Climate Interest, But No Action in the 113th Congress

The 113th Congress (2013-2014) is on track to be one of the least productive and most divided in history. No legislation explicitly mentioning climate change has been enacted into law, but more bills and resolutions related to climate change have been introduced in this Congress than in the previous one. (For brevity, we refer to all legislative proposals, including resolutions, and amendments, and draft bills, as “bills.”)

Only two bills loosely related to climate change (though not directly referencing it) have been passed and signed into law: the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act and the Hurricane Sandy Relief bill, which provided $17 billion and $9.7 billion, respectively, to cope with Sandy’s aftermath.

Of the 221 bills introduced that explicitly reference climate change or related terms, such as greenhouse gases or carbon dioxide, the majority support climate action. These focus primarily on building resilience to a changing climate, supporting the deployment of clean energy, and improving energy efficiency. A number would use some form of carbon pricing to reduce emissions.

Other bills introduced in the current Congress would impede climate action, for instance, by restricting or eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The president has said that he would veto any bill impeding the Clean Power Plan, EPA’s proposal to regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants.

While members of Congress are back in their districts for summer recess, here is a by-the-numbers look at what they have proposed so far this term in the climate arena:

  • 221 climate-specific bills have been introduced, surpassing the 113 introduced during the entire 112th Congress (2011-2012), and perhaps on track to match the 263 of the 111th Congress (2009-2010).
  • 134 of the bills (61 percent) support climate action in some way.
  • 45 bills are intended to build resilience to climate impacts, compared with nine introduced in the previous Congress.
  • 22 bills supporting climate action have bipartisan co-sponsorship. Nine of them promote energy efficiency.
  • 56 bills, 11 of them bipartisan, would block or hinder EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. Four such bills have passed the House, but none in the Senate.
  • 16 bills supporting climate action were written by Republicans, while 9 bills opposing climate action were written by Democrats, showing that while there are exceptions, climate issues continue to largely fall along partisan lines.
  • 16 bills would block or hinder federal agencies from using the social cost of carbon in federal rulemaking.
  • 3 bills seek to reduce short-lived climate pollutants.

Congress has voted on 18 of these bills, most of which have passed the House of Representatives. The bipartisan Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill had the broadest base of support of any energy measure in this Congress. Yet, in May 2014, the bill fell five votes short of the 60 needed to bring it to a final vote in the Senate – a casualty of disagreements over whether to consider amendments to approve the Keystone XL pipeline and prohibit EPA’s carbon dioxide regulations.

Since the Senate’s failure to advance the House-passed Waxman-Markey bill in 2010, few bills have been introduced to put a price on carbon. There were only two carbon pricing proposals introduced last Congress. However, this Congress so far has seen six carbon pricing proposals. Five would establish a carbon tax (also called a “carbon pollution fee”) and one would establish a cap-and-dividend program (a cap-and-trade program that would rebate program revenues to consumers).

These ideas, however, are unlikely to gain traction in this Congress. Of the two Senate bills that would establish a carbon tax, one failed 33-66 when it was offered as an amendment to the Senate budget bill. In addition, nine bills opposing pricing carbon have been introduced this Congress. One passed out of the House of Representatives by a strong majority, 237-176, when it was offered as an amendment to a House regulatory reform bill.

When lawmakers return in September for a few weeks before hitting the campaign trail, the most pressing issue they face is passing a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government before the October 1 start of the new fiscal year. House Republican leaders have said they will press to include an amendment blocking EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions – a provision Senate Democratic leadership and the president would oppose.

It would be refreshing to see Congress pass a clean CR, bring Shaheen-Portman for another vote, and consider other bipartisan measures that can help address our climate and energy challenges before the end of the session, when all unpassed bills will expire. But it’s clear there is no near-term prospect of major climate legislation, which is why it is so critical that EPA continue to work closely with states, power companies, local governments, and other stakeholders, on its Clean Power Plan to allow implementation, innovation, and flexibility.

Extreme Weather and Resilience: An Ounce of Prevention

A recent Senate hearing highlighted some of the progress U.S. communities are making, and the major challenges they face, in better coping with costly extreme weather events — including those, such as heat waves and coastal flooding, whose risks are heightened by climate change.

Sen. Tom Carper, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, noted that the “frequency and intensity of these extreme weather events are costing our country a lot - not just in lives impacted – but in economic costs, as well.” Nearly 130 weather-related events in 2013 caused more than $20 billion in losses in the United States.

Extreme weather is costly, not only to federal, state, and local governments, but also to businesses and individuals.

Much of the Senate testimony echoed key findings in our report, “Weathering the Storm, Building Business Resilience to Climate Change.”  Three key points made at the hearing were:

The federal climate: A look back and ahead

A year ago, the path ahead for climate action at the federal level was murky. Congress clearly had little appetite for climate and energy legislation, and while President Obama had declared that climate change would be a priority in his second term, the details were hazy.

Heading into 2014, there is a clear direction and a credible and comprehensive plan for action. The Climate Action Plan the president announced in June outlines a wide array of steps his administration plans to take using existing authorities to reduce carbon emissions, increase energy efficiency, expand renewable and other low-carbon energy sources, and strengthen resilience to extreme weather and other climate impacts. 

Given congressional paralysis, this plan is likely to be the blueprint for U.S. climate action for at least the next three years. The reaction at the United Nations climate conference last month in Warsaw showed that other countries have noticed, and are encouraged to see stronger U.S. action.

A key step in implementing the plan was the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal in September to limit carbon emissions from new power plants. Other elements of the plan that have already seen movement include:

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Climate change bills in the 113th Congress

The first year of the 113th Congress (2013-2014) draws to a close with no passage of climate-specific legislation, but signs that some in Congress understand the importance of addressing this issue. More bills were introduced that support climate action than oppose it. (For brevity, we refer to all legislative proposals as “bills.”)

Here’s a by-the-numbers look at what Congress has done so far this term explicitly referencing climate change or related terms, such as greenhouse gases or carbon dioxide:

  • 131 climate-specific bills have been introduced, surpassing the 113 introduced during the entire 112th Congress (2011-2012), and perhaps on track to match the 263 of the 111th Congress (2009-2010).
  • 81 of the bills (62 percent) support climate action in some way.
  • 31 bills are intended to build resilience to a changing climate, compared with nine introduced in the previous Congress.
  • 30 bills have bipartisan co-sponsorship. Of these, 16 support climate action in some way.
  • 25 bills, five of them bipartisan, would block or hinder the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. Two such bills have passed the House, though are unlikely to be passed by the Senate and signed into law.
  • 12 of the bills supporting climate action were written by Republicans, while eight bills opposing climate action were written by Democrats, showing that climate issues don’t always fall neatly along partisan lines.
  • 7 of the 16 bipartisan bills that support climate action promote energy efficiency. The bipartisan Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill is considered to have the best chance of enactment of any energy measure in this Congress.
  • 3 bills would block or hinder federal agencies from using the social cost of carbon in federal rulemaking.
  • 2 bills seek to reduce short-lived climate pollutants.

Conservatives debate a carbon tax

The discussion of a carbon tax continues. Conservatives met recently in Washington, D.C., to debate the mertis of a carbon taxt at an event hosted by the R Street Institute and the Heartland Institute, featuring representatives with opposing viewpoints from four conservative think tanks.

A 2013 C2ES brief found that a carbon tax was one way to put a price on carbon emissions, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and raise significant revenue for the federal government. A tax starting at about $16 per ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2014 and rising 4 percent over inflation per year would raise more than $1.1 trillion in the first 10 years, and more than $2.7 trillion over a 20-year period. This revenue could fund a wide range of things, including deficit reduction, a reduction in statutory corporate income tax rates from 35 percent to 28 percent (often cited as a goal by both conservatives and liberals), and research and development into low-emitting technology.  Importantly, such a carbon tax could also reduce CO2 emissions by 9.3 billion tons over 20 years.