WASHINGTON - The U.S. Congress on Tuesday began work on a bill that would fundamentally change the way American factories and power plants use and supply energy as part of the Obama administration's drive to cut harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
"The time for delay, denial and inaction has come to an end," declared Democratic Representative Edward Markey in opening the House Energy and Commerce Committee's effort to produce a climate bill by the end of May.
President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats who control both houses of Congress have made combating climate change a priority, worrying Republicans and some other opponents who fear skyrocketing energy and compliance costs.
Over the next five weeks the committee will debate and fine-tune a Democratic draft bill that would drastically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other industrial emissions that scientists say contribute to climate problems.
At the bill's core is a "cap and trade" plan to reduce carbon emissions -- lowering them by 20 percent by 2020, 42 percent by 2030 and 83 percent by 2050, with 2005 as a base year.
Manufacturing companies and utilities would get permits to emit less and less carbon and other pollutants, while also being allowed to trade those permits to other firms as they lower their reliance on fuels contributing to climate change.
The proposals also would set tough requirements on utilities, which would have to generate 25 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2025. Some lawmakers on Tuesday said that timetable was too ambitious.
While the House could pass a bill by mid-year, the tougher fight will be in the Senate, where Republican opponents can use procedures to try to block controversial measures.
One congressional aide said the Obama administration has been reaching out to moderate Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to broaden support for a bill that might not be debated until next year.
Representative Ralph Hall, a Texas Republican, accused Democrats of engaging in a "mad dash" to pass a bill that still does not lay out important details, such as whether industries would have to buy all of the new permits to emit carbon dioxide or whether the government would give them some permits at no cost.
"American businesses and consumers are in the dark on how much this bill is going to cost," Hall said.
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Special interest groups from across the United States will try to influence the legislation in coming weeks.
Representative John Dingell of Michigan, a Democrat and longtime defender of the domestic auto industry, said the bill should take more steps to help struggling carmakers. Dingell said he would push to include a "cash-for-clunkers" provision that would pay people to turn in their gas guzzlers and replace them with more fuel-efficient cars.
The House panel's work comes a few days after the Environmental Protection Agency formally announced that greenhouse gas emissions, which are being blamed for extreme weather, the drying up of major rivers, polar ice melting and endangering of more species, is also a danger to human health.
If Congress cannot agree on a climate control bill, Obama is expected to order the EPA to impose new regulations to address the problem.
The EPA released an analysis on the House bill's impact, which found it would raise electricity prices by 22 percent by the year 2030 -- although the total energy bill for the average U.S. household would rise by only 9 percent after various government rebates.
The attempt to pass one of the biggest energy and environmental initiatives in decades comes as the United States is in a deep economic recession -- the worst time to raise energy costs, according to opponents.
But Democrats on Tuesday worked hard to blunt that argument, saying the climate bill will unleash a torrent of investment in new technologies and start-up firms to create up to 5 million new jobs.
Representative Jay Inslee of Washington State called it the "single biggest job creation program since the launch of the Apollo (space) project under the leadership of President John F. Kennedy."
(Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe in Washington and Michael Conlon in Chicago, editing by Vicki Allen)