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Senate energy and climate change votes point to EPA as key decider

Hurricane Sandy last year pushed the issue of climate change higher on the nation’s agenda. President Barack Obama indicated in his inaugural address and his State of the Union address that climate policy would be a priority for his second term. Some members of Congress said Sandy might cause Congress to redesign infrastructure spending to limit damage from future catastrophic storms.

A series of Senate votes Friday indicated what the political balance now is on energy policy and on measures to avert climate change.

These were non-binding votes on a budget resolution that’s almost surely not going to be passed by both chambers of Congress.

But they show where senators stand, with a third of them up for election next year and presumably focused on the political impacts of their policy choices. Damaging campaign ads could be produced from a vote on any amendment that put a senator at odds with public opinion in his or her state.

One interpretation of the votes: a bipartisan majority of senators do not want to impose a fee or tax on carbon dioxide emissions – but also do not want to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Yet a majority also wants to increase the supply of energy even if that energy would come from Canadian oil sands that generate more greenhouse gas emission than other grades of oil.

Taken together the votes seem to be further evidence that in the near term the EPA, not Congress, will be the primary venue for the legal and policy battles over climate change. Obama’s nominee to head the EPA will have her confirmation hearing next month before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

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Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., speak to the media during a news conference January 24, 2013 on Capitol Hill.

On the carbon fee or tax, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., proposed “the establishment of a fee on carbon pollution,” with the provision that all revenue from such a fee would be “returned to the American people in the form of Federal deficit reduction, reduced Federal tax rates, cost savings, or other direct benefits.”

“We ignore carbon pollution at our peril, and we have subsidized it long enough,” Whitehouse said before the vote on his amendment. “It is past time to wake up from our sleepwalking. This vote is a test. Whether we pass or fail is a measure of us.”

By a vote of 58 to 41, Whitehouse’s fee was defeated. No Republican senators voted for it and 13 Democratic senators – including six Democrats up for re-election next year – voted against it.

In a separate vote the Senate rejected an amendment by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that would have made it more difficult in the future to enact a carbon tax or fee, by establishing what’s called a “a budget point of order” against such a tax.

Blunt got 53 votes; he needed 60. Six Democrats, including three up for re-election in 2014 -- Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas -- voted for Blunt’s amendment.

Franz Matzner, associate director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said the vote on the Whitehouse and Blunt amendments indicated that senators were “not ready to take it (a carbon tax) off the table and say that we going to make it so that in the future no (carbon tax) legislation can be considered because it will violate the terms of the budget.”

The Senate also voted, 62 to 37, to support the building of the Keystone XL pipeline project which would connect oil sands production facilities in Alberta, Canada with refineries in the United States.

Seventeen Democratic senators – including eight Democrats up for re-election next year – voted for an amendment proposed by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., expressing support for building the pipeline.

The decision right now rests in the hands of the Obama administration. Under an executive order dating back to 1968, the secretary of state decides on whether to permit a pipeline, such as Keystone XL, that connects the United States with a foreign country.

Hoeven said approving the pipeline is matter of “getting our economy going and growing, and… making sure we don’t have to import oil from the Middle East. It is not just oil from Canada, it is oil from the great State of North Dakota and Montana — light, sweet crude we need to get to our refineries.”

But Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the Senate must first grapple with questions such as whether the increased use of oil sands from Canada will lead to higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

A Congressional Research Service report last week said that Canadian oil sands crudes “are on average somewhat more GHG emission intensive than the crudes they may displace in U.S. refineries,” up to 20 percent higher than for the average transportation fuel.

Boxer offered an amendment – in contrast with Hoeven’s -- that she said would ensure important issues would be addressed, “such as how much oil will stay here versus how much will be exported and, therefore, will we suffer from higher energy prices? How much steel will be made in America?” She added that, “Our American national security experts warn us against the instability worldwide caused by climate disruption.” Boxer’s amendment was defeated, 58 to 41.

In another big environmental vote, the Senate, 52 to 47, defeated an amended by Sen. Jim Inhofe, R- Okla. that in Inhofe’s own words “stops the EPA from having the jurisdiction over the regulation of carbon” and would have defunded the agency’s greenhouse gas regulations.

On this vote, only three Democrats, Pryor, Landrieu, and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia voted for Inhofe’s amendment. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who is up for re-election in 2014, was the only Republican senator voting against Inhofe’s amendment.

“The good news is that majority of the Senate clearly acknowledges that climate change is a reality that has to be addressed and they didn’t want to tie the hands of Congress or the administration to find ways to address carbon pollution,” Matzner said.