Today ought to be a joyful day for environmental groups, with a first-ever bill to cap greenhouse gas emissions on the floor in the House of Representatives.
But instead, many green groups seem to be supporting the bill -- now stuffed with benefits for emitters such as utilities, manufacturers and farmers -- while holding their nose.
"We're not saying, 'Kill the bill,' " said Frank O'Donnell, of the group Clean Air Watch. "But we're saying it sure as heck ought to get better in the Senate, or it's going to be a sorry day."
Already today, at least two liberal House Democrats have criticized the bill for going too easy on polluters, raising the threat that party leaders might have to whip in votes from the left as well as the right.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.) issued a statement saying he couldn't support the bill as written: "This energy bill's fine print betrays its laudable purpose. . . . It is too weak to greatly spur new technologies and green jobs."
And Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) said on the House floor that the bill remained too favorable to the coal industry, by providing legal room for new coal-burning plants to continue to be built. An aide said that Kucinich has not formally said how he will vote on the bill, which is expected to be voted on this afternoon.
Some environmental groups -- notably, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth -- have said they oppose the bill, calling it fatally weak.
Many other national groups have not given up their support for the bill's passage but still say it is too friendly to polluters.
Among their objections: The bill allows for widespread use of carbon "offsets," which are credits for either preventing emissions or using plants to take them out of the air. The bill would allow many offsets to be issued for credits overseas, and allow the U.S. Agriculture Department to supervise them on U.S. farms.
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"Is a ton of [offsets from] a forest in Uzbekistan really going to be equal to [an offset from] a ton of emissions reductions from a dirty power plant here?" said Dave Hamilton of the Sierra Club.
But Hamilton summed up his organization's attitude this way: They are ambivalent about the bill as currently written, but unambiguous about the need to pass it in the House.
That way, Hamilton said, environmental groups could push the Senate to alter it to their liking.
"Do, at some point, we try to bank what the politics allows?" Hamilton said. "Our judgment in this case is that we're going to keep trying with the bill" in the Senate.
The need to find 60 votes in the Senate, though, might make it difficult to make the bill much stricter on polluters.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), one of the bill's sponsors, said he'd been answering questions about such concerns today while trying to drum up votes on the House floor. He said the bill's cap on greenhouse gas emissions -- calling for a 17 percent reduction below 2005 levels by 2020 -- was strong and unchanged by the recent compromises.
He noted, "We have made it as strong as we can make it."