WASHINGTON - Against the back drop of global climate change talks in Copenhagen, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., will introduce legislation Friday that would take some of the sting out of higher energy bills U.S. consumers may face because of efforts to control greenhouse gases.
Rather than the voluminous "cap and trade" bills approved earlier by the House and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Cantwell's bill runs less than 40 pages and has a significantly different approach. Groups and companies ranging from ExxonMobil to Friends of the Earth have shown an interest in her bill.
Cantwell's measure, as opposed to other bills, has bipartisan support; Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins is an original co-sponsor. Republicans have branded previous Democratic bills "cap and tax" bills, warning they would result in high energy prices for consumers.
"The general public knows you have to make a transition and this will help them," Cantwell said of her measure.
Cantwell's approach is called "cap and rebate" or "cap and dividend."
Under her bill, the federal government would auction off carbon shares to the nation's 2,000 or so fuel producers like coal and oil companies. Every two years, the shares would expire and, over the years, the U.S. government would offer fewer and fewer shares for sale as a way to reduce carbon consumption.
Seventy-five percent of the money raised would be rebated directly to U.S. citizens. Cantwell's office estimated that an average family of four would receive a total of about $1,100 a year in the form of tax-free monthly checks.
"We will give everyone a dividend check," Cantwell said. "We will keep consumers whole and that is important."
The other 25 percent of the money raised would be used exclusively for clean-energy research and development, energy efficiency programs and for assistance to communities and workers transitioning to a clean energy economy.
"Until we move in a dramatic way off carbon, we won't see a real commitment to green energy," Cantwell said.
The senator said her bill would reduce the nation's greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050, better than the other proposed bills.
Cantwell also said her bill would eliminate Wall Street manipulation and speculation in the trading of the shares. The bill would allow limited trading of the shares among the companies who own them, with a price ceiling and floor set to ensure there were no volatile swings in the market. The trading would be regulated by the U.S. Treasury.
The "cap and trade" bill in Congress would allow for extensive trading of carbon credits. The credits would most likely be given away and not auctioned off by the federal government. Those bills are aimed at actual carbon polluters, like energy companies, rather than fuel producers.
Cantwell's bill is similar to the approach President Obama talked about during his campaign. The senator said she has talked with Obama, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Carol Browner, who is overseeing the White House's climate change policies.
A member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that would have jurisdiction over the bill, Cantwell said she has talked with its chairman, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Though the House has passed its version of a "cap and trade" bill, the issue is hung up in the Senate where it would take 60 votes to pass.
In a statement, ExxonMobil said Cantwell's measure represented an "effort to step back and take a fresh look" at the existing bills.
"We believe the discussions of alternative, more transparent and sustainable approaches to climate change policy are positive, given the significant impact legislation will have on the U.S. economy," the company said.
A spokeswoman for Friends of the Earth, Michelle Chan, said her group was "very supportive of the structure of the bill, particularly in which Wall Street manipulation is eliminated."
But Chan said her group felt Cantwell goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions was too modest and should be a 40 reduction by 2020.