Trading Away Coal-Fired Power Pollution - San Francisco Chronicle

A great debate has raged for the past two decades over the question of whether global warming is real. But an overwhelming body of evidence has been gathered. A consensus forged. And an inescapable conclusion reached: Global warming is real. It is happening. And it is caused by human activity, namely the combustion of fossil fuels. The reason is this: Carbon dioxide does not dissipate. It stays in the atmosphere for 30, 40 or 50 years or more. The simple truth is that global warming cannot be stopped, but it can be slowed. So, if we act boldly and quickly, then perhaps we can make a difference. Global warming can be contained to 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit. But if we do not act, and temperatures spike by 5 degrees or more, the world around us will change forever. There's no going back.

Congress has a window of opportunity to act. The question is: What to do? I've spent the last year trying to answer this question. And the conclusion I've reached is that there is no single answer. No silver bullet. No one thing to turn the tide.

But rather, we need many answers in many different areas. More important, we need people of common purpose, working together, to find innovative solutions.

California has been leading the charge. The state recently enacted a landmark bill to reduce emissions across the economy. But we will have an uphill battle to get a bill passed at the national level. That's because 40 states are dependent almost exclusively on coal for their power. The problem is this: The generation of electricity, as a whole, is the largest piece of the global warming puzzle. It is the source of 33 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and burning coal accounts for two-thirds of that 33 percent. Therefore, the generators aren't going to give up this cheap fuel easily.

The electric utility cap-and-trade bill I introduced last week, however, provides the financial incentives to implement clean-coal technologies and reduce electricity sector emissions 25 percent below projected levels by 2020. It does so in a manner fully consistent with what the state of California is seeking to do. This legislation keeps our economy strong, gives the electric industry the time and flexibility it needs to embrace clean technology, and also encourages farmers, foresters and other landowners to implement greener practices.

Six major companies have signaled a new willingness to tackle global warming. They endorsed this bill, making it the most aggressive emissions reduction legislation supported by the industry to date. The endorsement comes under the auspices of the Clean Energy Group, a coalition of power generators and distributors, which includes: Calpine, Entergy, Exelon, Florida Power & Light, PG&E Corp. and the Public Service Enterprise Group. Together, these companies operate in 42 states and supply more than 15 percent of U.S. electricity needs. So their support is critical.

Here's how it would work: A cap on the electric-power sector emissions would be set at 2006 levels in 2011. This is a 6 percent reduction from projected business-as-usual levels. There is a clear timeframe to then incrementally tighten, or ratchet down, the cap: In 2015, the cap would be ratcheted down to 2001 levels -- a 16 percent reduction from anticipated levels. From 2016 to 2019, there would be an additional reduction of 1 percent of the cap each year. By 2020, emissions would be reduced 25 percent below anticipated levels. And after 2020, emissions will be reduced even further -- by an additional 1.5 percent a year. The federal EPA would decide, based on scientific evidence, whether the rate of reduction needs to be increased to avert the most dire consequences of global warming.

The energy companies would have two ways to meet the cap: Either implement new, clean technologies, or purchase credits from others who have reduced their emissions, including clean utilities that have more credits than needed to meet the cap, as well as farmers, foresters and other landowners, who employ practices that remove carbon from the atmosphere. These practices could include no-till or low-till farming, planting trees or orchards or conserving the land and preventing it from being developed.

The program will also generate billions of dollars of revenue annually for clean, electricity-generating technologies, such as wind or solar. This funding would be raised through an EPA auction of credits created by the bill similar to the one that exists in Europe. The trade part of the bill really provides flexibility and rewards innovation -- not just from energy companies, but across the economy, as well as building support for the program in the United States.

Now this bill is only one part of the answer, one piece of the puzzle. During the next weeks and months, I will also be introducing four other pieces of legislation to target the global warming problem:

  • A cap-and-trade bill for the industrial sector;
  • A bill that increases vehicle fuel economy standards from 25 mpg to 35 mpg by model year 2019;
  • A bill to promote bio-diesel and E85 (a blended fuel of 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol), and other low-carbon fuels; and,
  • An energy efficiency bill modeled after California's programs.

It is an ambitious agenda, but I believe it is the right way to go. My colleague, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., now serves as the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. She has announced that she will hold hearings to find the best solutions to tackle global warming. And she has pledged that the legislation I have offered will be one of the options under consideration. I look forward to working with Sen. Boxer in the weeks and months ahead to find a way to slow global warming.