (D-MA) may be as ambitious as we can hope for given the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on Congress. But the bottom line is that it won’t make a significant impact on our increasingly unstable climate. And that’s a tragedy.

Representatives Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Ed Markey (D-MA) let many environmentalists down in June when they released their climate bill, which ultimately cleared the House. My assessment of this complex bill when it came out, in two words: It stank. It had the stench of waste incinerators, agribusiness, and oil industry lobbyists’ all over its 1,427 pages.

Kerry and Boxer’s bill has a more refined feel to it–as though it has been through a good workout, gotten rid of some flab, taken a nice, hot shower and applied some cologne to its smelliest parts. But it hasn’t fooled more discerning schnozzes.

To throw us off, they’ve ramped up the octane in this bill. It’s not just going to cut emissions by 17% by 2020; it will cut them by 20% by 2020! The problem with both targets? They both start from a benchmark of 2005 (unlike the rest of the world, which uses 1990 as its baseline–a year when emissions were far lower than in 2005–from which to cut overall greenhouse gas emissions in the developed countries). Yet, what we really need, according to leading climate scientists, are reductions in rich countries of approximately 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 to avoid climate catastrophe. The Kerry-Boxer bill actually gets us to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2020–not even 30 percent there.

There are some muscular regulations restored to the Senate bill’s over-800 pages. The House version allowed the Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate large polluters under the Clean Air Act to be stripped away, in exchange for a bill that delivered our climate on a silver platter to Wall Street derivatives traders. We all know what a housing bubble can do to our economy. Just think what an unregulated carbon bubble could do, not only to our economy but to our planet. The Senate bill restores that EPA authority to its rightful place: on the polluters’ hind ends. However, Kerry has since proposed that this move may be a bargaining chip, removed once again if coal and other heavy greenhouse gas emitters come to the table.

And there’s one more inducement Kerry and Boxer handed polluters if they agree to a deal. Like Waxman and Markey, Kerry and Boxer are allowing polluters to buy their way out of reducing an outlandish 2 billion tons per year of their carbon dioxide emissions in the form of a dubious commodity–carbon offsets. Yet the Government Accountability Office has deemed carbon offsets “impossible” to verify, and, given the need for oversight by the Justice Department fraud investigators and others, as proposed by Kerry and Boxer, the GAO challenges whether offsets would achieve another critical goal, namely: cost-containment. This quantity of carbon offsets is equivalent to 30% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions; if all of these offsets were used, U.S. polluters would not achieve verifiable emissions reductions until 2030. But they went one step further in ladling on the gravy for industry than the House-passed bill. The Waxman-Markey bill would require emissions from landfills, coal mines, and natural gas pipelines to be phased out under a regulatory regime, but under the Kerry-Boxer draft, these industries can voluntarily capture methane in exchange for offset payments. In other words, what under Waxman and Markey was a law you obeyed because it was the right thing to do, you now will get paid to do.

Bribery, anyone?

Consider what kind of signal this sends to Nigeria, which currently flares more natural gas than all of the rest of Africa consumes per year, despite laws on the books requiring them to do otherwise: If the U.S. is going to pay its industries to stop flaring gas, surely a developing country like Nigeria should be paid to do the right thing? In fact, such plans are already in the works, and oil companies operating in Nigeria like Chevron are likely salivating over the amount of money they can now extort from a global carbon offset regime in exchange for finally obeying the law. But it’s not just the extortion in Nigeria that would be problematic: In exchange for ceasing gas flares in Nigeria and getting paid to do so, a Chevron facility in, say, Richmond, California could carry on polluting. End result: Chevron wins, Richmond residents lose, and our overall climate grows more unstable.

In addition to the dubious environmental integrity of this approach, the problem is this: Do we have enough cash to pay every oil company, every pig farmer, every coal company, and every waste dump on the planet to start doing the right thing? Where, exactly, will that money come from? And what will the end result be for our children’s children? Now, mind you, I don’t mind paying more for something if I know it’s going to get us somewhere better, cleaner, safer. But if it’s going to result in a feeding frenzy of polluters and derivatives traders at the trough of a “solution” that the U.S. government says may mean money down the drain and no guarantee of emissions reductions, I have to say: It stinks to high heaven.

Daphne Wysham is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C., where she is the director of the Sustainable Energy & Economy Network.