The Climate Bill's Death of a Thousand Cuts

Last Updated Jul 9, 2009 1:58 PM EDT

A working version of the American climate bill will likely be finalized this month, according to The New Republic, the first step on its painful road to a vote in the full Senate. As the legislation is already large on everyone's mind, there's a good deal of pre-game analysis and polling of senators happening, although the actual vote may be delayed until September or beyond.

It has been a long road already from Obama's initial hopes of auctioning 100 percent of the CO2 emission permits from the cap and trade plan. The bill barely pushed through Congress with 15 percent or so of the credits intact for auctioning.

To move ahead, the bill must now pass a series of committees, each of which will wring out concessions for their favored industries. The one that is causing the most trepidation with the bill's Democratic sponsors is the Agriculture Committee, which has the long knives out for a bill that it thinks might hurt the people behind the powerful farming lobby, principally big companies like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill.

The head of the Ag Committee, Tom Harkin, has already said that he intends to use the House version of the bill as a baseline for chipping away further at the bill. Since the agriculture lobby already dug in pretty deeply on the first round, new concessions will probably consist of language intended to protect the farming industry from having to make significant changes for quite some time.

A big goal will also be preserving and growing the corn ethanol business. Here's an a good quote about Harkin in ClimateWire on NYTimes:

He said he would like to include language that would raise the amount of ethanol that can be blended into gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent -- a change the ethanol industry has been lobbying for but auto manufacturers have been hesitant to embrace and environmental groups have balked at.

"EPA's got to get over their absolute rejection of ethanol. They've just got to get over it," Harkin said. "And we're going to force them to get over it."

Harkin has also said he's interested in securing more offsets for farmers,which would allow them to earn money for activities that reduce CO2 emissions. This can be nearly anything, and the lobby will no doubt be trying to force through some very sketchy rules on offsets. Separately, Senator Barbara Boxer appears to have her eye out for limiting offsets, but she may not make any headway, especially if she wants the legislation to go forward.

In fact, the bill might not pass at all, even once all the various interests have been given their pound of flesh. Getting it through Senate requires a larger majority than it did in the House, and a brace of Democrats in poorer, industrial states are unhappy with the current version. Without 60 votes, the bill will die on the floor.

But there's more international attention to this issue than there has been in previous years, so the bill will probably pass, albeit with boosts to interests, like the nuclear industry, that weren't set to receive them as the bill was originally written. The bill that results will be a bureaucratic nightmare of exceptions and special circumstances written in, but it most of the non-hardline Democrats have already resigned themselves to seeing it as just a first step.

The rest of the world may or may not buy that explanation. The United Nations' secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, is criticizing the efforts of the wealthy G-8 countries to pass emissions cuts. But, as with many other matters, there's probably not much that he can do about it.