Key shift in US Congress toward climate control

20 November 2008 18:11  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--California Democrat Congressman Henry Waxman was elected chairman of the key House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Thursday, indicating that Congress will advance more aggressive climate legislation.


Waxman was chosen by the majority Democrat members of the House to take control of the committee when the 111th Congress convenes in January, ousting the current chairman, John Dingell (Democrat-Michigan).


The change in leadership at the committee is seen as significant in itself because Waxman holds much stronger views on climate issues, emissions reductions and energy supply issues.


Dingell, who has represented Michigan and its automotive industry base in Congress for more than 50 years, has been far more conservative in his views on climate change and environmental regulation. 


Many among Democrats in Congress have criticised Dingell's policies and legislative direction, arguing that he has opposed climate issues - such as tougher federal mandates for reducing tailpipe emissions - in order to avoid harmful impacts on the big three automobile manufacturers based in his home state.


Waxman’s election to the committee chair also has broader implications for Congress as a whole because it suggests that House Democrats are leaning more toward the liberal side of the party.


Ordinarily, committee chairmanships are granted by deference and long tradition to the most senior member of the panel’s majority party, which would be Dingell.  The fact that House Democrats have ousted Dingell indicates to some that legislative policy overall in the House will shift further to the left.


That could have broad implications for US chemical producers and other manufacturing interests as the 111th Congress and incoming President-elect Barack Obama work on such issues as climate change, labor rights and energy matters such as access to offshore oil and gas, windfall taxes on energy companies and increasing federal support and subsidies for biofuels.


“The Waxman win changes the character of House Democrats’ views toward coal and cars, the two principal sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the US economy,” said Kevin Book, energy specialist at investment bank Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Company.


“Chairman Dingell has proposed moderate climate controls relative to strict cuts favoured by Waxman and many other California Democrats,” Book said.


The Natural Resources Defense Council hailed Waxman’s win, saying that “Chairman Waxman has been a leader on global warming for many years, and we look forward to working closely with him in this new role”.


“Congressman Waxman understands that we can’t delay in taking on these issues” of climate change, the council said.


Obama also favours strong climate change and emissions control legislation, telling a conference earlier this week that “Few challenges facing America - and the world - are more urgent than combating climate change”.


Obama and many among the Democrat majority in Congress favour cap-and-trade legislation that would force sharp reductions in US emissions of greenhouse gases to a rate 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.


A federal cap-and-trade requirement is of concern to many chemical firms because it would likely trigger a large-scale shift among electric utilities from coal to natural gas as a power generating fuel. That change would likely create large increases in demand for and prices of natural gas, a principal feedstock for the US petrochemicals industry.


Given support for it by Obama and the Democrat majority in Congress, a cap-and-trade bill was seen as a certain outcome of the new Congress in 2009 or 2010, but Waxman’s elevation to the Energy and Commerce Committee chair suggests that climate legislation coming from the 111th Congress likely will be far more aggressive.


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By: Joe Kamalick
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