'Cap and trade' vote splits delegation 4-3

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The Barack Obama administration chalked up another victory last week when it successfully lobbied the House of Representatives to pass the American Clean Energy and Security Act, otherwise known as Cap and Trade.

The victory didn’t come easy, however. Although there’s a large Democratic majority in the lower house of Congress, the controversial bill passed by only seven votes, 219-212, as its opponents on both sides of the aisle claimed implementation of the bill would be costly and offer little hope of affecting climate change.

In Colorado, Democratic Rep. John Salazar, of the 3rd Congressional District, joined Republican Reps. Mike Coffman, of the 6th, and Doug Lamborn, of the 5th, in opposing Cap and Trade. The state’s remaining Democrats, including Rep. Betsy Markey — who is expecting a tough re-election battle next year in the 4th, a swing district — voted in favor.

Under Cap and Trade, new energy codes would require every building in the lower 48 states to meet clean energy standards similar to California’s current standards. Supporters say if the bill passes the Senate and becomes law, by 2020 the new regulation will drop nationwide carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent compared to 2005 levels — and reduce them by 80 percent by 2050.

Companies that fail to meet the new requirements would pay an energy tax to offset their pollution. In addition, the bill requires cities to hire inspectors to examine existing buildings and new construction for compliance. Buildings that don’t meet the new energy standards would be able to buy carbon offsets, both domestically and on the international market.

The bill’s proponents say Cap and Trade is the first step toward real progress in reducing America’s large carbon footprint and mitigating global warming. They also say it will help create new “green” jobs as companies work to substitute carbon-based fuels with clean-burning alternatives.

Opponents, however, argue that the bill’s backers have been unable to prove the legislation will have any effect on the climate, it will increase taxes and that it could cripple the American economy.

Although there’s no consensus on the cost of the legislation, everyone agrees that it won’t come cheap. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the average American household would see an increase of $175 per year if the law were passed. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated the cost at between $80 and $110 a year.

Cap and Trade could hit more than pocketbooks, however, said Coffman this week in an interview with The Colorado Statesman. Echoing arguments made by many Republicans and some moderate Democrats during floor debate, Coffman warned that a new tax that would punish domestic manufacturers for their carbon pollution would bankrupt them.

Furthermore, he said, since free trade laws allow companies to move factories to nations with less restrictive standards, Cap and Trade would inevitably lead to the loss of American jobs.

“It’s a job killer,” Coffman said. “When the speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi) said it was about ‘jobs, jobs, jobs,’ she was right. But it’s about jobs for China not the U.S. This legislation will push the remaining manufacturing industry in America overseas simply because it will be cheaper to do business there.”

Requests by The Statesman for comment from Congressman Salazar’s office were unsuccessful. However, in a prepared statement, Salazar, the only Colorado Democrat to vote against the bill, said he has concerns over the high cost to rural electric companies, which typically burn coal to power homes and businesses.

“I have always been a strong proponent of creating green jobs and investing in renewable energy,” Salazar wrote in the statement. “But the cost to consumers in this bill is highest for those living in rural America, particularly in a district like Colorado’s 3rd, where the Low Income Energy Assistance Program is vital in getting us through our long, harsh winters.”

Salazar said that despite Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill will cost the average household $165 annually, he believes the estimated annual increase in his district will range between a few hundred dollars and several thousand dollars per household.

“I cannot support dramatically increasing utility rates on my constituents at a time when I feel the economy is just starting to stabilize across the state,” he said.

Salazar’s “no” vote did not go unnoticed in the Democratic Party, especially among environmentalists. But Salazar’s prestigious position on the House Ways and Means Committee and the strong Democratic registration in the 3rd make him relatively invulnerable.

Most political observers expected the remaining Democrats in Colorado’s congressional delegation to vote in favor of the bill, but some had their doubts about Markey, who has been toeing a moderate line since taking office in January.

With a line of Republican challengers salivating at the opportunity to retake the 4th, which was held by Republicans for nearly 40 years before Markey won, the first-term Democrat from Fort Collins has taken a stand against the Obama administration on a number of issues, including his proposed budget and his attempts at gun control.

Although she eventually voted in favor of Cap and Trade, Markey was no easy sell for the Democratic whips. She was included in a select group of Democrats called to the White House in the weeks before the vote to meet with Obama chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel.

“Yeah, she was called to the White House, and she went,” said Anne Caprara, Markey’s chief of staff. “She will never turn down an invitation to meet with the president or his representatives. But, to be honest, even before the intense lobbying happened, Betsy had told people that she was going to make up her own mind on this bill. What was coming out of leadership wasn’t going to make the difference.”

What did make the difference, apparently, were changes to the bill that Markey and other members of the Agricultural Committee were able to make before it came to the floor.

Agricultural interests, including many on the Eastern Plains in Colorado, were concerned about the way the offset program was being aligned. Once provisions were added to help protect farmers and ranchers from absorbing excessive costs, and to help connect Colorado’s wind farms to America’s energy markets, the bill won Markey’s support, Caprara said.

“When you take a step back and you take a look at the makeup of the district, she is proud of this vote,” Caprara said. “It’s not something that she is only going to defend, but is really something that she is going to talk about.”

The 7th Congressional District’s Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, agreed with Markey that the legislation would benefit Americans, citing the increasing need for the nation to reduce its dependence on carbon-based foreign oil.

“This comprehensive energy package is a bold step forward, helping end our dependence on foreign oil,” Perlmutter said in a statement. “Quite simply, this entire bill is good for national security, good for the climate and good for jobs.”

But Republicans, including Coffman, take issue with that argument. Coffman, who is also a first-termer, said if Democrats are so intent on eliminating the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, they should get serious about developing domestic reserves of natural gas and oil and include provisions in the bill to encourage new nuclear plants.

Nuclear energy is one of the most efficient and clean-burning energy alternatives in the world, he said.

“We need a diverse energy policy, and that has to include nuclear power,” Coffman said. “We ought to end our reliance on foreign oil. But what stuns me is that the Democrats used the need to end our dependence on foreign oil while debating but, at the same time, have done everything to stop domestic production of oil and gas. All the while, we continue to import it.”

Considering the tightness of Cap and Trade’s success in the House, supporters are wary of the challenge the legislation will face in the Senate. The Democrats have a slimmer majority in the Senate than in the House, so support for controversial legislation is a much heavier burden.

The extra attention will certainly bring a spotlight to Colorado’s two freshman Democratic senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, who have worked to forge moderate images among constituents.

Following a pattern he has adopted since taking office in January, in public statements Bennet has refrained from saying whether he supports the Cap and Trade legislation that passed the House. Instead, he says he will fight for a compromise to “produce broad bipartisan support” in the Senate.

Udall’s support of the measure has been more direct.

“This is an important moment for our country,” Udall said in a statement. “We are poised to reclaim our role as the world leader in addressing the problem of climate change and promoting renewable energy. This is also a major step in boosting our nation’s economy by creating more than one million new renewable energy jobs and ending our dependence on foreign oil.”

What are they saying?

Comments from other members of Colorado’s congressional delegation:

• CD 1 Rep. Diana DeGette, D- Denver: “We went to great lengths in this legislation to protect American consumers, particularly low-income families, from rising energy costs. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, this legislation would cost the typical American household less than a postage stamp per day. But the cost of inaction on climate change is immeasurable.”

• CD 2 Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder: “Colorado is a national leader in clean energy, and we know the benefits that this industry brings to our economy and environment. This bill sets the stage for our country to lead in the international arena. Without it, we run the risk of becoming dependent on not only the Middle East, but also Denmark, Germany and China — nations who are all beating us in clean energy production.”

• CD 5 Rep. Doug Lamborn, R- Colorado Springs: Although Lamborn had not issued a formal statement on Cap and Trade at press time, he voted against the measure and at a town hall meeting held April 25, at the Colorado Springs Senior Center, Lamborn said he opposed Cap and Trade because it would hurt American companies and force American jobs overseas.

Jason@coloradostatesman.com